Apple's latest version of the iPod Touch hasn't changed dramatically from the model first introduced in 2007, but the rest of the tech world has. It's now the age of the "app", the iPad and smartphones both big and small. The iPod Touch shouldn't apologise for being Apple's "iPhone without a phone" anymore; it's just as valid to call it an iPad that fits in your pocket.
Available in either white or black and priced at US$199 (8GB), US$299 (32GB) and US$399 (64GB), Apple's iPod Touch maintains all of the core essential features that have made the iPod great over the years, such as music playback, photos, video, podcasts, audio books and games. Many of the new marquee features found in the iPhone 4 and the iPad 2 are also here, including iMessages, iCloud support, an HD camcorder and FaceTime video calls.
And while the iPod Touch is lagging slightly behind the iPad and the iPhone in terms of its technology (slower processor, no GPS, no 3G capability), it offers the least-expensive entry point into Apple's iOS ecosystem, bringing with it a world of entertainment that is unmatched at this price.
The bottom of the iPod Touch includes a small speaker grille, dock connection and headphone output.
The only visual difference between the iPod Touch launched in 2009 and the one launched in 2011 is the availability of a white model. Beyond that, the hardware is entirely unchanged. The software has been overhauled, but we'll get to that in a minute.
The back of the Touch has a camera lens in the upper-left corner, along with a pinhole microphone. The camera placement is nearly identical to the iPhone 4's camera, although the cameras themselves differ. The camera used on the Touch is strictly designed for video recording, but it can be made to capture still frames, whereas the iPhone's camera pulls equal weight as both a photo camera (5-megapixel sensor, LED flash, HDR support) and an HD camcorder.
The iPod's front-facing camera is placed above the screen and behind the glass, where the earpiece would normally be found on a mobile phone. An integrated speaker is also included on the Touch, located behind a tiny speaker grille on the bottom edge of the device, along with a standard dock connection and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
The rest is just as you'd expect. There's a Home button below the capacitive touchscreen, which still measures 3.5 inches diagonally. At 101 grams, this is the lightest iOS device that money can buy, feeling practically invisible in your pocket. Score one for the skinny jeans.
Unsurprisingly, the iPod Touch continues its neck-and-neck, spec-to-spec race with the iPhone. Features that made headlines when the iPhone 4 debuted have trickled over to the iPod Touch without much fanfare, but are no less impressive. You get the same A4 processor, the same three-axis gyro sensor and a Retina Display that uses an impressive 960x640-pixel resolution at a dense 326 pixels per inch. You still can't make mobile phone calls on the Touch, surf over a 3G connection or receive a GPS signal, but the gap between the Touch and the iPhone is smaller than ever.
One basic iPhone feature that Touch users have missed out on for some time now is an integrated microphone. The fourth-gen Touch solves the problem with a mono microphone on the back that picks up sound equally in every direction (ie, it's omni-directional). The addition of the microphone is ostensibly there for the adjacent camcorder and FaceTime video-calling feature (see below), but it also works with features such as the Voice Memos app and third-party VoIP and audio-recording apps that previously required a compatible headset or a microphone accessory.
The camera on the back supports HD video recording up to 720p at 30 frames per second. The resulting video file is h.264 QuickTime MP4, which can be edited directly on the device using the basic trim feature or the more advanced iMovie editor. You can sync your recordings back to your computer using the included USB cable, or send the results directly from the Touch using email or an upload to YouTube. We also have to give points to the Touch for being able to embed roughly estimated geotag information to your photos and videos, provided you keep the Wi-Fi antenna on.
The camera on the back of the iPod Touch captures HD-quality video.
The front-facing camera is convenient for self-portraits and video calling, but its VGA resolution (640x480 pixels) can't compete with the HD camera on the back. A toggle button on the touchscreen allows you to seamlessly toggle between the two cameras.
Both cameras are capable of taking still shots as well, but the results don't hold up to the 5-megapixel camera (with LED flash) found on the iPhone 4. Essentially, these photos are simply video stills, which equate to a 960x720-pixel resolution using the using the camera on the back, or 640x480 pixels using the self-portrait cam. You get the same tap-to-focus capabilities found on the iPhone 4, but the shots won't make your digital camera jealous.
Overall, the iPod Touch works well as a pocket camcorder, although we still prefer a dedicated pocket camcorder when it comes to video quality, audio quality and plug-and-play flexibility. That said, you can't browse the web, download apps or email your friends from a Flip, so keep that in mind.
