At Apple’s last event, Steve Jobs called the iPod touch the company’s “most popular iPod,” and it’s easy to understand why. In just a few short years, the iPhone-with-no-phone has kept in lockstep with Cupertino’s halo device, benefitting from the same kind of constant hardware and software updating that has helped turned the iPhone into an iconic gadget. The touch has been right alongside the iPhone’s meteoric rise in popularity, becoming the go-to second-pocket slab for millions. There are good reasons, too. Apple boasts about gaming on the device — claiming it beats out both Nintendo’s and Sony’s offerings in sales… combined. While we can’t concede that the device is a dedicated game console, it most definitely games. And it’s still an iPod, an internet device, and a thousand other things thanks to Apple’s vastly populous App Store. Now the player has once again reaped the rewards of iPhone updates, boasting a new Retina Display, the A4 CPU, two cameras which allow for FaceTime calling and 720p video recording, and all the new features of the company’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 4.1. But despite all of the plusses, we still have to ask: is the little do-everything box still worth the premium price tag? We took a deep dive on the latest model and have the verdict, so read on to find out.
If you own the last version of the iPod touch, the design of the latest version shouldn’t come as a major surprise. Instead of aping the iPhone’s new glass-sandwich looks, the touch hews close to its roots with a super thin profile made up of one part glass screen and one part all-metal back. The device still bears the smudge inviting chrome rear panel, and continues the trend of shrinking the thickness as far down as possible. We thought the iPhone 4 was crazy thin, but the new touch looks like a toothpick by comparison. In our large hands, we might even argue that it’s a little too small — but it should be just right for the legion of teens and tweens that will clamor for this come holiday time.
As with earlier version, hard buttons come in the form of a single home key, a power / sleep button (finally moved to match the iPhone’s placement at the top-right of the device, as opposed to the opposite side on previous versions), and two volume buttons on the left. Around back there’s now a small camera lens in the upper corner of the device, while a single, VGA shooter peers out from behind the glass on the front of the player. A quick note: we had a little trouble consistently finding the sleep button when using the device — it’s a bit buried in the housing.
All told, we think it’s break even in the looks department. The thinness is certainly welcome, but not a game changer. While we like the iPod touch design overall, there’s nothing present in the new version that makes it significantly more lust-worthy than previous generations.
Inside the new iPod touch is Apple’s A4 CPU, the same engine used to power the iPhone 4 and iPad (and that new Apple TV as well). We assume the device is sporting the same 512MB of RAM that the iPhone has, but we won’t know for sure until someone like iFixit gets their hands on it. The 3.5-inch capacitive touchscreen is called a Retina Display, which means it had equal resolution (960 x 640) and pixel density (326 ppi) as the iPhone 4, but it’s not the same IPS panel that you’re used to on the touch’s big brother. What does that mean in real world terms? Well in our testing we could see noticeable difference in viewing angles, but only at pretty extreme positions. We also felt like the touch’s display was slightly darker than the iPhone 4 screen. In general, we don’t see this as a major detractor for the device, but there’s no question that the iPhone 4 is sporting a qualitatively better display. It may be an “iPhone with no contract” in many regards, but not when it comes to the screen.
Aside from that you’ve got WiFi (802.11b/g/n to be exact), Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, and Nike + support built in. No GPS here, and obviously no cell radios.
We’re a little confused by Apple’s reluctance to add a GPS chip to these devices. Since the App Store is litered with navigation software, and this could easily take the place of a TomTom or Garmin device, it seems like a short walk to paradise for the company. The touch checks a lot of boxes on the list, but true navigation is still blank, and we can’t really understand why.
Just like Apple wanted, much has been made about the touch’s camera capability. It seems like the idea of a touch with cameras has been a long time coming (and based on what we’ve seen from case manufacturers since the last fall Apple event, we’re actually about a year behind schedule). But the cameras on this device aren’t quite the same pair that you get on the iPhone 4, and there should be no mistaking one for the other. The rear camera on the device is capable of 720p video, but that means that its maximum resolution is 1280 x 720 — and when it’s used for still photos, that resolution becomes 960 x 720 (that’s a 720p at a 4:3 ratio). Obviously this is not the same lens or sensor as the iPhone 4, and when we asked Apple about it, they said it was more a consideration of size rather than cost. According to Greg Jozwiak, using something closer to the iPhone 4′s sensor would have made the casing for the touch considerably larger. The camera is also fixed-focus rather than auto-focus, which means that tapping on the screen has no discernible result except for altering the white balance and exposure. Oh, and there’s no flash to be found. Around front, the phone sports a VGA camera (similar to that of the iPhone), but again this is a fixed-focus lens.
