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.
If two new iPod touch features could be said to be its key attractions, one would be the screen—a new 3.5” color display with 960x640 resolution, similar to the one in the iPhone 4. With 326 pixels per inch, this new screen draws text and graphics with square dots smaller than the human eye is capable of perceiving, leading Apple to refer to the technology as a “Retina Display.” No matter how close you get to the screen, you won’t be able to see the individual pixels it uses to smoothly render curves; only applications developed for earlier iPods and iPhones include artwork with visible pixels, and even then, much of their text and certain other visual elements were automatically upgraded for the high-resolution display.
That’s the good news, and make no mistake, it is indeed good news. Though the second- and third-generation iPod touch screens were much improved over the ones found in first-generation models, they didn’t jump in resolution at all, and for related reasons, the iPod touch was stuck playing the same sub-DVD-quality videos as the weaker-screened iPod classic and iPod nano. Along with the higher-resolution screen comes hardware and software support for the playback of both true DVD-quality videos, and 1280x720 (720p) HD videos, downscaled to fit the touch’s display. Non-trivial iPod touch storage capacity concerns aside, there’s technically no longer a need to keep separate “standard-definition” and “high-definition” copies of the same video in your iTunes collection—the iPod touch finally syncs and plays the HD ones without complaint.
Unfortunately, there’s a flip side to this coin: once again, the display in the iPod touch is a little less impressive than the one in the iPhone 4. Apple led viewers during the iPod touch’s introduction to mistakenly believe that the screens would be the same, but real-world tests and teardowns have revealed that they’re not. When the two devices are held next to each other in widescreen mode, the touch’s viewing angles are markedly more limited, shifting colors unnaturally as you move left, right, up, or down off of a central position. When two people are looking at the landscape orientation screen together, one or both won’t see the picture clearly, a problem that doesn’t exist on the iPhone 4. That said, while the difference in quality is impossible to miss, it’s not a make or break issue with the new touch—the 24-bit color display remains impressively detailed and offers a superior viewing experience to the iPod touch screen it replaces. While the viewing angles are shallower than the iPhone’s, they’re just a hint better than the iPod touch 2G/3G’s, and considerably superior to the first iPod touch even when viewed straight on. The screen remains usable outdoors, too.
One thing that we weren’t expecting to be impressed by was the fourth-generation iPod touch’s speaker: as a rule of thumb, the thinner and smaller a device becomes, the worse its speaker tends to sound—unless the original speaker wasn’t very good to begin with. The second- and third-generation iPod touch had very decent speakers that mysteriously radiated sound through their bodies without requiring iPhone-style grilles, a choice Apple replicated with less success and sonic fidelity in the now-discontinued fifth-generation iPod nano. What would happen with the speaker in a smaller iPod touch?
Surprise: it’s better. It’s loud enough that you can emulate the second- and third-generation touch’s maximum volume at the 65% or 70% mark on the fourth-generation model. And it’s clearer, with superior treble definition that makes for less muffled renditions of songs and the audio portions of movies. While the iPhone 4’s speaker does it one better, with roughly 25% more volume and a little more body, they’re no longer in radically different leagues. Serious listeners will of course want a separate pair of speakers or some nice earphones, but for casual movie viewing, game playing, and even just listening to tunes without having to attach anything, the iPod touch does a good job.
Headphone port audio performance is extremely similar to the prior-generation iPod touch, with roughly identical volume settings and nearly identical-sounding renditions of the lossless audio tracks we use for testing with premium Ultimate Ears UE-11 Pro earphones. We heard what sounded like tiny treble and bass improvements in the new touch, making highs just a hint sharper and lows just a little cleaner, but we’d describe the differences as nearly imperceptible; in any case, this model remains a great-sounding iPod. It remains compatible with the in-line remote control and microphone accessories Apple introduced two years ago, as well as the numerous Dock Connector accessories and Bluetooth wireless speakers that have worked with past iPod touch models. Unfortunately, Apple continues to sell only overpriced audio/video cables for its iPods, so we can’t widely recommend them as a solution for bringing audio or video out of this device.