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.
In addition to the highly visible improvements it’s made to the new iPod touch’s screen and cameras, Apple has also upgraded this model’s hardware, using components similar to ones found in last year’s iPhone 4S. The prior A4 processor has jumped to an A5, clocked at around 800MHz and featuring the much-improved dual-core graphics processor that powered the iPhone 4S and iPad 2, plus a similar 512MB of RAM. Geekbench 2.3.6 scores the fifth-generation iPod touch’s overall performance at 627, a little better than the iPhone 4S’s 585, nearly twice the fourth-generation iPod touch’s 334, and around half the iPhone 5’s 1251.
On the wireless front, Bluetooth 4.0 has been added as an upgrade to the prior Bluetooth 2.1 chip, and 802.11a/b/g/n support—including 2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11n—jumps from the earlier model’s 2.4GHz-only 802.11b/g/n. While Bluetooth 4 accessories are only just beginning to become available, they’re capable of operating on much lower battery power than earlier Bluetooth add-ons, and will likely become a very big deal in 2013. By contrast, the added 5GHz 802.11n support can make a big difference right now, enabling the new iPod touch to hit much faster download speeds on less congested, 802.11n-dedicated 5GHz networks. Both the fourth- and fifth-generation iPod touches saw download speeds in the 15Mbps range on mixed 2.4GHz 802.11 networks, but the new model achieved 30Mbps downloads after switching to a 5GHz network, speeds that roughly match the iPhone 5’s Wi-Fi capabilities. Performance will vary based on the broadband connection your router achieves, but we were impressed by the new iPod touch’s major jump on our network.
As we’ve discussed Apple’s iOS 6 thoroughly in our Instant Expert article and subsequent iPhone 5 review, there’s truly very little new ground left to cover for the fifth-generation iPod touch. The version of iOS 6 that runs on this new iPod is almost indistinguishable from the one on the iPhone 5, which is to say that it benefits from a taller Home Screen—now 24 icons rather than 20, and folders that can hold 16 apps rather than 12—and runs reformatted apps at the full 4” size of the screen. Older apps run in a 960-pixel-tall window that sits in the middle of the new iPod touch’s screen, including the standard iPod/Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/Battery status bar; as more apps are updated to fill the new display, this will become less common, though it’s not a major problem even today. Old apps still feel good on the larger iPod touch screen, though they’re better when reformatted.
Hidden in the paragraph above is a major statement, though: from an iOS standpoint, the new iPod touch is a lot like the iPhone 5, and that’s a big deal. The fourth-generation iPod touch hasn’t been updated in two years, during which Apple has introduced Siri and Dictation, 3-D Maps, much better 3-D graphics chips, AirPlay Mirroring, and a number of other improvements. iPhone 4S users got most of these benefits before the iPhone 5, but the new iPod touch is the first iPod with these features. Here’s how they play out on the new model.
Siri. Apart from its inability to dial your contacts on the telephone, Apple’s virtual assistant Siri works the same on the new iPod touch as it does on the last two iPhones, speaking to you, recognizing your spoken commands, and using them to look up information or launch apps. While Siri’s current collection of services is impressive, it’s still limited on the iPod touch due to device-agnostic problems with Apple’s servers, which continue to stall out and fail on simple requests with enough regularity to be annoying. When Siri works—looking up sports scores, making restaurant reservations, or checking the weather—it’s extremely impressive, correctly parsing even extended complete sentences into commands. But when it fails, you’ll wish that you’d just typed something instead. When Apple fixes its servers, Siri will be spectacular.
Dictation. Complementary to Siri, the Dictation feature was introduced in iOS 5 for the iPhone 4S and third-generation iPad, proving to be remarkably accurate when transcribing sentences and even full paragraphs of speech. Used in an otherwise quiet room, Dictation is almost identical between the new iPod touch and iPhone 5—there may be one difference in word interpretation per hundred or two hundred words, and each delivers the transcription within a split-second of the other. In a more noisy environment, such as with moderate ambient noise within feet of the device, the iPhone 5 does just a little bit better than the new iPod, perhaps thanks to the three-microphone noise-canceling system found on the iPhone. The iPod touch apparently has only one mic, but does a great job with dictation under normal transcribing conditions. None of Apple’s devices is completely immune to transcription problems in challenging environments.
Maps. On certain iOS devices, Apple’s much-maligned new Maps application included a feature called “3-D,” which added textured polygonal representations of cities as an alternative to the completely flat overhead maps that were previously offered by Google. The fourth-generation iPod touch couldn’t handle 3-D mode, but the new iPod touch can, and its performance is somewhere between the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5: you enjoy the larger screen of the iPhone 5, but the slower frame rate of the iPhone 4S. Due to the iPod touch’s continued lack of GPS hardware, driving directions are available on the iPod touch, but only as an manually-advanced visual overview, not as realtime spoken guidance, and without the pinpoint accuracy of the iPhone’s GPS-powered Location Services. The new Maps app still ties into Siri, however, so you can pull up directions via voice requests so long as you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network.
