Pros: A major update to Apple’s most versatile iPod, adding twin cameras, a high-resolution 960×640 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 iPod touch has come a long way since its debut in 2007, a year that saw the company take pains to describe the device as a stripped-down iPhone—the Wi-Fi-only touch was “training wheels” for Apple’s flagship product, as the company’s CEO once put it. The first-generation iPod touch was thinner and simpler than an iPhone, but lacked for enough hardware and software that customers were supposed to covet the more expensive product instead. Over the next two years, Apple reimagined the touch as a multifunction device for gamers, and a rehabilitated second-generation model made screen and processor improvements, added a speaker, volume controls, and most of the iPhone’s applications, and tweaked its body with sleeker curves. A third-generation version made only internal changes, though leaked prototypes suggested a rear camera was in the works, too. By mid-2010, the iPod touch had become a hit on its own merits as a media player and Internet device, as well as a legitimate challenger to dedicated portable gaming consoles from Nintendo and Sony.
But the iPhone has continued to evolve, too, and Apple has wrestled every year with how many of its features to bring to the iPod touch, then whether to use equivalent or less impressive components. With this year’s model, the iPod touch has officially settled into a comfortable position two steps behind the iPhone in hardware while coming as close as possible in software. The new fourth-generation iPod touch (8GB/$199*, 32GB/$299, 64GB/$399) has—sort of—gained the marquee features of the iPhone 4, including a 960×640-resolution Retina Display, front and rear video cameras, and a new Apple A4 processor, though once again, each of these features has been quietly hobbled to let the iPhone 4 stand out. By any measure, the new model offers marked upgrades over its popular 2009 predecessor, but whether you’ll be satisfied with them depends on whether you view any improvement as good enough, or expect a full iPhone 4-caliber device minus the phone for a lower, contract-free price.
As most of the fourth-generation iPod touch user experience remains unchanged from the models released over the past two years, our comprehensive review of the new device focuses primarily on differences between it and its predecessors. Read on for all of the details, and our buying advice, by selecting from the nine pages above and below. Updated October 12, 2011: We’ve updated our original September 9, 2010 review with a new tenth page discussing iOS 5.0, the new white fourth-generation iPod touch, and our update of the 8GB iPod touch rating from B+ to A- as a result of a $30 price drop. The original price was $229, and is now $199.
Body, Pack-Ins, and Packaging
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.
Using the iPod touch 4G: iTunes 10 + iOS 4.1, Plus New Apps
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.
New Screen and Video, Speaker and Audio Performance
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 960×640 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 1280×720 (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.
A Tale of Two Cameras, Plus a Microphone and FaceTime
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 640×480-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—1280×720 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 2592×1936-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 960×720 still images that look like comparatively blurry screen grabs from a toy. As mere crops of the 1280×720 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 640×480 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.
Wireless: 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
The primary differentiator between the iPod touch and iPhone families is the touch’s more limited set of wireless capabilities—the original iPhone shipped with cellular, Bluetooth, and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi capabilities, while the iPod touch received only Wi-Fi. Though we generally had positive experiences using the old model for web browsing, e-mail, and other Internet purposes at home, some first-generation touch users complained of flaky Wi-Fi connections. Apple eventually issued a fix, but the issue has cropped up again unpredictably with iOS updates to subsequent models, generally requiring software patches that take some time for the company to release. More than any other issue affecting iPod touch performance, this one remains a wildcard that may or may not manifest itself again in this version of the device.
On a more positive note, the fourth-generation iPod touch has received some welcome improvements in the wireless department this year. The Wi-Fi has been upgraded from 802.11b/g to a limited version of the newer, faster 802.11n standard, with support solely for 2.4GHz networks rather than 5GHz ones—the same capability and restrictions as the iPhone 4. Notably, the third-generation iPod touch included an 802.11n-capable chip, but Apple never unlocked the feature in software; the fourth-generation model immediately gets some benefits from n-class performance.
In practice, the benefits might not be obvious. Testing an 802.11g-only iPod touch 3G alongside the 802.11n-capable iPod touch 4G on the same 802.11g/n network saw the newer iPod achieve only modest and intermittent Internet speed gains. Safari web pages tended to load a little faster on the new iPod touch than on the iPhone 4, and generally loaded faster than on the third-generation iPod touch while displaying better-looking graphics and text. On the other hand, the new touch repeatedly fell a bit behind the earlier model on Speedtest.net download speeds—roughly 10Mbps versus 13Mbps—while both devices had the same nearly 1Mbps upload speeds. To the extent that the new iPod touch is given a pure 802.11n 2.4GHz network to operate on, it may eke out some signal and performance gains.
