The long journey of Apple’s iPod Touch from simple
iPhone alternative to independent device hasn’t always been a smooth one.
First models were little more than crippled iPhones, lacking many of its
headline-grabbing counterpart's features, and was often treated as a middle
child by its parent company. But with the arrival of the 2nd Generation
model in 2008, the Touch finally hit its stride, and quickly became a viable
alternative to those looking to capture much of the iPhone's appeal, without
having to subscribe to a cellular service. The device proved so popular that Apple kept it
alive alongside its more powerful successor, the 3rd Generation Touch, which only served to fragment this
growing mini-market and confuse the would-be converted.
It’s clear that with the release of the iPod Touch
4, Apple’s intention has been to create a sort of uniformity among their growing
list of iOS-compatible devices, particularly among the iPhone and Touch
families. The Touch has often been called the ‘contract-free’ iPhone, and
that’s never been truer than with the Touch 4, although some niggles do keep
them from achieving true 1:1 parity. Still, with the additions of
dual-cameras, faster processor, gyroscope controls, and a host of other
features, the iPod Touch 4 easily represents the most substantial upgrade to the
device since it first launched in 2007. In many ways more versatile than
the company's touted iPad, you'll be hard-pressed to find an electronic slab
that's been as well-designed and useful as this remarkable little marvel.
A quick note on how I approached this review - those of you who may already own the 3rd Generation
models will already be more than familiar with many of what the new iPod Touch 4
brings to the table (i.e. multi-tasking, Bluetooth keyboard support, wallpaper,
etc.), but those upgrading from 1G or 2G models may find themselves with a newer,
albeit familiar, experience. I suspect the majority of current Touch users are like me
and 2nd Generation loyalsts, and have thus far managed to resist the
temptation of nominal upgrades and have been patient for the ‘next big thing.’
Good news - it’s here!
While Apple keeps their capacity in line with last
year’s offerings (8GB, 32GB, and 64GB), there are no longer generation gaps in
technology, meaning the only thing separating the 8GB and 64GB models is how
much you intend to stuff into them.
Design and Tech
Unlike its cellular counterpart, the iPod Touch 4
doesn’t feature the sleeker new design of the iPhone 4, but even with its
compacted chrome build it can still stop traffic with the best of them.
While it’s a little bit taller (4.4”) it’s also thinner in both width (2.3”) and
depth (0.28”), and weighs only 3.56 ounces now, making this the lightest iPod
Touch yet. The power button has now migrated over to the top-right of the
device, while the volume button has now become the volume buttons - no real
functionality changes but they feel more responsive now. One of the most
significant changes is the integrated microphone, which means that recording
voice memos or using the myriad of dictation, music, or other microphone-capable
software won’t have you breaking out a headset or additional hardware any more.
One of the biggest drawbacks with Apple’s iOS
devices has always been their non-removable battery, which has a tendency to
lose its maximum recharge capacity over time. The Touch 4’s battery
remains fully embedded, but Apple claims it’ll hold a charge - even when in use
- of over 40 hours. A bold claim, but my device came fully charged out of
the box, and after three days of vigorous testing that included HD video
recording, processor-intensive 3G gaming, web browsing, music and video
playback, it still held less than half its original charge. I imagine
it’ll diminish over time, so better enjoy it while it lasts.
Apple’s been vocal about how good their Retina
Display makes things look on the iPhone 4, and they’ve decided to share it with
the iPod Touch 4 - for the most part. The new screen shares the same bump
in resolution (960 x 640) and pixel density (326 ppi), but lacks the iPhone 4’s
IPS panel. This means that at certain angles the Touch’s display won’t
appear as crisp or solid as its counterpart, and there have been reports that
its display was somewhat darker overall. Still, colors were more vivid,
text was more defined, and graphics overall sported a cleaner, more robust look
than ever before - it’s quite a beautiful display. Only the geekiest of
geeks will take issue with these slight differences, as normal humans will be
too busy enjoying their better screens.
Under the Hood
Things get more interesting under the hood, as the
iPod Touch 4 now sports Apple’s A4 processor, the same once powering its larger
iPad cousin, as well as doubling the internal RAM (from the 2G Touch) to 256 MB.
The difference in performance ranges from nominal (opening apps) to the
substantial (multi-tasking), all of which transform your device into a
fully-functioning tablet computer.
Everything was faster, from simply browsing the web
using Safari, to loading up e-books using iBooks (or competitive software like
Stanza) and simply changing the device’s preferences. Wallpapers can now
be set to the home screen and one of the most sought-after features -
multitasking - make the device more functional than ever before. You’ll
have to wait for developers to issue push-updates for their apps, but those
who’ve already hopped onboard (such as Skype, Pandora) mean background VoiP
calls and music for everyone. The only drawback was app management, as
you’ll constantly find yourself having to shut off unused background apps to
save on battery life and system performance.
A new generation of iOS games began requiring the
faster processor of the iPhone 3GS/Touch 3G, and not only does the Touch 4
comply, but it blisters right past them. Not only does the Touch 4 run all
the processor-heavy games of its predecessors, it runs them faster and better
than ever. Upcoming games (like Epic’s Epic Citadel or id Software’s RAGE)
are set to take full advantage of the new powers afforded by the A4 with better
textures, effects, and all the trimmings you’d expect from better hardware.
