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 has painted the iPod family into a corner. Having put its best resources into developing ever-improving iPhones and iPads, the company now routinely saves its most exciting new features for its phones and tablets, trickling them down to iPods only when they’ll fit in smaller, thinner enclosures. While this has been more or less the case since the first iPhone debuted in 2007, hitting the iPod classic particularly hard, there were glimmers of hope for the iPod touch line: initially clearly subordinate to the iPhone, Apple differentiated later models with slightly more capable processors, helping to position its best iPods as superior gaming devices – the embodiment of “fun.” Combined with $199-$229 entry prices, the “fun” pitch worked, and iPod touches became the most popular iPod model, eventually surpassing less expensive iPod nanos to account for the majority of iPod sales. Yet iPod sales have been falling every quarter for years, and while iPhone and iPads surged in popularity, Apple let 2010’s iPod models sit on shelves for two years.
That changed this year—somewhat. Alongside the revamped iPhone 5, Apple introduced the fifth-generation iPod touch ($299/32GB, $399/64GB), a substantially improved model that borrows the new iPhone’s screen, some of the new iPod nano’s colors, and internal hardware comparable to last year’s iPhone 4S. As has always been the case, the new model is the best iPod touch Apple’s released, but this time around, there are some major qualifiers to consider. [Updated X2: On June 3, 2013, Apple released a stripped-down 16GB iPod touch ($229), reviewed separately here. One year later, on June 26, 2014, Apple updated the stripped-down 16GB version to be virtually identical to the 32GB and 64GB models, dropping their prices to $199, $249, and $299 respectively. We discuss the new 16GB model and the family’s price-revised ratings inside.]
As was in the case in 2009, Apple has split the touch into two families, so users can’t buy a fifth-generation iPod touch for less than $299; instead, the fourth-generation model is being sold in 16GB ($199) and 32GB ($249) capacities—at a point when game developers are dropping support for its aging hardware—and the new model remains capped at prior 32GB and 64GB capacities. Complicating matters further, low-end tablets are eating away at iPod touch interest: while a 16GB iPad 2 can currently be had for $399, a smaller, less expensive iPad with a 7.85” screen is just around the corner, and rivals such as Amazon and Google are already selling very capable 7” tablets for $199.
Our comprehensive review of the fifth-generation iPod touch looks at the new device’s hardware, software, and accessories, but it also discusses a critical question: is there really still a place for a $299-$399 iPod touch with the features Apple has included in this year’s model, or has the company miscalculated, releasing another new iPod that won’t reverse the family’s continued declines? The answer isn’t as clear cut as it might initially seem, but in short, this is a very good piece of hardware that—due as much to pricing and competitive options as anything else—may wind up being lost in the pile. Read on for the details.
Redesigned Body, Box, and Pack-Ins
Just as was the case with the iPhone 5, the fifth-generation iPod touch has a larger footprint than its predecessor, yet is lighter and thinner. Released in 2010, the fourth-generation iPod touch measured 4.4” tall by 2.32” by 0.28” deep, with a weight of 3.56 ounces—relative to the third-generation model, a very slight elongation with commensurately small reductions in width and depth. The fifth-generation iPod touch has jumped to 4.86” in height, while preserving a nearly identical 2.31” width, and falling a little in depth to 0.24”, now weighing 3.1 ounces. Laid on a flat surface, the only obvious differences are the new model’s added height and slightly different shape; held in the hand, they feel virtually the same in weight, but different in texture and distribution. The prior iPod touch felt substantial and slick; the new one feels like a large metal candy bar, somewhat more practically shaped and a little less dense.
The differences are largely attributable to Apple’s first-ever shift from a stainless steel rear shell to anodized aluminum, and from a instantly scratchable glossy finish to an almost entirely matte texture akin to iPads, MacBooks, and other iPod models. Gone is the slippery and sometimes oily sensation of holding past touches in your hand, replaced by a longer, more slab-like shape with less aggressively tapered corners. Apple’s switch to aluminum also enables it to offer the new iPod touch in six colors: a black glass and slate metal model is at least as monolithic as the black iPhone 5, while a white glass and silver metal model looks even more iPad-like than before. Unusually, the blue, green, pink, and red metal shells are not ultra-saturated—moreover, the red and pink are surprisingly similar—and each is paired with a white glass face. To our eyes, the colored versions don’t look quite right, but the black and silver versions are handsome; reasonable people may disagree.