Though the original iPod touch didn’t support Bluetooth of any flavor, the latest iPod touch includes Bluetooth version 2.1 + EDR—the same as prior-generation iPod touches and the iPhone 4. This near-field wireless technology enables the iPod touch to broadcast stereo music to Bluetooth wireless devices, such as certain speakers and headphones, as well as making wireless connections for multi-player games and multi-user applications within a stated 33-foot distance. The fourth-generation iPod touch continues to support Apple and Nike’s wireless Nike + iPod Sensor, as well, with a dedicated, built-in Nike + application that is hidden on the iPod touch by default, but activated within its Settings menu. When used with the $19 Nike + iPod Sensor and a compatible pair of Nike sneakers, the iPod touch can record your running and walking performance, then synchronize it with a Nikeplus.com tracking server for comparative or competitive purposes if you so desire. The Nike + iPod application on the iPod touch 4G is cosmetically unchanged from its most recent predecessor version.
Gaming: New Gyroscope and Improved 3-D Graphics
Three component changes inside the iPod touch have improved its potential as a gaming device. First is the higher resolution screen, which automatically works to display the upgraded graphics developers added to their iPhone 4 games, resulting in seamless polygonal objects, more detailed textures, and cleaner fonts, amongst other improvements. Games such as Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (shown) look noticeably better on the iPod touch 4G than they did on the iPod touch 3G, and apart from the aforementioned viewing angle issues, they’re more or less identical to the way they play on the iPhone 4.
They load faster, too. Like the iPad and iPhone 4, the new iPod has Apple’s new A4 processor inside, and though it’s limited to 256MB of RAM—half the 512MB found in the iPhone 4, a difference that might explain the iPhone 4’s ever so small edge in speed when booting games—games still come up more quickly on the iPod touch 4G than they did on last year’s iPod touch, often while displaying considerably higher-resolution artwork. The speed difference is not profound, as Apple gave last year’s iPod touch a really fast CPU that hasn’t jumped tremendously in speed for the new version, but the improvements are there.
Last and arguably least is a 3-axis gyroscope that enables the touch to know its orientation when spun around in your hands—an addition to the accelerometer-based controls found in every iPod touch and iPhone since 2007. The gyroscope provides more accurate and detailed position-shifting information, including tracking of acceleration, attitude—positional, not psychological—and rate of rotation. Some game developers have incorporated gyroscope controls as an alternative to swipe-based head positioning gestures in first-person and third-person shooters. In our testing, the new iPod touch’s gyroscope operated just like the one that was added to the iPhone 4, enabling our character in Gameloft’s N.O.V.A. (shown) to look around a room just by turning the device on different angles. It’s a neat enough feature, and surely someone will eventually use it in a really impressive new game, but at the moment, the gyroscope feels much like the compass Apple added to last year’s iPhone 3GS—technology in search of useful applications.
Battery Life, iTunes Transfer Times, and Capacities
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.
Value and Conclusions
After a rocky start with the first-generation iPod touch in 2007, Apple has taken decisive steps to improve subsequent versions, and the fourth-generation model is no exception: two new cameras, a superior screen, and better battery life are all reasons that holdouts should give serious consideration to jumping on board with this year’s edition. This is the first year that the $299 iPod touch was worthy of our A- rating and high recommendation—finally!—and though we’re a little less convinced of the value for the dollar offered by the base $229 model and the premium $399 version, we wouldn’t discourage users from buying either one if their capacities and prices are more personally appealing. We feel strongly that the 8GB touch has too little space at a higher price than last year’s version, and that the 64GB one has close to great capacity at a still not so great price. Even so, Apple has improved enough inside of each device that they’re both still worthy of our B+ ratings, and all three of these models are easier to broadly recommend than the current-generation iPod shuffle, iPod nano, or iPod classic. It’s hard to go wrong with the touch, if you have the money for it.
As has been the case in the past, however, the improvements to this year’s model feel as if they were strategically designed to leave gaps for both the current iPhone 4 and the eventual 2011 fifth-generation iPod touch to fill: serious digital camera fanatics will be frustrated by the weak still rear camera of this model, iPod classic owners looking to finally transition their collections to a touch will find none of these offerings to be more capacious than last year’s, and GPS fans might be better off with unlocked, used iPhone 3G or 3GS devices than a new iPod touch. The solution to two of these problems is simple—buy an iPhone under contract—but the other one, storage capacity, has remained unaddressed by Apple for too long.
