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.
Apple’s iPhone 4 introduction event included an extended, proud discussion of the new device’s twin camera system—a 5-Megapixel rear-facing camera with 720p video recording capabilities and a LED flash for illumination, plus a 640x480-resolution front-facing camera designed for video calling and self portraits. By comparison, the two cameras that Apple just added to the fourth-generation iPod touch received only brief mentions during its rollout, with only the barest discussion of their capabilities. It took a little subsequent digging to understand why: the iPod touch’s cameras aren’t quite up to snuff with the iPhone 4’s.
Before we get into the details of the camera hardware, Apple’s three included camera-related applications deserve a little discussion. The first is FaceTime, a stripped-down version of the iPhone’s Phone application that starts by asking you to register and then confirm an e-mail address with Apple for making and receiving calls—the address is used to identify your specific devices. Multiple iPod touches with the same e-mail address will all ring at once, but only one is able to make a connection at the same time. Relying upon Wi-Fi, FaceTime worked flawlessly to make connections with iPhones and iPod touches alike in our testing, providing a video calling experience comparable to the iPhone 4’s, with only small caveats. After making a call, “favorites,” “recents,” and “contacts” options appear within the FaceTime application, providing one- or two-tap access to iPhone 4 and iPod touch users, with FaceTime camera icons appearing alongside numbers and e-mail addresses that have previously worked for video calls. Only users currently connected to Wi-Fi networks are capable of making and receiving FaceTime calls, and then, quality will vary based on the Wi-Fi network’s quality and other bandwidth demands.
As with prior iPods and iPhones, an application called Photos stores pictures—and now videos—taken from your computer, the Internet, for from the device’s on-board cameras. For now, you can’t use Apple’s iPad Camera Connection Kit to synchronize photos from most digital cameras to the iPod touch; it remains iPad-exclusive.
Apple’s last application, Camera, flips between the iPod touch’s two cameras with one button, toggles still and video recording modes with a switch, records images or movies with a red button, and lets you preview past snaps with a photo icon. Tapping on the video preview lets you adjust exposure, a slider appears to let you digitally zoom in during still shots, and orientation is set automatically with the device’s integrated tilt-sensing accelerometer. There are no surprises here, save that the high-dynamic range (HDR) shooting mode that was just added to the iPhone 4 is not included for the iPod touch. Apple also sells a $5 application called iMovie that enables the new iPod touch and iPhone 4 to edit, title, add music, and integrate photos into videos.
The most obvious differences are found in the back cameras, which share one thing in common—1280x720 resolution video recording—but diverge significantly in focusing capabilities and still image resolution. To start with the positive, the fourth-generation iPod touch is a very competent 720p video recorder, and under some circumstances, users may actually even prefer it in this regard alone to the iPhone 4. By adding touch-to-focus capabilities to the iPhone 4’s rear camera, Apple introduced both the potential for beautiful still images with depth-of-field effects—deliberately blurred backgrounds with sharp foreground objects—and inadvertently hazy videos that were accidentally focused on something close rather than capturing an entire scene. As can be seen in our iPhone 4/iPod touch camera comparison videos, both devices’ cameras produce washed out videos outdoors, but the touch’s tend to be closer to color accurate, and less likely to be out of focus. The iPhone 4’s touch to focus feature can, with practice, create better overall videos, but the iPod touch achieves acceptable results naturally with the Camera application. In FaceTime mode, however, the iPhone 4’s rear camera provides a wider field of view at the same distance, which we preferred but didn’t find to be a tremendous difference.
Still photography is a completely different story—one embarrassing enough for the iPod touch that Apple barely acknowledges that the device is even capable of the feat. Whereas the iPhone 4 camera captures 2592x1936-pixel images that are very close in quality to the results you’d get from a low-end point-and-shoot camera, the iPod touch camera snaps 960x720 still images that look like comparatively blurry screen grabs from a toy. As mere crops of the 1280x720 video images, missing detail on the left and right sides, the iPod touch’s pictures are less than half the resolution of ones taken by the original iPhone. Because Apple used a rear-illuminated sensor in the iPod touch, it is able to rival the first iPhone and iPhone 3GS in generating all but unusable images in dark lighting conditions; that said, the iPhone 4 does better even without assistance from its integrated LED flash. (See our iPhone 4 versus iPod touch 4G still camera comparison gallery here.)
Not surprisingly, the differences in detail and focusing between the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G under even good lighting are profound, particularly for objects shot from up close. One of our sample photos shows reddish-orange flowers that the iPhone 4 reveals clearly as fake, rendered as fuzzy and possibly real by the touch. Other images show how the iPhone 4’s lens offers a wider field of view when capturing still photos, renders objects more clearly at any distance, and offers at least slightly superior color rendition in still image mode. Some have suggested that the iPod touch 4G’s still camera must have been designed solely to snap pictures for Facebook; after testing, it’s obvious that it’s not capable of doing much more than that, and will be inadequate as a still camera for most users.
The differences between the iPhone 4’s and iPod touch 4G’s front-facing cameras are thankfully less obvious, but they’re still there. Both of these cameras have identical 640x480 resolutions, but in our testing, the iPhone 4’s camera did a better job of adjusting to changing light conditions—bright and dark ones alike—while rendering faces easier to see. Neither camera was spot-on accurate in color, but the iPhone 4’s comparatively yellow-tinted renditions of faces looked more detailed than the more shadowy, reddish skin tones the iPod touch produced. For video conferencing or self-recording purposes, both cameras will do the trick, but you’ll look a little better on the iPhone 4.
Built-in microphone performance on the iPod touch 4G was better than we’d expected given that Apple hides the component inside a tiny pinhole on the rear casing—literally on the opposite side of where FaceTime video calls will generally be taking place. Callers noted a little reverberation when we talked towards the screen, traceable to the fact that sound waves were bouncing around the room before they hit the mic, but they also said that the sound from the touch was awfully close to the sound from the iPhone 4 during calls. Both devices pick up wind noise outdoors and other ambient noises indoors; the iPhone 4 does a better job of filtering those sounds, and under some conditions, its phone can take advantage of a noise-canceling second microphone that isn’t available to iPod touch users.
Worth a brief note is the fact that, contrary to an Apple web page that once suggested that the new iPod touch had gained a vibrating motor as an alternative ringer for FaceTime calls, no such feature is actually included in this year’s model. What was originally believed to be the vibration hardware was subsequently revealed in a teardown to be the microphone above. While it’s possible given Apple’s web page that the feature was planned and dropped at the last minute, inspections of both the hardware and iOS software strongly suggest that nothing is currently inside the device for this purpose.