Each of the new iPod touches has a soft, finely sandblasted texture, with chrome-like mirror finishing as edge accents. You’ll find shiny metal on the front surrounding the front glass, lining each of the three thin pill-shaped buttons, and also around the rear-facing camera, rear-facing microphone, and new LED flash. The Apple and iPod logos also shine, as does a ring around the new bottom Lightning connector on most models. On the colored iPod touches, the glossy metals vary from color-matched to silver, while the black iPod touch uses darker and less obvious mirroring, with no gloss whatsoever on the bottom.
The largest and most conspicuous ring is the one around the new iPod’s rear camera—a major departure from prior iPod industrial design trends. In the past, Apple has saddled iPods with decidedly mediocre cameras, pointing to the thinness of its devices as justifications for including terrible sensors. This time, as if to say “we’ll try it your way,” Apple’s rear camera noticeably juts out of the iPod touch’s back by roughly a millimeter, removing the uniformly smooth texture by placing a metal ring around the sapphire crystal lens, right in a spot where your finger might rest. Strictly speaking, not a single person outside of Apple would have minded if the rest of the touch’s body was as thick as the lens, particularly if it accommodated a slightly larger battery, but given how much better the new model’s photos are, we’d sooner see a lens protrude from the iPod than go back to the smaller, all but worthless camera system found on its predecessor.
Several elements found on each iPod touch don’t have chromed edges, and they’re each noteworthy for different reasons. After finding a way in 2010 to dispense with the pill-shaped rear antenna covers of past iPod touches, the old plastic compartment is back again on this model, and it’s black regardless of the iPod touch body color you select. A line of five dots on the bottom ventilate the new iPod’s built-in speaker, and like the bottom-mounted headphone port, they have no luster. Also lacking shine is the headphone port, which Apple has shifted for the first time to the touch’s left side, matching its new position on the iPhone 5. Each white-faced iPod touch has a white-lined headphone port, while the black iPod’s lining is black.
The last unchromed piece is a design element that’s so unusual by iPod standards that it’s hard to conceive as having come from Apple’s notoriously minimalist designers: a tiny swirled metal circle is found on the bottom left hand corner when viewed from the back. Left alone, this circle sits nearly flush with the rest of the touch’s back, but when it’s pressed inwards, it pops out to become an attachment for a new pack-in—an included, color-matched fabric wrist strap called the “iPod touch loop.” The edges of the circle feel ever-so-slightly sharp, but it’s so close to the device’s body that users are unlikely to cut themselves on it, providing just enough room to slide the wrist strap on and tensely keep it there. Between this and the protruding lens, the new iPod has two things that could get accidentally scraped off, though both feel solid rather than wobbly in any way.
Apple’s iPod touch loops appear to be made from thin, bonded layers of microsuede and a neoprene-like material, with a sliding fabric O-ring that can tighten the strap, reducing the chance your iPod will fly off your wrist. The materials taper down to attach to the swirled metal circle by removing the microsuede lining at the connection point, and are relatively easy to attach or remove as needed. One color-matched loop is included in each package, and standalone boxes with two extras—a color of your choice, plus white—are sold for $9 each.
From our perspective, the loop is a real oddity: functionally, it makes sense for users who might want to carry the new iPod around like a pocket camera, but for aesthetic reasons, it’s the sort of feature that Apple would previously have wisely left to a case. Even if the texture choice was deliberate, the swirled metal sticks out like a sore thumb even on the silver iPod touch, and since the button’s silver on all of the colored models, it’s even more glaring on their non-silver backs. It only blends in with the black version, and then because it’s been colored black—not slate—to match the rear antenna compartment and camera lens. While it’s obviously not a show-stopper, it’s a real question mark of an addition.
Although less has changed on the new iPod touch’s front, there are a few differences. Most obviously, the screen has jumped from a 3.5” display with a 3:2 aspect ratio to a 4” display with a 16:9 aspect ratio, paralleling the same change from the iPhone 4 and 4S to the iPhone 5. It’s worth noting that while Apple has previously suggested, not entirely accurately, that the screens in its iPod touches were the “same” as the ones in its iPhones, the claim is actually true this year—at least on the units we’ve tested.
In addition to acquiring the 1136×640 screen resolution of the iPhone 5, the new iPod touch has also made a large jump in color accuracy and backlighting evenness, such that the screen looks a little brighter from edge to edge, noticeably more vivid, and better from off-angles than before. Apple has, however, removed the “Auto-Brightness” screen adjustment feature found in past iPod touches, an omission that doesn’t bother us at all but might matter to users who frequently need to switch between varied lighting conditions. And it needs to be said that Apple’s history of sourcing screens from multiple suppliers has led to some noticeable differences between production batches, so while the iPod touches we’ve tested look iPhone-quality, future customers might not be so lucky.
