Game System Retro-Review: iPod Touch, the MP3 Player That Killed Nintendo and Sony’s Gaming Systems

Last September Apple unveiled the iPod Touch 4th Gen, with super-slim design, dual cameras, and great performance. The Retina screen and top-notch graphics clearly marked the iPod Touch as the ‘gaming system to beat’ – and games like Infinity Blade still defy the competition a year later! With Apple about to unveil their latest ‘next big thing’, I wanted to step back and take a look at the iPod Touch, the oversized MP3 player that has changed the gaming industry at a fundamental level.

The Nintendo 3DS came out earlier this year, and Michael Siebenaler did a great review here. Even before it was released I had decided I wasn’t getting one.

Similarly, Sony is set to release their PSP follow-up the Playstation Vita. It will arrive in December in Japan and in February 2012 elsewhere. The pricing is $249 for WiFi and $299 for 3G. When it went on pre-order I grabbed one … but I had second thoughts right away and by the time I found it was going to be delayed until 2012 I had already cancelled the order without regret.

Why? Certainly not a lack of gaming hours – just a SHIFT in how I spent those hours. I am still mostly a PC/Mac gamer, but aside from that most of my gaming is on an iOS device, with the PSP lagging and the DS only getting charged and powered when I have a game to review.

I have had the 4th Generation iPod Touch for just over a year now, and while I also use it for music on occasion, the vast majority of the time it is singly purposed as a gaming system. And that has been intentional. Since I have written much about Apple and their iOS gaming endeavors both positive and negative, I set out to see how the new iPod Touch would perform purely as a gaming system!

I started small, intending to do a quick ‘game system review’ last fall. But suddenly I was swept up in the Fall video game release rush and then into the holidays … and by then it was too late for a review. But I just kept on chugging along, and after playing at least some of literally hundreds of games on the system over the last twelve months, I’m ready to discuss why I agree with Apple’s claims that it has the best gaming system on the planet!

The Hype:
iPod Touch is the most popular portable game player in the world. And with tens of thousands of games and other applications in almost every category just a tap away at the App Store, iPod Touch has more games than any other platform. You’ll wish you had more fingers.

The Reality:

I am going to use a similar structure I used for my Nintendo DSi and PSP Go reviews, I wanted to look in some detail at various aspects of the iPod Touch. Obviously I will focus on items that are specific to gaming, but as you will see there is considerable overlap into the general purpose nature of the device. Similar to the DSi and PSP Go reviews I will also call things based on a ‘Hit’ or ‘Miss’ scale.

Build Quality and Hardware in General

One of the first thing I did with the new iPod Touch was put it in a Griffin case and slap on a screen protector. Sure I know there is Gorilla Glass there, but stuff happens, and I didn’t want to take chances. Also, the Touch is so thin and slick that I wanted a cover that helped a bit with traction … oh, and scratches and fingerprints.

I was concerned about the level of the glass compared to the surrounding metal body, which made it even more important to me to cover it up. However, to check it out I had to uncover it and watch for scratches and chips (though I put a screen protector on the back to keep the metal case pristine!). After a few weeks of normal use the glass looked perfect, so I covered it up and haven’t had any issues since.

I was also concerned how the various controls and connections would hold up when used as a gaming device – there would be plenty of banging on the touch-screen, but also volume adjustments, home-button presses and headphones going in and out. But over time I realized two things: gaming doesn’t stress those more than normal use, and despite how thin the iPod Touch i,s the controls are very robust.

Verdict: Hit! – once again Apple has nailed industrial design in a way that is durable as well as usable.

Retina Screen

This isn’t the same Retina screen as the iPhone 4 … but it is still better than any other similar sized screen you have ever seen! Make no mistake – the iPod Touch has a better screen resolution than even a 7″ Android tablet, so while you might not want to play ‘hidden object’ games on it, the screen handles action and motion with a fluidity that is immediately immersive when playing action games and watching pre-rendered video.

The high-resolution touch-screen allows you to operate the controls of a shooter even during frantic action without losing ‘touch’ with where you are aiming. In this way the Retina screen makes for a genuine game-capability change over previous iPod Touch systems: I always complained about controls on games, but at this point it is no longer so much of an issue because developers can detect touches and subdivide the screen areas much more accurately.

Verdict: Hit! – the screen is gorgeous, colors are bright, and resolution can handle anything!

Storage Options

The iPod Touch comes in 8, 32, and 64GB options, with the overwhelming majority available for user storage. The majority of ‘HD’ games top out in the 500-750MB range, with only a few games over 1GB.

The average size of my games (and I have over 1500) is ~125MB. This means that on the mid-range system you can fit ~250 average games or 64 average HD games. Which is quite a decent library on a system this size.

But things got better in mid-2011 as ‘iTunes in the Cloud’ meant that you could suddenly access and re-download your purchases anytime and from anywhere. I have already used this to remove games and download others when away from my computer … it is an awesome feature!

