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

As far as music and video services beyond iTunes are concerned, the iPod Touch is more flexible than iPods past. Any unprotected MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, AIFF, or WAV audio file can be transferred to the Touch without hassle, and DRM-protected Audible audiobook 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 just 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 and Netflix, 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 downloaded from Amazon or CinemaNow, you're probably out of luck.

The first icon you'll see on the main menu of the iPod Touch is for FaceTime. FaceTime is 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 between any iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or 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 e-mail 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 e-mail address. Provided that the person receiving the call has a compatible iOS device or Mac, the call should go through without a hitch.

FaceTime video chats can be made between any two iOS devices, as well as between a mobile device and a Mac. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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, 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. We noticed very little latency in the FaceTime audio and video stream. The fourth-gen iPod Touch's integrated microphone and speaker make it possible to carry on 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.

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The installed features on the iPod Touch such as e-mail, the Safari Web browser, Maps, the YouTube viewer, photos, calendar, and notes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to its available capabilities. From the iTunes App Store, accessible from the computer or directly from the iPod Touch, you can download and install thousands of applications, such as Internet radio players, games, voice recorders, social-networking tools, and much more.

Apple rates the battery life of the fourth-generation iPod Touch at 40 hours of audio playback or 7 hours of video, which is an improvement over the previous generation's estimates of 30 hours of audio playback and 6 hours of video. Our official CNET Labs 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 the 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.

The fourth-generation iPod Touch's sound quality is just fine, and right in line with that of 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.

iPod dock connection
The 4th-generation iPod Touch is one of the last devices to use the 30-pin Universal Dock connection, making it compatible with many older speakers and accessories. James Martin/CNET

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) 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 is 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 some rented TV shows, 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 any company that 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 makes 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 setup 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 information directly on 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 give an iPod Touch to anyone as a gift, regardless of whether that person's home computer is a Mac or a PC, or nothing at all.

Final thoughts
Whether it's an iPhone, iPad, iPad Mini, or iPod Touch, they're all essentially vessels for Apple's iOS software. The fourth-generation Apple iPod Touch isn't likely to turn heads or draw the envy of your peers, but it's the least expensive way to enjoy the same software and type of experience offered by its newer siblings.

If I were in the market for a new portable media player, this would be the iPod I would buy myself. Not because it's the best, but because it's the best value. You get the vast majority of the features that make the fifth-generation iPod Touch so great, but in a humbler, more affordable package. It's a fantastic music player, a killer mobile gaming platform, and one of the best pocket-size distractions money can buy.

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