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.
As a rule, Apple builds iPod touches with smaller batteries than iPhones, but because there’s no juice-sucking cellular hardware to worry about, the touches tend to match or outlast iPhones for the same tasks—unless you turn off the iPhone’s cellular features. This year, Apple has increased the size of the fourth-generation iPod touch battery to a 930mAh / 3.44 Watt-Hour cell, up roughly 18% from 789mAh / 2.92 Watt-Hours of power in the prior-generation iPod touch. It has promised 40 hours of audio run time versus 30-36 hours in its two predecessor models, and came very close to that claim in our testing: at 50% volume with the screen off for almost the entirety of the audio playback session, the iPod touch ran for 39 hours and 23 minutes, notably with its Wi-Fi antenna on the entire time. This is a big jump from the prior iPod touch, which ran for only 30 hours and 20 minutes with Wi-Fi on, gaining two hours if the antenna was switched off.
Video performance is a similar story. Apple now promises 7 hours of continuous video playback, versus 6 hours in the prior two models—a number that it nearly met in the second-generation model and surpassed by almost two hours in the third-generation touch. With its Wi-Fi antenna on, headphones connected, and set for 50% volume with 50% screen brightness, our test iPod touch video playlist ran for 8 hours and 18 minutes, beating Apple’s claims, and should be expected to do even better with Wi-Fi turned off. This is great news for frequent video viewers; combined with the screen improvements and its newfound ability to play HD videos synchronized from iTunes, this iPod touch is assuredly the family’s best video player yet.
Every recent iPod with gaming capabilities and/or a video camera has seen significantly decreased run times when using the device for these purposes, so we also ran another test to see how the new battery held up under greater stress. As with the iPhone 4, we set up the iPod touch for a continuous FaceTime video chat, and were generally pleased to see that it lasted for 2 hours and 35 minutes—less than the 3-hour-plus FaceTime length of the iPhone 4, but still more than enough time to let a user make a few short video calls and do plenty of other things without needing a recharge. There’s no doubt that the new iPod touch battery will last most users longer than the old one, even while the device is doing more.
One area in which the new iPod touch seems to have some issues is in battery life reporting. In multiple tests, we saw the device inaccurately estimate when its battery was at the 20% marker—too late—and shut off rather quickly thereafter. When it was plugged in again, it showed the “nearly dead battery, connect to power” icon, returning far too rapidly thereafter to a claimed 50% charge level. A bug fix will likely be necessary to fix this issue; Apple could really do iPod touch users a favor at the same time by adding the alternate percentage-tracking battery meter included in recent iPhones, as well.
Another test we run every year is a test of how long iTunes takes to add 1GB of files to a given iPod. Apple’s iPod shuffles have been on the “molasses” side for some time now, with the iPod touch evolving over the years into the “good” category, the iPod nano winning the “fairly speedy” award, and the iPod classic at the top. This year’s iPod shuffle took roughly 6 minutes to transfer a 1GB playlist, versus 1 minute and 45 seconds for the new iPod nano, and 2 minutes and 5 seconds for the fourth-generation iPod touch—basically the same as last year’s model. While the nano’s the easiest of the new iPods to fill quickly, the iPod touch is close behind, which is a good thing given how long it might otherwise take to fill the 32GB and 64GB capacities.
One final note regarding the fourth-generation iPod touch concerns its storage capacities. While the base model of iPod touch contains 8 Gigabytes of flash RAM, the actual usable capacity reported by iTunes is 6.5GB—the rest is occupied by iOS 4.1 and formatting. The 64GB model has 59.1GB of usable space, losing nearly 5GB to formatting and iOS. While Apple’s mid-priced 32GB model has enough space for music, several HD videos, plus apps, and photos, most users will either initially or soon thereafter find the 8GB model to be too cramped for a device with the new model’s capabilities. Given that it jumped in price from last year’s $199 base model, a capacity bump to 16GB would have been reasonable, too.