Gaming is a big part of the iPod Touch's appeal, due in part to the improved display, additional three-axis gyro sensor and A4 processor performance boost that arrived in 2009. The breadth of game selection available through the integrated App Store is exhaustive. Beyond the expected selection of fun, addictive casual games, such as Angry Birds, Scrabble and Plants vs. Zombies, there's a growing number of console-quality titles, such as Mirror's Edge, Assassin's Creed and Madden NFL 11.
It's worth noting that many of the more intense games take a big toll on the iPod's battery life. In our initial, causal testing, a new game like Mirror's Edge drained the battery to 20 per cent in an hour or so of play. If gaming is going to be your primary use for an iPod Touch, it's probably worth investing in an external back-up battery pack.
The Game Center app gets new features, like profile photos, achievement point comparison, friends-of-friends recommendations, game recommendations and support for turn-based games. What's more, you can buy games directly from the app.
Another gaming feature introduced with the fourth-generation iPod Touch is an Apple-developed app named Game Center, which comes preinstalled. The Game Center app acts as a leader board that collects your progress and achievements for all of the games installed on your iPod. It also displays the top scores and game rankings of your friends, and facilitates wireless, multiplayer gameplay between your friends, or will auto-match you with a random player. If you've grown tired of playing Scrabble or racing games against the computer, Game Center is Apple's way of making its game offerings more social.
Music and video
True to the iPod's legacy as a media playback device, the iPod Touch delivers just about every music and video experience that you can think of. Putting aside third-party apps, the core music and video playback capabilities are impressive in their own right. Using Apple's free iTunes software on your computer, you can sync your music collection, podcasts, audio books, music videos, movies, TV shows and free educational lectures and videos from iTunes U.
If you're looking to download new music or videos, there's a direct link to the iTunes storefront within the Music app now, as well as on the home screen of the iPod Touch, offering everything from albums and podcasts to TV shows and movies. The same storefront can be found inside the iTunes software on your computer (though the app version is much faster to load), and any purchases made either on the device or using the software all ultimately sync up back to your computer.
Apple's selection of rentable TV and movie content is as good as it gets.
As far as music and video services beyond iTunes are concerned, the iPod Touch is more flexible than iPods in the past. Any unprotected MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, AIFF or WAV audio file can be transferred to the Touch without hassle, and DRM-protected Audible audio book files will work, as well. If you have a collection filled with unprotected WMA music files, Apple's iTunes software can take care of transcoding them into a compatible format. If you're dealing with a bunch of DRM-protected WMA files (or more boutique files, such as Ogg Vorbis or FLAC), you're out of luck. That said, if your protected WMA files are the result of a PC-only music subscription service, such as Rhapsody or Napster, it is now possible to stream and sometimes store these files using compatible apps.
The same situation is more or less true for video compatibility. A handful of popular unprotected video types, such as H.264 and MPEG-4, are supported in a variety of versions (MOV, MP4, M4V) and resolutions. Some file types, such as AVI, DivX and XviD, can be made compatible using third-party apps. And some video services, such as YouTube, can be used to stream content by way of apps or the included Safari web browser. That said, if you're trying to sync a DRM-protected WMA file, you're probably out of luck.
The first icon you'll see on the main menu of the iPod Touch is FaceTime. It's a feature that has made its way over from the iPhone that allows you to place or receive free, real-time video calls over Wi-Fi. FaceTime calls can work back and forth from any iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and Mac computer.
FaceTime calls on the iPod Touch perform just as well as they do on the iPhone, but the mechanics are a little different. Because iPods don't have phone numbers attached to them, iPod Touch users need to set up their account on the device and associate it with an email address. A contact list appears within FaceTime that you can add to and edit. To make an outgoing FaceTime call on an iPod Touch, you pick a contact from your list and select whether to place the call to the contact's phone number or email address. Provided that the person receiving the call has a compatible iPhone or a fourth-gen iPod Touch connected to Wi-Fi, the call should go through without a hitch.
Once connected, the front-facing camera kicks in and you can both see and hear the person you're calling, and vice versa. As on the iPhone 4, there's an onscreen button for switching between rear camera and front-facing camera. You can also tap the Home button to disable the video feed and multitask on the iPod Touch while maintaining the voice call.
All in all, FaceTime is a cool feature. During our limited initial tests, we noticed very little latency in the FaceTime audio and video stream. The integrated microphone and speaker on the fourth-gen Touch make it possible to speak and hear your conversations without having to plug in a headset or mic adapter. The feature does work with headphones, however. If you plug in the basic earbuds included with the Touch, audio is routed to the headphones and the internal speaker gets disabled, but the microphone still works. If you plug in a headset with a compatible microphone (such as Apple's in-ear headphones), then the headset will handle everything.
