Review: Apple iPod touch (Fourth-Generation)
Pros: A major update to Apple’s most versatile iPod, adding twin cameras, a high-resolution 960x640 screen, a microphone, a bigger and longer-lasting battery, and a 3-axis gyroscope, amongst other features. Now capable of video calling using FaceTime, high-definition video playback and storage, and recording of 720p movies with the rear camera. New body design is slimmer and lighter than before while remaining solid in the hand. Remains capable of great audio performance, including better speaker quality. As of October 2011, available in both original black and new white versions, both with stainless steel backs.
Cons: New screen and cameras fall noticeably short of iPhone 4 performance levels. Weak still camera performance is a particular issue on all models; lowest-end model remains stuck at an increasingly objectionable 8GB/6.5GB of storage capacity. New front design isn’t as comfortable around the edges as on prior models; glass continues to attract smudges at a brisk pace. Earphones no longer include integrated microphone and remote control features.
Understanding the basic concept behind the iPod touch is simple: Apple engineers each version of this device to hold a multi-touch 3.5” screen, the latest version of its mobile iOS/iPhone OS operating system, a headphone port, a 30-pin Dock Connector accessory port, and Wi-Fi networking capabilities in the smallest possible enclosure—thinner every year than the latest iPhone, and generally with somewhat compromised components that may rival the iPhone on paper but don’t quite match it in practice. Since its debut, the iPod touch has most often had a top-priced model with more capacity than current iPhones, and a slightly faster processor that makes games just a little faster, offset by other functional and aesthetic compromises.
Until the release of this year’s model, Apple significantly changed the iPod touch’s body only once from its initial design. The first iPod touch arrived with an understated, angular charcoal metal front bezel, a largely black and gray glass face, and a stainless steel rear shell with an awkward black plastic antenna compartment on one corner. One year later, it was redesigned to be slimmer with a soft, curvy rear shell—still stainless steel, but rounded even at its center—while removing the gray bezel and replacing it with wrapped-around silver from the back casing. The antenna housing transformed into a black pill-shaped spot, and physical volume buttons were added to its left side. This design remained intact for last year’s follow-up, which saw only internal processor and capacity changes, but Apple took several steps to evolve it again for late 2010.
Thinner than ever before at 0.28” deep—down from 0.31” in the first touch and 0.33” in the second and third—the fourth-generation iPod touch is slightly taller than both 4.3” predecessors at a new height of 4.4”, and narrower at 2.3” rather than 2.4”, while dropping in weight from the first-generation’s 4.2 ounces and second/third’s 4.05 ounces to only 3.56 ounces. Viewed in isolation from its predecessors, the new iPod touch doesn’t look a lot different, but when they’re placed alongside one another, the dimensional changes are more obvious, particularly in the depth department. It’s similarly at least a little smaller in each dimension than the iPhone 4, so once again, the iPod touch inspires “wow, that’s thin” and “it just feels lighter” comments. Yet because of the redesigned shape of the rear casing, which is now mostly flat with sides like the top lid of a MacBook Pro computer, it doesn’t feel quite as slippery as the last two generations did, and can rest on its back without rocking back and forth. The new curves make use of its buttons and ports a little more challenging at first, too.
Apple’s new shell actually offers subtle evolutionary enhancements to its predecessors from every angle. Gone is the black plastic antenna “pill,” as the Wi-Fi antenna has magically disappeared inside the glass and metal body, sight unseen. Volume controls on the left are now two discrete buttons rather than a rocking single button, while the Sleep/Wake button on top has shifted to the top right from the top left, paralleling its long-standing position on the iPhone family.
A small mesh speaker grille has been added to the bottom left corner—audio previously radiated out of the iPod touch’s back without a grille, but now passes through both the grille and the Dock Connector port when it’s unoccupied. Apple has also added a metal-ringed, glass lensed rear-facing camera, smaller but found in the same position as the iPhone 4’s, and a front-facing camera, centered just above the glossy 3.5” touchscreen display. Somewhat surprisingly, Apple added a microphone to the device’s back immediately to the right of the rear camera, choosing a position that one would guess was optimized for rear camera recording rather than front camera FaceTime calling. As noted in a subsequent section of this review, the rear placement turns out not to actually be a problem.
There are some old and new issues with the fourth-generation iPod touch’s body, though. Now almost entirely black when the screen is turned off, the glass face smudges at a brisk clip, lacking for the oleophobic coating found on the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and iPad screens. This isn’t a problem if you’re willing to add an anti-glare screen protector at your own expense, but carrying a cleaning cloth would be a good idea otherwise. Additionally, Apple has removed the wraparound stainless steel bezel from the new model’s front, leaving only the slightest trace of silver shining through the sides of a thin, hard black plastic ring that appears to be there to protect the glass face from edge chipping. In short-term testing, the ring tended to gather dust and felt a little rough on fingers when the device was being handled; only longer-term testing will show whether it will soften a little around the edges but remain adequate to keep the glass safe. Finally, the iPod touch remains the only iPod available in one color scheme—black on front, highly scratchable silver on back—and therefore benefits the most from cases for both protection and decoration. New cases are required because of the differences in its size and curves; options are already in the works from major third-party developers. Gumdrop Cases’ Moto Skin (shown below) is the first to arrive for review.
Apple packages the new iPod touch in a clear hard plastic box that’s a little smaller in every dimension than its predecessor, but otherwise extremely similar in look and contents. The package includes a pair of standard iPod Earphones, a USB to Dock Connector cable, two Apple logo stickers, a “Finger Tips” quick start guide, and a warranty booklet in a cardboard-lined rear compartment behind the device. Because they lack an in-line remote control and integrated microphone, these Earphones are notably a step down from the ones bundled with last year’s $299 and $399 third-generation iPod touch models, but essentially the same as the ones Apple included with most earlier iPods and the $199 second-generation iPod touch.
In summary, the fourth-generation iPod touch’s body and packaging have a lot in common with their predecessors, but they both almost universally improve upon prior models in the family. After a quick discussion of how the new model is used, we’ll take a deeper look at the changes Apple has made to the key parts inside.