Apple really makes it hard sometimes. The company's new, 4th generation iPod touch is seemingly the perfect portable digital media player, with an obscenely high resolution screen, a gorgeous and slim design, and dual cameras and microphone. What's not to love?

Ah, right. It's an Apple product. For all the goodness--greatness, really--that the Cupertino juggernaught stuffed into this wafer-thin product, it also took away, in some cases in ways that just seem petty. The iPod touch 4G should have been perfect. But Apple just can't help itself. And as a result, many new features in the iPod touch 4G are tradeoffs.

Apple iPod touch 4G (Late 2010)
The new iPod touch (top) is even thinner than its predecessor (bottom).

None of this is obvious on the surface. Here, you'll discover that the iPod touch is basically an iPhone 4 with none of the iPhone 4's many, many problems: AT&T, the faulty antenna design, the broken proximity sensor, and so on. It includes the same gorgeous "Retina display" as the iPhone 4, with its astonishing 960-by-640 resolution crammed into a relatively tiny 3.5-inch screen. It's got the 3-axis gyroscope. It has Apple's in-house A4 processor, which provides better battery life. 720p HD video capture. Dual cameras and a microphone for Facetime video chat.

It's almost perfect, right?

Almost.

The iPod touch 4G does include Apple's amazing Retina display. And let me tell you, you can really tell the difference, especially with digital photos and an ever-growing collection of games that have been specifically re-written to take advantage of the additional onscreen real estate. It's amazing. Sadly, the version of this screen included on the iPod touch isn't quite as good as that on the iPhone 4. It's got the same resolution, yes, but not the same wide viewing angle that's present on the iPhone 4's superior screen. It's not horrible, but all it takes is a slight tilt of the device in any direction and the screen gets dark. This makes it hard to find the right viewing angle, and makes those games where you tilt the screen a bit less entertaining.

Apple iPod touch 4G (Late 2010)
The new iPod touch features a shockingly high-res screen given its small size.

Apple iPod touch 4G (Late 2010)
The quality of the new screen is best seen when viewing photos. (This photo was obviously not taken with the iPod.)

I'm not sure that the addition of the iPhone's gyroscope makes a huge difference over just a plain-vanilla accelerometer, but whatever, it's in there, and that's good. Not so good is the absence of a GPS, significantly limiting the impact of location-based apps on this device.

Apple iPod touch 4G (Late 2010)
I have no friends. Laugh it up.

And that A4 processor? Some reviewers claim it provides better battery life, and my experience with it on the iPad suggests that they may be on to something. But don't believe any performance claims. It's not coincidental that Apple never makes any performance comparisons between the A4 and the chips that powered its previous-generation iPhone and iPod touch. That's because there is no performance advantage. Again, not a huge problem, as the performance is fine. But one expects at least a small performance bump with each generation of product, and that's certainly been the case over each of the previous iPod touch (and iPhone) upgrades. And it's not the case this year.

But the biggest disappointment, by far, is those cameras. The previous generation iPod touch was supposed to get a camera, but didn't, for reasons only Apple can explain. (Last minute supplier issue, according to the rumors.) But now the new version has two cameras, and a microphone, so all's well in the world, right?

Not so much. Both of the cameras in the iPod touch are of vastly inferior quality to the ones in the iPhone 4, and one can only imagine that was done on purpose so that users would still have a reason to upgrade to the much more expensive iPhone 4, which requires a monthly service contract. (Devil's advocate view: The iPhone 4's GPS also provides location data for shots taken with the internal camera.) The capabilities of the cameras are sort of strange. The external, outward-facing camera offers higher (960 x 720) resolution, but much, much poorer quality, with a noted graininess. Meanwhile, the front-facing camera offers very low (640 x 480) resolution but somehow manages to have higher optics quality. So they both stink in their own unique ways. And if you were excited about that high dynamic range (HDR) functionality that Apple showed off at the Music event this month, prepare for another disappointment: That's for the iPhone 4 only, sorry.

Apple iPod touch 4G (Late 2010)
The back-facing camera is horrible, with a very grainy picture. (This photo was resized but otherwise untouched.)

As for the 720p HD video capture, yep, its 1280 x 720. But because it uses that awful back-mounted camera, the video is horribly grainy as well. At least you get Facetime, Apple's video chat service. Of course, that only works over Wi-Fi, and then only with iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G users. Maybe you can use it to discuss how disappointed you are.

Or maybe not. Though there are some serious issues here, it's still an iPod touch. And if you're looking for the most full-featured digital media player on the planet--warts included--this really is it. All the things that were right about the iPod touch before are right now. I'm talking amazing content support from the iTunes Store, especially games and other aps. The thinnest and lightest touchscreen design anywhere. Compatibility with an amazing range of hardware add-ons. The iPod touch is still unparalleled. Not perfect, but better than the rest. That it could have been perfect is what makes this so irritating. Apple clearly hobbled the thing on purpose to protect the upper-end of its product range.

If you are in the market for an iPod touch, the $299 model, which provides 32 GB of storage, is the sweet spot here. You could save $70 by opting for the low-end version, but that provides just 8 GB of storage. And the high-end 64 GB version, at $399, is simply too expensive.

Verdict

As long as you don't expect the iPod touch to deliver decent quality photos or videos--you know, memories you'd actually want to save--then this is still the portable digital media player to beat. I'd say the ball's in Microsoft's court, but who am I kidding? Unless you just want music playback, where the Zune HD still has the upper hand, Apple has this game all to themselves. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new king. Same as the old king.