Now that the iPod touch is in its fourth generation, Apple finds itself at interesting crossroads. The company simply doesn't have any competition right now in the high-end portable media player market. iTunes remains as popular as ever, and there is still no slicker device for surfing the web and downloading hundreds of thousands of apps. So at least for the moment, the iPod touch's biggest foes are its predecessor (for would-be upgraders) and maybe the iPhone 4 (for those who would rather not pay a monthly fee for AT&T's spotty service). The good news is that Apple has graced every model in its flagship PMP line with a sharper Retina Display, snappy A4 processor, and fun FaceTime feature for making video calls. Last time around the 8GB model had a slower CPU and couldn't play the latest games as smoothly as the higher-capacity versions, but now the 8 GB ($229), 16 GB ($299), and 32 GB ($399) touch all have the same guts. Despite a few weaknesses, the new iPod touch creates even more distance between Apple and the rest of the field.
Just when you thought the iPod touch couldn't get any more portable, Apple managed to slim it down further. At 3.6 ounces and 0.28 inches thick, the latest version is 15 percent thinner and 12 percent lighter than the third-gen touch. The gorgeous 3.5-inch display (all 960 x 640 pixels of it) dominates the front, and underneath that you'll find the trademark home button, which is easy to press. Above the screen is the VGA camera, and the bottom of the touch houses the dock connector, 3.5mm headphone jack, and speaker.
We wish the black Sleep/Wake button (located on top) and volume buttons (on the right side) were easier to press. The design of the fourth-gen iPod touch is so razor-thin that the buttons are placed on curved edges that are difficult to find by feel. Unlike the iPhone 4, the back of the latest touch is decked out in silver instead of black (or white), just like previous models. Unfortunately, this surface smudged up quickly and picked up some minor scratches after just a few days of use. The back is where you'll also find the second camera (limited to 960 x 720 pixels) and mic.
Overall, the latest iPod touch is incredibly sleek. However, the ergonomics could be better, and you'll likely want to pair it with a case to protect it from scratches.
Specs and Performance
Our iPod touch came loaded with 32GB of memory, but all three versions of the device feature Apple's fast A4 processor. In our testing, the device rarely flinched as we surfed the web, played way too many games of Angry Birds, and watched a rented episode of Glee. Swiping from one home screen to another as well as through photos also felt speedy.
Display and Audio
Let's make something clear. Although the displays on the iPod touch and iPhone 4 both boast the same sky-high resolution (960 x 640 pixels), they're not the same screen. When looking at the same websites and games side by side, the iPhone 4 benefitted from much wider viewing angles. The iPod touch's display also seemed slightly dimmer and its colors weren't quite as saturated. Nevertheless, we don't see many iPod touch owners complaining about the screen. Text is incredibly sharp, and episode scenes of Glee showed plenty of detail.
While not booming, the bottom-mounted speaker on the iPod touch delivered a decent amount of volume for personal entertainment. Dialogue in the Glee episode was clear, and we could hear Brandon Flowers' "Crossfire" (a single we downloaded from iTunes) across a small room. The sound wasn't tinny, either.
iOS 4.1 and Interface
Out of the box, the iPod touch runs the latest version of iOS, which supports multitasking, grouping apps into folders, and threaded messaging in e-mail. The icon-driven multitouch user interface continues to be the most intuitive we've encoutnered. While the iPhone 4's default app choices on the bottom of the screen are Phone, Mail, Safari, and iPod, the iPod touch lists Music, Mail, Safari, and Videos. We actually prefer having music and videos split up. Apple has also added several welcome features with iOS 4.1 on the iPod touch, although FaceTime and Game Center aren't yet fully baked (for different reasons).
How important is FaceTime to Apple? It's the very first icon you see on the iPod touch in the upper left-hand corner. With this app, you can make two-way video calls via Wi-Fi to other iPod touch owners, as well as those who carry an iPhone 4, once iOS 4.1 becomes available. To get started, you just enter your e-mail address, or create a FaceTime account. From there, you can select a FaceTime caller from within the app by choosing Favorite or Contact.
Call quality over Wi-Fi when chatting with another iPod touch user was smooth, and audio was mostly in sync with the video. As with the iPhone 4, you can rotate the camera to show the other caller what's going on around you, and you can move the window in which your mug resides to any corner of the screen just by draging it with your finger.
Game Center is Apple's answer to Xbox Live (example pictured to the right), a gaming social network that includes friend requests, leaderboards, and an auto-match feature that makes it easy to start a multiplayer game--even if you don't have any Game Center friends yet. And unlike Xbox Live for Windows Phone 7, which will be limited to turn-based games at launch, Game Center will have real-time multiplayer action, according to Apple. Setting up our account and nickname was a breeze, but when we clicked on Find Game Center Games, the web page for iTunes 10 launched. This feature has a lot of potential to make the gaming experience on the iPod touch even more immersive; we'll update this review once Game Center-compatible titles launch.
Camera and Camcorder
As the first iPod touch with a camera and camcorder, this device produces much better looking videos than it does still shots. That's because Apple equipped the touch with a sensor that records 720p footage but only 960 x 720-pixel photos. We suppose the iPhone 4's 5-megapixel sensor would have added size and weight, but we wish the company had included this feature on the pricier 32GB and 64GB models.
