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

Apple's fourth-generation iPod Touch is a great bargain that has withstood the test of time.

Donald Bell
Donald Bell Senior Editor / How To
Donald Bell has spent more than five years as a CNET senior editor, reviewing everything from MP3 players to the first three generations of the Apple iPad. He currently devotes his time to producing How To content for CNET, as well as weekly episodes of CNET's Top 5 video series.
11 min read

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.

Apple iPod Touch 4G (32GB)

Apple iPod Touch (4th generation)

The Good

The <b>fourth-generation Apple iPod Touch</b>, 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.

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.

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.

The latest version of Apple's iOS software is better than ever and you can read all about it in CNET's full review of iOS 6.

First Look
Watch this: Big features, tiny tweaks: Up close with iOS 6

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.

Apple iPod Touch 4G (32GB)

Apple iPod Touch (4th generation)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8
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