Review: Fourth-generation iPod touch

Apple outfits iPod touch with dual cameras, retina display (September 13th, 2010)

After Apple introduced the iPhone 4, a major leap over previous versions, iPod fans were left waiting for the technology to trickle down to the iPhone's phone-less counterpart. The fourth-generation Touch fulfills most of the expectations, mimicking the iPhone's dual camera configuration and 960x640 'retina display.' In our full review, we'll take a look at the list of new features that aim to push Apple's flagship iPod even further ahead of the competition -- but still slightly behind the iPhone.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $229 - $399

The Good

  • 960x640 display
  • Dual cameras, FaceTime support
  • 720p video recording
  • Longer battery life
  • Faster A4 processor
  • Three-axis gyro

The Bad

  • Poor quality still pictures
  • No GPS receiver
  • No 16GB option

Design

The iPod touch has been updated every year since its initial introduction in 2007. Like the first three iPhones, each successive generation has brought minor tweaks to the external housing and modest upgrades to the internal components. The fourth-generation Touch represents the most comprehensive overhaul to date, with major hardware changes and new communication capabilities via FaceTime integration.

From a distance, the new Touch might be hard to differentiate from the second and third generations. Upon closer inspection, however, a front-facing camera can be seen tucked beneath the front glass panel, while a second camera is more noticeable on the backside. The back panel has been flattened for a thinner profile, balancing the contoured edges of the second generation with the blocky form of the first generation.

We like the updated design, as a flat back helps reduce the iPod's tendency to rotate or bounce around when placed on a table. The change is minor, not like the iPhone's major leap to a completely flat form with glass on the backside. A different finish would be a great option, as the mirror polish is extremely easy to scratch. Matte stainless might not be as flashy out of the box, but it would retain the finish for a longer period of time.

A small oval on the bottom ridge now provides a better route for sound emitted from the internal speaker. The passthrough port does help to produce a louder sound with more clarity, a necessity for FaceTime calling without a headset. Sound maintains volume as long as the port is not covered, even if the device is held in a tight grip. The speaker quality may be acceptable for conversations in quiet settings, however it does not offer any improvement over most speakerphone drivers contained in cellphones.





Display

The fourth-generation Touch integrates a new LCD panel with 960x640 resolution, matching the iPhone 4. The four-fold jump in pixel density is fantastic, especially for the myriad of apps already designed to take advantage of the higher resolution. A significant portion of small text on websites can now be read without zooming in and out to get a better look at different areas on a page.

We were disappointed to discover that the Touch does not utilize the same in-plane switching (IPS) technology that makes the iPhone 4 display truly stunning. The difference becomes clear when the iPod is viewed from extreme angles; the colors quickly wash out and the text becomes unreadable. Each type of panel also offers slightly different color representation and brightness, although the Touch LCD still appears to be a high quality component when compared to other non-IPS displays. Contrast ratio has been improved, while there is no yellow discoloration.





Cameras

The new Touch finally introduces dual cameras, a feature that has been circulating in rumors for over a year. Like the iPhone 4, the Touch's front-facing lens captures VGA-quality video for FaceTime calls, along with self portraits using the display as a viewfinder.

The rear-facing camera brings one notable disappointment, as the design is geared toward recording 720p videos instead of stills. While many smartphones, including the iPhone 4, allow users to switch between 5 megapixel stills or 720p videos, the Touch limits still resolutions to just 960x720 pixels. Videos are comparable to other pocketable devices that record in HD, such as the Flip series, however the still images are barely above VGA quality. Aside from the poor resolution, the camera also lacks autofocus or flash. The unimpressive camera has been blamed on space considerations, although it is still surprising that Apple's wizards could not find a better solution.








Performance

On the inside of the housing, Apple outfitted its flagship iPod with the same A4 chip that powers the iPhone 4 and iPad. Performance seems to be on-par with the other A4-based devices, even while running multitasking features in iOS 4.1. The Touch never hiccuped while we rushed through the interface, darting between various apps and functions in an attempt to put a heavy load on the processor.

The new display and A4 processor provide a much greater gaming experience on the latest Touch. The updated specs, now common across both handheld iOS devices, will likely push developers to accelerate their iOS projects. The performance of the iPhone 4 and Touch remains largely untapped, as the iPhone has been on the market for less than 90 days.

Epic Citadel, an Unreal Engine 3 tech demo, showcases the graphics potential of Apple's latest hardware. The Touch maintained a smooth frame rate while we wandered around the medieval town, observing the wind blowing through tress, lens flare from the sun, and reflections from marble floors. The renderings are truly impressive when presented on the 960x640 display.

To complement the accelerometer, Apple has added a three-axis gyroscope that provides a new way for apps to detect acceleration, attitude and rotation rates. The new component, also shared with the iPhone 4, is yet another feature that developers have just begun to embrace for existing and upcoming App Store titles.

Apple managed to squeeze even longer battery life out of the Touch, despite the faster processor and slimmer housing. The company claims users can now listen to audio for 40 hours -- a 30 percent jump from the third generation -- while video playback lasts for seven hours.

Sound quality is just as good as the previous generations. Ditching the tinny iPod earbuds for quality headphones helps to gauge performance. The internal amplifier sufficiently powered a pair of Etymotic earbuds rated at 27 Ohms, bringing sound past comfortable listening levels before music started to become distorted.





Final thoughts

As the App Store continues to expand at a phenomenal rate, the iPod touch has become a unique device that eludes simple categorization. It is the only pocketable media player that offers full access to the most successful portal for mobile apps and games, but without requiring a cellular contract with AT&T. The introduction of FaceTime pushed the Touch further into a grey area that falls somewhere between smartphones and media players. We don't expect FaceTime to become a viable alternative to traditional voice communication in the near future, but it is an interesting feature that some users will embrace and others will dismiss.

The fourth-generation Touch makes an attractive upgrade from earlier versions, especially the first two editions that are not supported by some of the latest games and apps. The cameras and 960x640 display even offer a considerable incentive to jump from the faster third-generation model. Apple has kept the 8GB version alive, with the same $229 entry price to the world of iOS and the best iPod hardware. Jumping up to a reasonable capacity, 32GB, brings the cost up to $299, while the 64GB model fetches $399.









by Justin King


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