Verdict: Hit! – I know some would call it a ‘miss’ based on lack of user expandable storage, but thinking about what that would mean to dimensions and build quality, and also know that Apple simply doesn’t DO things that way. Also, with the addition of ‘iTunes in the Cloud’, it is time to ‘think different’ about storage options.

Install / Uninstall

I made a video of just how horrendous app management is on Android Froyo on a 1GHz smartphone. In is inexcusably inefficient that it could take me up to 5 minutes to remove Twitter (for example) from my phone. Yet it is true.

Removing an app on the iPod Touch? Tap and hold, click the ‘X’, click to confirm. Done.

As for installation, whereas Android games are generally a two-step process (app and data), when I get an iPod Touch game, I get the WHOLE game, meaning that when I want to start it, it actually starts rather than making me wait minutes or hours to ‘download data’.

Verdict: Hit! – everyone talks about the simple efficiency of iOS compared to Android … and this is perhaps the greatest example of that.

Battery Life

I have always been impressed with the iPod Touch and the battery life it offers, but with the 4th gen iPod Touch Apple really outdid themselves – 20 hours of normal use, and 10 hours of heavy processor usage. A year later, and I STILL get amazing battery life, charging up rarely and generally just grabbing a trickle charge when syncing up with my Mac.

As for the other typical criticism, I too have a drawer full with iPods that last ~20 minutes on a charge, but then I also have a host of other electronics in similar situations. But as many would tell me – most of those have replaceable batteries. Similar to expandable memory, there is no possible way the iPod Touch would be so small with replaceable batteries. And more and more devices – like my PSP Go – don’t allow for battery replacement.

Verdict: Hit! – while I lament the non-replaceable batteries, Apple has gotten better in terms of battery life per charge and how many cycles a battery lasts before degrading.


This is really the bottom line, isn’t it? None of it matters if the games don’t perform well. And WOW how they perform! I just grabbed more games this week – ShadowGun and The Sims Medieval – and they are simply amazing to look at and play on the iPod Touch.

When I grabbed Legend of Zelda Four Swords on the DSi last week, I knew the process would be so painful I decided to record it. 5 minutes to grab a game that couldn’t have been more than ~5-10MB. On the iPod Touch, you buy a game, quickly download, and when ready tap to start. Loading is quick, and you are into the game before you know it.

The PSP offers hardware controls, but the graphics, loading, and performance all lag for similar games – and some like the PSP ports of NOVA aren’t even close.

The device remains the pinnacle of portable gaming – other devices might have larger screens, but even the newest Droid Bionic takes longer to load games, and they quite frankly look worse.

Verdict: Hit! – regardless of specs, the iPod Touch is an amazing game system with top-notch graphics and overall performance. You will seldom see a slowdown, load times are best-in-class, and the overall experience is unmatched.

The Bottom Line

We have no idea yet what Apple will introduce later tofay, but whatever it is, we do know that Apple has forever changed the face of gaming. There used to be a clear divide – Nintendo had handheld, phone games were like ringtones (overpriced and underperforming), and everyone stayed away from ‘the big boys’ of console and PC games.

Now we can play The Sims or Avadon or ShadowGun or other PC-level games, right on our iPod Touch!

Review: iPod Touch 4th Generation

Where to Buy:

Price: $274.99 (32GB)

What I Like:
– Excellent build quality
– Nice screen
– Great performance
– Excellent battery life
– Excellent game library

What Needs Improvement:
– iPhone screen is better
– Non-expandable / replaceable.

What are your thoughts on the iPod Touch and what do you think Apple will introduce at the ‘Let’s Talk iPhone’ event?

Categories: Gaming, Reviews

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4 replies

  1. I though of this article while watching the coverage of the Apple Keynote just now:

    “10:51AM – “Not only is it the most popular music player in the world, but we’re excited to announce it’s now also the most popular portable game player in the world.” Damn.10:51AM – Next: iPod touch. “It’s our most popular iPod, and it’s incredible.””

  2. Interesting, but the lack of hardware controls prevents this being a true gaming device IMO. I have had my Touch for just over 2 years and love it [now have an iPhone as I liked it so much] but for gaming, it suffers from the lack of buttons. I play A LOT of “defense” games such as PvZ and spent hours on Infinity Blade, but games such as Rage are spolit as I just can’t get on with virtual controls.

    It’s a great device – so useful, amazingly slim – but I think there will always be a market for devices with decent hardware control buttons. 

    • I understand your point – and it is the one you could find if you referenced most of my iPod Touch related posts going back to when I started writing for Gear Diary in mid 2009.

      Yet by forcing myself to treat the iPod Touch 4th gen as a ‘gaming system’,  I have become accustomed to the control schemes, and more adept even though my hands cover part of the screen.  I complain as much about the crappy DS graphics and inadequate touch screen and dismal networking, or the woeful PSP library, horrific load time and slow networking speeds … as I do about the iPod Touch controls …

  3. Great article. I have family working at Nintendo and while my kids love playing with their cousin’s DS, they and the cousins nearly come to blows for game time on the iPod and iPad. The accidental king of mobile gaming, Apple, reigns supreme in our house.