When we recorded the same suburban setting with both the iPod touch (below top) and iPhone 4 (below bottom) and played it back on a PC, the clip from the former had plenty of detail--including trees in the reflection of a car window--but the touch had more trouble when moving in and out of shadowy areas. The iPhone 4, by contrast, was more consistent and produced a brighter overall image.
Indoors, the iPod touch (below top) fell further behind, producing somewhat grainier footage of a golden retriever, despite the fact that both this player and the iPhone 4 have backside illuminated sensors.
Nevertheless, the touch is a pretty capable camcorder given its tiny size, and iOS 4.1 lets you upload full-resolution videos to YouTube.
As for the still camera, the touch can't--ahem--touch the iPhone 4, but that's to be expected given the resolution delta. A touch photo of flowers had plenty of color but looked fuzzier.
Also keep in mind that the iPod touch doesn't include a flash. You'll get the best results in a bright room or outdoors. On the plus side, iOS 4.1 includes support for Places (so you can see photos based on where they were taken) and Faces (for viewing pics based on who is in them). However, the latter feature supports only Mac owners who use iPhoto.
With 250,000 apps and counting, no other pocket-size player even approaches the iPod touch's vast library of selections. Apple tends to promote games over every other category with this device, which makes sense given that nine out of the ten choices in the App Store as of press time were games. Plus, you don't need connectivity to have fun on the go, although Game Center and multiplayer action will be limited to Wi-Fi connectivity.
We played a few rounds of Asphalt 5, with its photo-realistic backgrounds and tight accelerometer-based controls, and we were quickly reminded why the iPod touch outsells the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP combined. The best games tend to combine console-quality visuals with addictive gameplay and easy-to-master controls.
Music and Ping
While music has taken a a back seat to apps on the iPod touch the past couple of years, this time around Apple is emphasizing the tunes in iTunes. It's still a cinch to download tracks and albums over Wi-Fi, and we continue to appreciate how complete the shopping experience is on the device, complete with plenty of top ten lists and genres to explore.
What's new is Ping, a music-based social network that lets you follow famous artists and connect with other music fans--right from the iPod touch. For example, on Katy Perry's page she posted updates of her whereabouts on tour ("Au revoir, Paris") and shared that "Firework" was the track she was most proud of on her latest album. And right within Ping you can buy the single for $1.29; clever marketing indeed.
To get started, you must use iTunes on a PC or Mac to enter an e-mail address you'd like associated with your Ping profile and upload a photo (if you so choose). Here you can also find other people to follow by entering their e-mail addresses. When we follwed someone, her profile automatically appeared on our iPod touch, and we could see her latest updates, including what albums and songs she liked. Again, we could link to these purchases directly from Ping.
Ping has potential, but we hope Apple finds a way to get a deal done with Facebook so it's easier to find friends.
One click away from Ping in the iTunes app is Videos, where you'll find current Hollywood flicks for rent (usually at $4.99). We found only a few titles for purchase, costing $19.99 each. What's new with iOS 4.1 is that you can now rent certain TV shows--from Disney/ABC and Fox--for 99 cents each. Too bad you have to dig to find this rental option. For instance, when you click on Glee you'll see the Buy option for the current season ($49.99), but then a note underneath indicates that show is actually "For Rent By Episode Only." You have to scroll down and then double-tap on an episode to rent it. We'd like to see Apple roll out a featured area on the iPod touch that highlights 99-cent rentals, just as it does in iTunes 10 on the desktop.
To test out this new functionality we rented an episode of Glee in standard definition, which took about 7.5 mintues to download over Wi-Fi. At any time you can see how many hours are left in the 48-hour rental period, which begins when you start playing the video. We especially like that the iPod touch remembers where you left off.
There's really not much that's new on the iPod touch's Safari browser, but it continues to offer a best-in-class browsing experience. Mobile sites loaded over Wi-Fi in less than 10 seconds, while full desktop sites such as Laptopmag.com and NYTimes.com loaded in 25 to 30 seconds. The iPhone 4 was only a second or two faster on the same Wi-Fi network. As you'd expect, scrolling was buttery smooth, as were pinch-to-zoom gestures.
Apple rates the iPod touch for 40 hours of music playback and 7 hours of video playback. In our tests, which included recording HD video, playing games, watching TV, and listening to music, the device lasted well over 8 hours during periodic use. We'll update this review once we've run our web surfing test. Our only complaint is that the battery meter doesn't display the percentage of juice left, an option available on the iPhone 4.
Although it's often taken for granted, the iPod touch and other iPods have the largest universe of available accessories, from speaker docks and cases to alarm clocks and even remote control helicopters. That's the beauty of Apple's dock connector. The bundled earbuds don't include a mic, which would come in handy for using VoIP apps, but you can always upgrade to a set that includes one along with buttons for controlling music playback.
Let's answer one question at a time. Is the new iPod touch a good alternative to the iPhone 4 for those who don't want to be stuck in a contract? It depends, but for most people we'd say no. The iPhone 4 has a much sharper still camera and a better screen. And despite the fact that AT&T's network can be unreliable, it's nice to be able to check e-mail, surf the web, and download apps without having to be connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot (or toting your own mobile hotspot). Is the iPod touch upgrade worthy? Again, it depends, but we think the sharper Retina Display, FaceTime functionality, and 720p video recording make this device a worthy successor to the third-generation iPod touch. It's also a great choice for anyone looking to buy the best app phone sans phone. These days $229 is nothing to sneeze at, but no other portable media player delivers this much fun in such a strikingly svelte package.