It is to Apple’s great credit that the list of objections to iPod touch ownership has become so short, while the reasons for Click Wheel iPod owners to upgrade has continued to grow every year since 2008. The fourth-generation iPod touch mightn’t have been a revolutionary enough update to get people to stand in lines at Apple Stores on the date of release, but we’re confident that it will be one of Apple’s most popular products when the final sales numbers are in next year. It’s a very good to great iPod, held back only by its limited storage capacity at a time when there is so much fantastic video, gaming, and other application content to purchase. We continue to look forward to iPod touch models that surpass the iPod classic in every conceivable way. Updated October, 2011: We’ve updated these conclusions and added pictures of the new white fourth-generation iPod touch; the new details are on page 10 of this review. Our rating of the 8GB iPod touch increased from B+ to A- as a result of a $30 price drop.
October 2011: White Version, iOS 5.0 + Conclusions
A little more than a year after debuting the fourth-generation iPod touch, Apple on October 12, 2011 released a major software update called iOS 5.0, and a minor hardware update in the form of a white-faced version of the previously only black-faced device.
According to Apple, no other changes have been made to the fourth-generation iPod touch this year, and this is reflected on the device’s modestly updated packaging. While the front sticker has been conspicuously changed to include iOS 5 applications, the only other change can be found in small text on the back: the iPod touch now requires iTunes 10.5 for synchronization. This is a result of the addition of iOS 5.0 to the device; Apple ships all white iPod touches with iOS 5.0 (9A334), the same version that it distributed to developers on October 4.
The box contents haven’t changed dramatically. Apple’s Finger Tips mini-manual now includes references to iOS 5, but you still get the same two small Apple logo stickers and a warranty pamphlet, along with standard Apple Earphones minus the remote control and microphone, and a USB to Dock Connector cable.
Apple hasn’t made any obvious changes to the white iPod touch’s body besides the swap of the black-painted front glass for white-painted front glass. It has notably left the headphone and Dock Connector ports ringed with black plastic after sometimes switching even that tiny little detail on past color-shifted iPods and iPhones; the top and side buttons also remain black, and the polished steel back is unchanged. The proximity sensor is effectively invisible within the white front bezel, which now has a very thin layer of white plastic around the glass edge, rather than the black edging found on the front of the black iPod touch.
iOS 5.0-related changes are discussed extensively in our Instant Expert: Secrets + Features of iOS 5.0 article. In short, Apple has made major modifications to many of the applications previously available for the iPod touch, and added several new ones: Messages comes over from the iPhone and adds iPhone/iPad/iPod touch SMS/MMS-style messaging features, Reminders has time- and location-triggered alarms in a “To Do” style format, Newsstand provides a place to organize digital publication subscriptions, and the Notifications Center has been created to organize all push and other notifications—including e-mails, in-game reminders, and the like—in one easy to find place. It’s also noteworthy that the iPod touch no longer requires a computer for initial synchronization and set-up; thanks to iOS 5.0 prompts and Apple’s new iCloud Internet-based storage and synchronization service, you can handle most of the things you need to do without ever using iTunes, if you prefer. Again, all of these details are discussed in depth in our iOS 5.0 article.
There’s only one other change to announce: Apple dropped the price of the 8GB iPod touch to $199 while keeping the 32GB and 64GB prices at $299 and $399 respectively. As such, we’ve updated the rating of that model to the same high recommendation and A- as the 32GB model, which we previously viewed as the family’s sweet spot. The new price level makes the 8GB model a better—though still very capacity-cramped—entry-level iPod touch, and apart from signing up for a cellular contract, it’s the most affordable way to get a taste of iOS 5 with a high-resolution screen. Its comparative thinness, still impressive battery life, and ever-expanding collection of apps make it a great purchase—only the crazy price premium for the 64GB model holds it back a little from our perspective. That having been said, the iPod touch’s hardware limitations continue to keep it from being a true iPhone replacement: the lack of cellular voice or data service, the weak rear camera, and lack of GPS hardware keep it in its own category, and its lack of any major CPU or GPU hardware updates for 2011-2012 may bother some iOS gamers, as well. It’s clear what Apple needs to do at this point to evolve the iPod touch for the coming year; the only questions are when and how far they’ll evolve this otherwise strong 2010 product to make it even better.
iPod touch 8GB/32GB
iPod touch 64GB
Company and Price
Company: Apple Computer
Price: $199* (8GB), $299 (32GB), $399 (64GB)