We really would have liked to see a higher quality shooter on the back of this device — maybe the iPhone 4 has spoiled us, but even something like 3 megapixels wouldn’t have felt out of place here. And we’re pretty sure Apple could figure out a way to keep this thing thin and light in spite of it.
In our side by side shots with the iPhone 4, it’s obvious that the touch’s performance for still images is far below that of its big brother. For taking quick shots (which don’t require tight focus), you’ll be fine, but if you want to grab printer-ready pics, the touch definitely will not be a reasonable stand-in. However, when it comes to video, the 720p performance was actually quite surprising, and the device seemed to have no problem capturing smooth HD content. See the clip below (and check the raw file here) for a look at what kind of results it can produce.
As with the new nano, the touch did seem to sound a little better than previous versions, but it’s not such an astounding difference that you should toss your last gen model in the garbage. Overall, playback seemed solid to us — at least it didn’t leave us wanting for quality. If you’re planning on using the external speaker for listening, however, you might want to reconsider. We can’t remember the last time we heard something so tinny. Of course, it’s not surprising considering the size of this housing. Even though it’s located in a similar spot as the iPhone 4′s speaker, the volume and quality of audio it produces is not even in the same vicinity. Still, how often will you use this?
If you’ve used an iPhone or iPod touch with iOS 4, there will be few (if any) surprises here. The touch performs exactly like any other iOS device, though admittedly you’ll probably notice faster performance if you’re upgrading from an earlier model of touch. Our review unit was loaded up with 4.1, which means we had access to a non-beta Game Center, as well as some of those proximity and performance fixes Apple told us would be coming — though without seeing 4.0 on this device, it’s hard to spot the differences.
Overall, performance was silky smooth on the touch — games didn’t lag, and getting around in the OS was as painless as it is on the iPhone 4. Multitasking worked flawlessly, and for those of you using the device heavily as a media player, it makes juggling playback functions along with the other “stuff” the touch does dead simple.
The new touch does come equipped with FaceTime, though now instead of using your phone number (and SMS) to connect, it asks for your email address as an identifier. Unfortunately, only other 4.1 devices can make a connection with the touch, so we were only able to make a handful of calls. In general, the application worked as effortlessly as it does on the iPhone, though we still had some freezes and breakups even on our strong WiFi connection. Ultimately, we still see this as a side dish and not the main course for these devices. With the iPhone 4, we complained that without 3G options for FaceTime calls, the feature remains limited in use, and that’s now doubly true with the touch — unless you’re carting around a MiFi, you’re stuck mostly indoors (and probably at home) for these calls. One thing to note about FaceTime on the touch — on our device the volume seemed extremely low even when cranked up (in keeping with our experience for music playback), though the New York Times’ David Pogue told us his device sounded loud and clear. “Like an iPhone,” he said.
As we said, Game Center is installed on the device, but no games seem to take advantage of the feature just yet. We did field a few friend requests, but all we could do was look at our list of contacts. We’ll likely take a longer look at this feature when it’s accessible to all iOS 4 users, but for now the most notable thing about the app is that Game Center looks nothing like any Apple product you’ve ever seen. That font!
Reading through this review, it should be clear that there isn’t actually a whole lot to say about this device that hasn’t already been said. The new touch isn’t magical or revolutionary, or even unfamiliar. What it is, however, is a product without a peer; a media player that does far more than media playing. Besides the smaller screen real estate, the touch might be better compared to a tablet or netbook — it has many of the same functions (more, in some cases). So you’re not just dropping $229 (8GB), $299 (32GB), or $399 (64GB, also, ouch) on a music and video player — you’re buying into a mini-computer, a video camera, and a game system all with a massive ecosystem.
If you’re already carrying around a smartphone with the above functions, maybe the iPod touch doesn’t make sense, but for the legions of buyers out there who have yet to make the jump (or are stuck with an outdated handset), this device’s appeal is hard to deny. Don’t get us wrong, the touch isn’t without faults — the lack of GPS and a fairly low-quality still camera come to mind — but there’s nothing major here that gives us pause (and frankly, nothing else like it on the market). With the addition of HD video shooting, the new Retina Display, and a faster A4 processor, the touch has just gone from “nice to have” to nearly irresistible.