To the victor go the spoils and gamers looking for the best way to play their
iOS games have never been this spoiled before.
Speaking of games, Apple’s also included 3-axis
gyroscope technology to the Touch 4, which adds a new dimension of
motion-control to the unit’s pre-existing accelerometer features. While
there wasn’t much to test at the time of this review, I was able to spend a
little time with Ngmoco's Eliminate: Gun Range and Gameloft’s recently updated
N.O.V.A., both which feature full gyro-control for improved fluidity and
accuracy. It felt awkward having to move and swing the Touch around to aim
the onscreen reticule at first, especially when you consider the screen isn’t a
fixed thing; you constantly have to adjust your eyes and head position just to
keep up. N.O.V.A. scored better as there’s already a comprehensive
first-person shooter behind it, though the gyro-controls felt a bit tacked-on
and gimmicky (which they are, at least for now).
Apple hasn’t fiddled all that much with their
popular SpringBoard, as the Touch 4 retains the basic look and feel of previous
models, and comes with the new iOS 4.1 already installed. I didn’t notice
any real changes in how most of the popular applications (i.e. Music, Video,
YouTube) performed, although I’m sure there have been several minor tweaks
nestled in there somewhere. Everything from the previous iOS 4 update
(i.e. folders, local notifications, improved email) is present and accounted for
and all work blisteringly fast thanks to the new A4 processor. The two
major differences are the addition of the FaceTime and Game Center apps, which
are ‘fixed’ (i.e. you can’t remove them), which means you’ll have to make room
for them to stay. Those migrating from the iPod Touch 2G will find they
can now customize their background image, multitask, pair a Bluetooth keyboard,
as well as everything they missed by not upgrading before now.
Game Center is Apple’s focused attempt to help
guide iOS-running devices as true gaming platforms, and offers online
achievements, leaderboards, and even multiplayer match-ups (when supported).
Basically, this is their mobile version of Xbox Live or PSN, only tied to their
own networked devices. It doesn’t look like anything we’ve ever seen from
the company, as its green background color and font look like they’ve escaped
from third-party blackjack application than from Apple’s notoriously precise
design department. At the time of this review there wasn’t much to pick
and play with, although I was able to create my unique account and search for
other friends online. I’m actually looking forward to more games being
added to the service through push-updates, and it’ll be interesting to see how
Apple can manage the service in the future.
The most immediate new change to the Touch is the
addition of two digital cameras, whose front and back placement mimic those of
the iPhone 4. Both have been designed to work single-handedly (unlike the
now-obsolete Nano camera) and do their job admirably. Digital camera
support has long been the most requested feature on the Touch hardware, and it’s
finally here. While none of the iPod Touch 4’s digital camera and video
capabilities will knock your socks off, at least they’re finally included, which
is better than not having any at all.
The front-faced camera may only rock a paltry VGA
(640x480) resolution, but that’s more than enough to add real-time video chat
through Apple’s FaceTime. While I wasn’t able to test this feature myself,
anecdotal evidence claim that iPhone-to-iPod connections (via WiFi) were both
speedy and consistent, although Touch users will have to marry their iTunes
account (i.e. email) to make up for the loss of not having a cellphone
number. The front-face camera also brings with it compatibility with
iPhone apps and games that require it, meaning you’ll have more options to
download and enjoy than ever before.
Unfortunately, the rear-camera isn’t the same one
that the iPhone 4 supports - not even close. While the cellular model
supported a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash, the new Touch has to settle for a
measly 960x720 (essentially .96 megapixel) one. Images look darker and
less impressive, and the lack of LED flash, auto-focusing, etc., all lead to
slightly muddy shots that are perhaps best left to quick-snaps for online
friends and family; chances are you won’t be printing them out anytime soon.
Comparisons to the iPhone 4’s video recording
capabilities stand up a little better as the new Touch supports HD video
recording at 720p (1280x720) resolutions. This means you’ll be able to
shoot h.264 QuickTime MP4 movies on the go at full 30 fps with sound.
Actual quality ranged from great to simply adequate, depending on lighting, and
was comparable to the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4’s footage quality. Apple does offer a more comprehensive $4.99 iMove
app for better productions, but the stock Camera app includes the ability to
scroll through, delete, and email images to anyone you like, while video clips
can be trimmed and shortened before being emailed or uploaded to YouTube.
However, neither can be bulk-emailed or conveniently organized, which put a
damper on sharing them quickly.
The iPod Touch 4 is the perfect upgrade that users have been waiting for, as
Apple's device finally comes into its own by offering the most powerful and
useful version yet. The line separating it from the iPhone has never been
blurrier, and having digital cameras, a built-in microphone, and multitasking
features are bound to make many wishes come true, to say nothing of having
access to the App Store's expansive catalog of applications and games (all of
which look and play faster and better than ever). While it would have been
nice to have GPS and contract-free 3G subscriptions as well, these additions not
only make the new Touch the most versatile multimedia device ever created, but
they help transform it into a functional tablet computer, and a damned fine one