Review: Apple iPod touch (Fifth-Generation)
Pros: A substantially redesigned and much-improved version of the prior iPod touch, enhancing everything from screen quality to battery life and audio performance. In 32GB and 64GB models, both front and rear cameras are particularly big jumps over prior, poorly-equipped model, now rivaling recent iPhones; new 4” screen is taller and more color accurate than before. The 32GB and 64GB models are now offered in six different colors, including nice silver and black updates to prior models, while including a fabric loop for wrist carrying. Thinner and lighter than before. All models include new EarPods earphones.
Cons: Despite two-year gap since prior model’s release, most of the new features are a full step behind leading iPhone and iPad models, cementing the new iPod touch as a smaller, better-screened remake of the iPhone 4S rather than as an iPod that separately justifies its existence with at least one standout new feature; a challenge as very good $199-$299 tablets continue to grow in popularity. New colors are so-so, and rear shells of 32GB and 64GB models—including a loop connection button and protruding camera lens—are a little unusual by Apple design standards. A 2013-vintage 16GB model regrettably lacks the rear camera feature altogether, seriously reducing the value proposition relative to other models. Lightning Connector breaks compatibility with past Dock Connector accessories unless you separately purchase Apple’s $29-$39 adapters.
Apple blamed the fourth-generation iPod touch’s poor camera performance on the challenges of fitting a good sensor and lens system inside a thin enclosure, but regardless of the reasoning, the rear camera was the worst still imager ever included in an iPod, with video capabilities that were just barely tolerable for FaceTime video calling: grainy, with not particularly great color, and very poor low-light performance. It was an embarrassment for Apple, enough so that the company later said it would start using the “iSight” name for rear cameras that users would be proud to carry around every day. The iPhone 4S got an iSight camera, as did the third-generation iPad and iPhone 5; all were capable of taking respectable still pictures and 1080p videos. Now the iPod touch has a proper rear camera, too, and it also deserves the iSight name.
Under many conditions, users will find the new iPod touch’s 5-Megapixel (2592x1936) still camera functionality to be extremely similar to the iPhone 5’s 8-Megapixel (3264x2448) camera—so good for outdoor and brightly-lit indoor photography that point-and-shoot camera makers should be getting very, very worried about Apple right now. Pictures taken side by side with the new iPhone and iPod touch looked nearly identical at typical screen display resolutions, differing only in fine details and color saturation: inspected closely, the iPhone 5 pictures are a little sharper and tend to have more intense colors, but without zooming in, most users would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between them. If you’re merely planning on sharing reduced-resolution photos online, the new iPod touch will often deliver entirely usable, even good results.
By comparison, the differences between the fourth-generation and fifth-generation iPod touches are so profound that they’re hardly worth detailing; the old model makes pictures that look like old cell phone-quality garbage, and the new one is roughly comparable to a low-end point-and-shoot camera, minus the optical zoom lens. Test shots we created with the old and new iPod touches looked like the difference between Expressionist and Realist art, though without any credit to the old iPod for creating fuzzy, blotchy images.
The two areas in which the iPod touch falls well behind the iPhone 5 are in low-light rear still photography, and color balance during videography. While the iPhone 5 is capable of using an ISO 3200 super-sensitive mode that renders dimly lit scenes respectably and dark scenes with at least enough detail to make out objects, the new iPod touch taps out at ISO 640, effectively losing almost all ability to render colors in low light, and presenting dark scenes as pitch black. Neither the iPhone 5 nor the new iPod touch can use this low-light mode when recording videos, however, and both are capable of creating 1920x1080 (1080p) full HD recordings. While their videos are comparable in resolution and image stabilization, the iPod touch tends to produce more washed-out, grayed colors, and has somewhat higher visible noise in dim lighting conditions. Still, it does much better than the fourth-generation iPod touch for video, noticeably adding details, reducing noise, and improving color rendition relative to the older model’s 720p rear camera.
Both the iPhone 5 and new iPod touch also benefit considerably from new FaceTime HD front cameras that can capture 1.2-Megapixel (1280x960) still images and 1280x720 (720p) videos. The low light performance of both devices’ cameras is a huge improvement over their predecessors, allowing faces to be visible for video chats even in low lighting conditions, and enabling iPod and iPhone users to finally take respectable self-portraits. While Apple’s FaceTime video calling network doesn’t guarantee actual HD-to-HD connections between capable devices, we’ve occasionally noticed improved video quality to and from the new iPod touch and iPhone 5—sometimes the differences in apparent resolution are small, and other times they’re large.
On the software side, the new iPod touch follows the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 in supporting Panorama mode, which can capture ultra-wide-angle or -tall images by automatically stitching together a series of still pictures automatically grabbed as you move the camera around. The result is a roughly 25-Megapixel image with around 10,800 pixels across and 2,300 pixels of height—a cool effect that looks quite good while being super-easy to create. And the new iPod touch also gains HDR (high-dynamic range) mode, introduced some time ago for iPhones, which combines three different exposures into a single photo with enhanced colors and brightness.
Finally, the new iPod touch is the family’s first model with an LED flash. The flash is just as bright as the iPhone’s, and will help significantly with shots in otherwise poor lighting, at the cost of having unnatural highlights. While the iPod touch can’t autofocus in the dark with quite the same precision as the new iPhone, it comes relatively close—good enough for now—and produces much more usable nighttime shots with the flash than the flashless prior-generation model.
Overall, the cumulative improvements wrought by the new lenses, sensors, processing, and LED flash make this model a close to excellent basic camera. While there’s clearly room for further improvement, particularly in low-light performance and video recording quality, the new iPod touch is leagues better than its poorly-equipped predecessor, and close to the iPhone 5 in most of the ways that count. Apple deserves praise for what it has accomplished with the new model’s cameras, even if it meant jutting the rear lens out of the back a little.