So far, we've been focusing this review mostly on the improvements that Apple has made to the hardware and capabilities of the fourth-generation iPod Touch. The elephant in the room is all of the existing and continually improving capabilities of Apple's iOS platform (formerly known as iPhone OS).
Core features, such as email, the Safari web browser, Maps, the YouTube viewer, photos, calendar and notes, are still the heart of the device. The installed features are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the available capabilities. An iTunes App Store, accessible from the computer or directly from the iPod Touch, lets you download and install thousands of applications, including internet radio players, games, voice recorders, social-networking tools and many more.
The recent updates made in iOS 5, such as iCloud, iMessages, Reminders and Notifications, address several of the criticisms we've made of the device over the years.
Apple rates the battery life of the fourth-generation iPod Touch at 40 hours of audio playback or seven hours of video, which is an improvement over the previous generation's estimated 30 hours of audio playback and six hours of video. Our official CNET test results averaged 49.3 hours of audio playback and 7.9 hours of video, making this the longest-lasting iPod in history.
That said, as capabilities and uses of the iPod Touch continue to branch out into gaming and communication, audio and video performance may not be the best measure of real-world battery endurance. In our experience, 3D gaming tends to drain battery life the fastest. Taking measures, such as disabling audio EQ, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, can help to save battery life, as will lowering screen brightness.
Sound quality for the latest iPod Touch is just fine, and right in line with previous models. Apple could always do better on this front by offering custom EQ or a suite of audio-enhancement settings beyond the stock EQ presets, but we're not holding our breath. Provided that you upgrade your headphones from the universally loathed stock white earbuds that come included, you should be able to coax a great audio experience from the iPod Touch.
Pairing the iPod Touch with Bluetooth accessories, such as stereo headsets, speaker systems or car stereos, is quite simple, and a record of previously paired devices is stored in the iPod's Settings menu. The audio quality and wireless range (about 30 feet — 9.14m) using Bluetooth is about what you'd expect from most portable Bluetooth devices, and we're happy to see that the audio from video playback and apps are transmitted over Bluetooth just as easily as music playback. It's worth noting, though, that keeping Bluetooth active on the iPod Touch will take a toll on its battery life.
Video quality on Apple's Retina Display is outstanding. Throw on a TV show, a feature film or a high-end video game, and the experience is so fluid and crisp, it's hard to believe. At this point, we think it's safe to say that anyone who can meet or beat Apple's current display technology will still have a tough time matching Apple on the kind of graphically rich video and gaming content that can make those pixels sing.
The iTunes factor
This is usually the part of the review where we remind you what a pain it is to install and run Apple's bloated iTunes desktop software, and to make sure your computer can run the software, since it's required for proper set-up of your iPod. Well, we're officially retiring this paragraph.
Thanks to the introduction of iOS 5 in October 2011, you can now set up an iPod Touch without ever connecting to a computer. Whether you have an existing Apple ID or need to create one, you can enter your info directly onto the device and pull down any media (music, apps, videos, books) from your purchase history using the built-in iTunes app.
You'll still need to connect to iTunes on your home computer if you want to transfer over your non-Apple media files and photos, but even that can now be performed without a cable, courtesy of a new Wi-Fi sync feature. Amen!
Another big win that comes out of the emancipation of the iPod Touch from the computer is that you can now confidently gift an iPod Touch to anyone, regardless of whether that person's home computer is a Mac or a PC, or nothing at all.
The Apple iPod Touch is the last shot fired in the war of portable media players. There's simply no catching up to it in terms of quality and capabilities. In fact, we sometimes joke around at CNET about how many product categories have been unintentionally maimed by the iPhone and the iPod Touch, including internet radios, PDAs, portable gaming devices, ebook readers and GPS receivers.
In fact, as the scope and power of the Touch's capabilities continue to expand, it may have a role yet to play in the war of tablet computers. Apple already has an early lead in this space with the iPad, which shares nearly all of the capabilities of the Touch, only on a considerably larger screen. To not consider the Touch as a tablet computer based on its smaller screen size seems a little arbitrary, especially as Android-based contenders from Dell, Archos, Samsung and others are exploring similar forms.
Whatever label you put on it, the iPod Touch is great value starting at AU$219. It's a fantastic music player, a killer mobile gaming platform and one of the best pocket-sized distractions that money can buy.