Apple iPod Touch (4th generation) review: Best iPod value

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MSRP: $229.00

The Good The fourth-generation Apple iPod Touch, winner of CNET's 2011 Editors' Choice Award for portable media players, has been upgraded with new software and a boost in capacity.

The Bad The fifth-generation iPod Touch offers a larger screen, faster processor, and superior photo and camcorder quality.

The Bottom Line The fourth-gen iPod Touch is Apple's second-best portable media player, with a price that will help you forget about No. 1.

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8.2 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

Editors' note (May 30, 2013): Apple has discontinued this version of the iPod Touch and replaced it with a $229 16GB fifth-generation model that boasts a larger 4-inch screen and faster processor, but has no rear camera. The 32GB and 64GB fifth-gen (2012) Touch models (with rear cameras) also remain on sale for $299 and $399, respectively.

If you're buying an iPod Touch for someone, this is not the iPod he or she wants. Trust me, people will want to open the box and see a shiny, colorful new fifth-generation iPod Touch. Your loved one will know the difference. The fifth generation has a wider screen, and a noticeably updated design, and is an all-around more smile-evoking device.

But if you're buying an iPod for yourself, there are plenty of things to recommend the fourth-generation iPod Touch. The most obvious being the $100 you get to keep in your wallet.

Priced at $199 when configured with 16GB of storage (twice what was offered last year for this price), the fourth-generation iPod Touch may be the most unappreciated product Apple sells. Its features, design, and performance were enough to earn it our Editors' Choice Award two years in a row, and the latest updates included with iOS 6 only help to refine an already excellent product.

Apple's iPod Touch maintains all of the core features that have made the iPod great over the years, such as music playback, photos, video, podcasts, audiobooks, and games. Many of the new marquee features found in the iPhone 5 and fourth-generation iPad 4 are also here, including iMessages, iCloud support, an HD camcorder, and FaceTime video calls.

Apple iPod Touch 4G (32GB)
The back of the 4th-generation iPod Touch includes a camera lens in the upper-left corner, along with a pinhole microphone. Josh P. Miller/CNET

And while this iPod Touch model is lagging slightly behind the iPad, iPhone, and fifth-gen iPod Touch 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 design of the iPod Touch hasn't changed since 2009. The good news is that in all that time, no one has been complaining.

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 that of the iPhone 4's camera, though the cameras themselves differ. The camera used on this 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 speaker would normally be found on a mobile phone. The Touch does have an integrated speaker, located behind a tiny 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 touch screen, which still measures 3.5 inches diagonally. At 3.56 ounces, this is still one of the lightest iOS devices money can buy (though the newer 3.1-ounce iPod Touch beats it slightly), feeling practically nonexistent in your pocket.

Hardware features
Compared with the bigger, faster, pricier fifth-generation iPod Touch, the fourth-generation model is a year behind when it comes to specs. You get the A4 processor that originally debuted in the iPhone 4, and a 3.5-inch Retina Display that looks great, but isn't as stunning as the 4-inch screen found on the fifth-generation model. You still can't make cell 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 surprisingly small.

Apple iPod Touch
The 4th-generation iPod Touch (left) next to the latest 5th-generation model. James Martin/CNET

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 (available for $4.99). You can sync your recordings back to your computer using the included USB cable, or send the results directly from the Touch using e-mail, or upload them to YouTube. We also have to give points to the Touch for being able to embed roughly estimated geotag information in your photos and videos, provided you keep the Wi-Fi antenna on.

The front-facing camera is convenient for self-portraits and video calling, but in VGA resolution (640x480 pixels) it can't compete with the HD camera on the back. There's a toggle button on the touch screen for seamless switching between the two cameras.

Both cameras are capable of taking still shots as well, but the results don't hold up to those of the iPhone 4's 5-megapixel camera (with LED flash). Essentially, these photos are simply video stills, which equate to a 960x720-pixel resolution 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, though 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 e-mail 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 the games 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.

It's worth noting that many of the more intense games take a big toll on the iPod's battery life. In our initial, casual testing, a new game like Mirror's Edge drained the battery to 20 percent 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 backup battery pack.

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 you can think of. Putting aside third-party apps, such as Pandora Radio, Rhapsody music subscriptions, and Netflix video streaming, 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, audiobooks, 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 movie rentals. 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 music and TV and movie content is as good as it gets. Lance Whitney/CNET

The iPod's price and small size make it an ideal vessel for Apple's iTunes video rental service (indispensable for traveling with kids). Rented TV shows have a built-in expiration of 48 hours, once a show playback has started, or 30 days total, even if the show is never played. By comparison, rented movies have a stricter rental window of 24 hours once playback is initiated, or 30 days if unwatched.