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.
Rather than offering an entry-level fifth-generation iPod touch in 2012, Apple instead kept the 2010-vintage fourth-generation iPod touch around in $199 16GB and $249 32GB capacities, requiring prospective customers to spend at least $299 for the newer model. On May 30, 2013, Apple quietly discontinued the fourth-generation models and introduced a 16GB fifth-generation iPod touch ($229) in their place, releasing it in stores one day later. Surprisingly, Apple went further than just cutting the capacity in half: it also eliminated three of the model’s most heavily-marketed features, namely the rear iSight camera, multiple color options, and the “loop” wrist strap. And though the new 16GB iPod touch is currently the least-expensive iOS device, it costs $30 more than the prior 16GB model, and offers a different set of tradeoffs.
Physically, the new 16GB iPod touch is very similar to the iPod touches released last fall. Its 4.86” x 2.31” x 0.24” dimensions are exactly the same, but at 3.04 ounces, it weighs 0.06 ounces less, a difference you won’t feel when holding 16GB and 32GB models next to each other. The reduction in weight is due to the removal of components: gone is the camera that awkwardly protruded out of the rear top corner, the flash next to it, and the odd swirled metal loop button below it. Instead, the back of this model is blessedly flat, and almost entirely silver aluminum, apart from the black plastic oval that remains in the top right corner for wireless antennas. Apple has shifted the rear Apple and iPod logos from silver to black on this model, matching the plastic oval. Additionally, the microphone has been relocated to the top and placed within a very small dot-shaped hole, versus the pill-shaped hole that was previously located between the camera and the flash.
Flip the 16GB model around to the front and you’ll see a black bezel around the screen, unlike the white bezel used with the silver-backed 32GB and 64GB models. The screen is the same size—a 4” Retina display with an 1136x640 resolution, and 326 pixels per inch. Users accustomed to the fourth-generation iPod touch will see the new screen as a nice jump up, and it offers the same impressive display quality of the 32GB and 64GB fifth-generation models. All the other specifications remain unchanged, as well: a dual-core A5 chip, 1.2-megapixel front-facing FaceTime HD Camera, 40-hour battery, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and Lightning connector. Lightning accessories have become considerably more numerous since last year, though they almost invariably come at higher prices or with fewer features than the Dock Connector versions that were compatible with the prior iPod touch.
Other cosmetic changes are small. Whereas the larger capacity silver iPod touches have matching silver Sleep/Wake and volume buttons, the 16GB model has black buttons that match the front bezel. They appear to be plastic, rather than aluminum, and recall the color-contrasting buttons of earlier iPod touches. The interior of the headphone port has also been color-shifted from white to black, as has the inside of the Lightning port, little details that again recall earlier iPod touch models from the pre-colorized shell era.
The contents of the 16GB iPod touch’s box are almost the same as before. Along with the device, you get Apple’s EarPods, a standard-sized Lightning to USB Cable, plus Apple stickers and the standard Quick Start Guide documentation—this one tweaked with images and text that match changes to this model. Notably missing is the iPod touch loop, the inexpensive-feeling synthetic wrist strap that seemed out of place on the 32GB and 64GB models. While its absence might seem like a strike against this model’s value, neither the loop itself nor the pop-out loop button looked right on the 32GB and 64GB models; the functionality was also questionable at best. We don’t say this often about Apple product features, but we’re actually glad to see them gone here.
Virtually all of the iOS user experience is the same on the new 16GB iPod touch as on the prior 32GB and 64GB models, but Apple changed iOS a little due to the removal of the rear iSight camera. The Camera and FaceTime applications no longer include buttons for flash control, rear camera switching, or “options,” which contained Grid, HDR/High Dynamic Range, and Panorama shooting modes—the front-facing FaceTime HD camera doesn’t support them. Similarly, the 16GB iPod touch’s Photos & Camera Settings menu eliminates the HDR picture saving option that was added for the 32GB/64GB models’ much-improved 5-Megapixel iSight. In third-party apps, front/back camera toggle buttons become non-functional, and apps that only utilize the iSight camera don’t crash, but don’t otherwise work properly. For example, Realmac Software’s just-released photography app Analog displays a locked camera shutter, and can’t be used to take pictures. Clearly, app updates will be needed to address the new device’s limitations.
Although we were impressed by the fifth-generation iPod touch when it debuted last year, we noted that the lack of a less expensive model was a serious issue, particularly in light of serious challenges from $199 to $299 tablets. Following the iPad mini’s release, iPod sales have continued to fall sharply, and for whatever reason, Apple has barely acknowledged the iPod family this year, focusing mostly on the iPad’s and iPhone’s successes. A more affordable fifth-generation iPod touch seemed inevitable based on Apple’s release histories, but we wondered how the company would position it given the growing popularity of inexpensive tablets. Where does an entry-level iPod touch fit when rivals such as Amazon are selling very competent 7” tablets and media players for $179 to $199?
The answer: the $229 16GB iPod touch is the product Apple wanted to sell to fit its 2013 product and pricing matrix, not exactly the product budget-conscious consumers want to buy. While some may debate or offer hypothetical justifications for Apple’s decision to remove the rear iSight camera, the 16GB iPod touch is the first new iOS device since 2011 to ship without that feature, one that was a huge improvement in the more capacious fifth-generation models. There is no user-centered reason that could justify eliminating a feature that was so key to the fifth-generation touch’s marketing; it is an unnecessary trimming of useful functionality that feels short-sighted and forced, an omission just for the sake of differentiation. Similarly, the $229 pricing places the 16GB model in an awkward position: it’s only $20 less than a refurbished 32GB fifth-generation iPod touch with twice the capacity, the rear camera, and multiple color options. If this model was released specifically to make potential customers feel the need to spend more, Apple has succeeded, but judged as a standalone product, the 16GB iPod touch is just not very compelling.
All of this isn’t to say that Apple won’t sell millions of this new model—as the iPod shuffle demonstrates, pricing alone moves units—but rather, that we’d urge you to think twice before jumping into this particular purchase. While Apple deserves some credit for offering a less expensive 16GB iPod touch, the pricing strikes us as a bit too high given both the reduced camera functionality and the variety of compelling competing options that are available today. Consider this model solely if you’re looking for an entry-level pocketable iOS device and don’t want to spend the additional $20 to $70 for a refurbished or new 32GB model. The stripped-down 16GB iPod touch is a disappointment, and another sign that Apple needs to rethink the roles of both the iPod family and its low-end options.
This review was originally published October 11, 2012, and was updated on June 3, 2013. Additional reporting by Nick Guy.