Apps and Games. While the fifth-generation iPod touch isn’t a speed demon, it’s noticeably faster at loading and running apps than the fourth-generation iPod touch—comparable to the iPhone 4S. For built-in and common third-party apps, transitions from screen to screen are often a second faster, apps load in one-half or two-thirds the time, and some apps—notably including Apple’s excellent photo editing program iPhoto—now run on the new iPod touch after refusing to install on its predecessor.
While the iPod touch’s game performance won’t blow iPhone 4S or 5 owners away, the fact that the new model is on par with the iPhone 4S will appeal to gamers who have watched the iPod touch fall well behind newer iOS devices in speed and compatibility. Like iPhoto, some games that wouldn’t run on the prior iPod touch at all will now install on the new model. Titles that did run on the fourth-generation touch, such as Modern Combat 3: Fallen Nation, enjoy markedly smoother frame rates and load new levels in half the time. In fact, computationally intense 3-D games such as Infinity Blade II run just as smoothly on the new iPod touch as they did on the iPhone 4S, but have more vivid colors thanks to the iPod’s improved screen. And while iPhone 5-optimized titles such as Asphalt 7: Heat look a little smoother and feature improved reflections on the iPhone that aren’t found on the new iPod touch, there’s still room for the latter’s software to be optimized further.
The only problem is that Apple’s A5 chip is old news, already giving way to the A5X and A6 in iPads and iPhones, so it remains to be seen whether developers will bother to put extra time into making their games better for this iPod model. Some 3-D game developers are already ceasing support for the prior A4-based iPod touch, which doesn’t bode well for the new A5-based model’s longevity.
AirPlay Mirroring. Just as was the case with the iPhone 5, the new iPod touch supports AirPlay Mirroring of its screen to the Apple TV, displaying what appears to be 1:1 pixels with letterboxing on all sides when in landscape orientation, and a lower-resolution, even more letterboxed image in portrait orientation. While the Mirroring feature generally worked to show iPod touch content on the second- and third-generation Apple TVs, we noted some frame rate drops and audio hiccups during Mirroring from this mode, and also found that the iPod touch became warm during streaming, though not uncomfortably so. We would guess that the audio and video issues will be improved in a software update, but suspect that the slight warming of the iPod touch is here to stay.
FaceTime. As was the case with the iPhone 5, FaceTime on the new iPod touch can fill the entire 16:9 screen with video, rather than letterboxing—assuming that you’re being sent video in the same orientation as you’re holding the iPod touch. Outgoing video is clearer, better in low light, and sometimes in a higher apparent resolution than before, details discussed further in the Camera section of this review. While the basic operation of FaceTime is the same as before, the quality of the experience is better on the new iPod touch, across the board.
Videos. Just like the iPhone 5, watching videos on the fifth-generation iPod touch is as close to a joy as one can have on a 4-inch-screened device. Regardless of the angle you’re on, the screen remains visible rather than washed out or “negative black”—issues that have impacted earlier iPod touches. In addition to the new screen’s superior color rendition, which impacts both vividness and balance in positive ways, blacks look decidedly blacker than they did on the prior iPod touch. Additionally, the new iPod touch can synchronize 1080p iTunes Store videos, as well as play them back, downsampled either on its own screen or via AirPlay to an Apple TV.
The 1136x640 screen doesn’t have enough pixels for full 1080p or 720p HD (1280x720), but it doesn’t need to, as those extra pixels would be imperceptible to the human eye, and even the downscaled videos look great on the new widescreen display. That said, they mightn’t look as great when shared on an Apple TV, as the downscaling process can reduce both the resolution and the color gamut of the videos.
Everything Else. The fifth-generation iPod touch’s apps are otherwise substantially the same as the fourth-generation model’s, but there are some improvements. Notification Center adds the Share Widget, which enables one-tap posting windows for Facebook and Twitter. Accessibility benefits from the LED Flash for Alerts option, as there’s now an LED flash on the back. And as with the iPhone 5, the widescreen keyboard is a little wider, which may help some people with typing, though the portrait keyboard would really have benefitted more from additional width.
Overall, from its specs to iOS 6 to third-party apps, the fifth-generation iPod touch is somewhere between the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 in performance, leaning towards the former but with certain improvements—particularly in the screen—that you’ll only find in the latter. There are quite a few big jumps from the fourth-generation iPod touch, but again, that’s a two-year old model, and well behind the performance levels of the latest iPhone and iPad. The gap is likely to grow further in the very near future, but for now, this iPod touch is a good step up.