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.
There are two key parts to using the fourth-generation iPod touch: first is iTunes 10, Apple’s free media management and downloading software for Macs and PCs. iTunes needs to be downloaded from the company’s iTunes.com web site before the device can be connected, “activated” by Apple’s servers, and used for anything—the device is literally locked and unable to function until it makes its first contact with a Mac or PC. iTunes remains the exclusive tool for loading music and videos onto the iPod touch’s built-in flash memory, which varies from a meager 8 Gigabytes in the basic model to 64 Gigabytes in the most expensive one. Other content, including additional software applications (“apps”), photos, e-mail accounts and contacts, web page bookmarks, and calendar details, can be synchronized to the iPod touch from your computer using iTunes, or added using only the iPod touch and its integrated wireless Internet connection. It’s easiest to set up all of these features with iTunes, and then add content incrementally to the device, synchronizing it back to your computer as necessary.
The second component of the iPod touch experience is the operating system on the device itself: “iOS 4,” previously known as “iPhone OS.” This is the same operating system that has been running on earlier iPod touch and iPhone devices, so using the fourth-generation iPod touch should be a familiar experience for anyone who has tried an Apple touchscreen product over the past three years. At the core is a set of “Home Screens” that each contain up to 20 application icons, 4 on a stationary dock at the bottom of the screen and 16 above it, changing as you scroll through pages of additional apps. You swipe the screen with a finger to scroll, tap once to select something, and use the Home Button below the screen to return to the most recently viewed Home Screen at any time. iOS 4 added multitasking—the ability to keep one app running in the background while another is in the foreground—plus the option to choose your own background artwork for the Home Screen, and folders, which allow each of the 20 icons on a screen to hold up to 12 applications. Tapping a folder splits the screen in two, revealing the icons inside the folder, which is otherwise represented as a box containing miniature versions of the apps inside. iOS 4 is discussed at greater length here.
At launch, Apple shipped every iPod touch with iOS version 4.1, a modest update to iOS 4.0. Version 4.1 most notably adds support for Apple’s multiplayer game matchmaking service Game Center, with other features discussed in a separate iLounge article here. Notably, the company plans to release iOS 4.2 as an update for the new iPod touch and other devices in November, adding additional features such as wireless document printing and text search within the Safari browser, though the experience of using the device will for the most part be unchanged. In years past, Apple charged up to $10 for major iPod touch software updates—a “hidden cost” of ownership that generated lots of grumbling from touch owners. Though there’s a risk that the company may do so again in the future, iOS 4.0, 4.1, and 4.2 are all being offered for free.
The fourth-generation iPod touch’s version of iOS is only modestly different from the versions that run on other Apple devices. To support the front- and rear-facing cameras, Apple has added two applications: a new video calling program called FaceTime has been carved out and slightly expanded from the iPhone 4’s Phone app, while a snapshot- and video-grabbing application called Camera is highly similar to the same-named program previously found on every iPhone. Both applications are discussed further in a subsequent section of this review.
As with past iPod touches, this model continues to offer separate “Music” and “Video” applications rather than the unified “iPod” application found on the iPhone, so you still need to tap on different buttons here to access these two different parts of your media collection. Otherwise, the device’s applications are the same as the ones we’ve discussed in our prior iOS 4 review: Mail is a basic multi-account e-mail program, Safari is a web browser, Photos stores and displays images synchronized from a computer, saved with the camera, or downloaded from the Internet, Maps offers Google’s satellite, street, and drawn imagery of the planet and its individual buildings, and YouTube is a dedicated app for watching videos from the Google-owned short clip streaming service. Other applications, including Calendar, Stocks, Weather, Notes, Calculator, and Voice Memos are self-explanatory, with separate iTunes and App Store applications offering additional media and software, respectively, for direct download to the device. You can interact with each application by tapping virtual buttons and keyboards that appear on screen, or use a wireless Bluetooth keyboard of your choice—another new feature in iOS 4.
Notably missing from the iPod touch’s applications are the iPhone applications Phone, which depends upon cellular hardware and cellular service for voice calling, and Compass, which requires a magnetometer and GPS hardware to show your current orientation, longitude and latitude. The lack of GPS and compass hardware in the iPod touch also limits the performance of this model’s Maps application for turn-by-turn direction purposes, requiring the addition of unjustifiably expensive GPS accessory hardware to bring this model up to pace with the iPhone 4.