Two other differences are cosmetically minor. The Home Button is now inked with silver rather than gray, a truly small tweak that’s only apparent when you view the new iPod touch from certain angles. And the front FaceTime camera hole is noticeably smaller than before, despite major improvements to the sensor inside. We discuss all of the camera changes in the Cameras section below.
Several things have changed on the packaging and pack-in fronts. First, the new iPod touch comes in a larger box than its predecessor: taller and thicker but the same width, and with the same clear hard plastic and white cardboard lining design we’ve been seeing for years. It has switched to a cheaper-feeling paper for the small included Quick Start Guide, but continues to include a warranty pamphlet and two Apple logo stickers.
In addition to the aforementioned loop, Apple includes two other new accessories: a Lightning to USB Cable, and EarPods earphones.
The Lightning to USB Cable replaces the Dock Connector to USB Cable that was packaged with every previous iPod touch, and enables this model to be charged and synchronized using any computer’s USB port. It can also be connected to a variety of accessories, including USB port-equipped wall chargers, speakers, and car audio systems; extra cables are sold by Apple for $19 each.
Notably, the EarPods are different from the ones included with the iPhone 5 or sold separately for $29: they lack an in-line remote control, microphone, and hard plastic carrying case. Instead, they’re held in place with an eco-friendly, disintegrating insert that’s a little larger than Apple’s EarPods carrying case—a sign that Apple could have fit the full-fledged model and its box in this package had it wanted to do so. Still, as noted in our full EarPods review, the stripped-down EarPods are considerably better than the Apple Earphones they replaced, so there’s not much room for complaint.
Chips, iOS 6 + Apps
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 1136×640 screen doesn’t have enough pixels for full 1080p or 720p HD (1280×720), 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.
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 (2592×1936) still camera functionality to be extremely similar to the iPhone 5’s 8-Megapixel (3264×2448) 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 1920×1080 (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 (1280×960) still images and 1280×720 (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.
Audio, Accessory + Battery Performance
There’s thankfully mostly good news to report on the fifth-generation iPod touch’s audio, accessory, and battery performance—it did at least as well as expected in our testing, and generally at least a little better than its predecessor. However, like the iPhone 5, its accessory compatibility is markedly reduced by Apple’s shift from the classic 30-Pin Dock Connector to the new Lightning Connector, forcing users to consider wireless accessories, $29-$39 Lightning Adapters, and as-yet-unreleased new systems with Lightning plugs built in.
Headphone Port Audio. As was the case on the iPhone 5, Apple has continued to make subtle improvements to the iPod touch’s sound quality, which has been solid for years. This year, the headphone port audio is a little cleaner than it was with the prior model, further lowering the noise floor to nearly imperceptible levels. A very faint clicking can briefly be heard upon the initial connection of ultra-sensitive headphones—the iPod’s check for a remote and mic capsule—but even this is unobjectionable. The new iPod touch remains a great audio player.
Integrated Speaker. While the new iPod touch’s built-in speaker isn’t considerably more powerful than the fourth-generation version’s, it is a hair louder at its peak, and fuller-bodied, producing sound that’s a little less like an old radio—you’ll hear slightly richer low-end and less distortion in the mids. That said, if you’re expecting a night and day difference, you’ll be disappointed: this is still a thin iPod with a small monaural speaker, and Apple hasn’t worked miracles; it has merely boosted the quality a bit. The iPhone 5 is noticeably louder, fuller in frequencies, and less distorted. Like all of Apple’s devices, your best results will come from using headphones and wireless speakers for audio, but the new iPod touch speaker delivers enough volume and clarity for casual game playing, video viewing, and non-audiophile listening to music.
Docking Audio. Although Lightning-specific speakers are not yet available, and most likely won’t be for months, Apple’s $29-$39 Lightning to 30-Pin Adapters have just appeared in some stores, enabling the new iPod touch to connect with prior Dock Connector-based accessories. For audio purposes, the Lightning Adapter-equipped iPod touch continues to sound great when used with past speaker systems, and its light weight means that there’s no issue balancing the iPod with Apple’s smaller $29 extender atop earlier docks. While other types of accessories, notably wired video accessories, are not in any way supported by the Lightning Adapters, most of the audio-only systems out there will work fine if you’re willing to make this additional purchase. That said, Apple could have eased the transition by including one Adapter with the iPod touch, but unfortunately opted not to, and as of today, the Adapters are not available in all Apple Stores or all countries.
AirPlay and Bluetooth Audio. We had no problem getting the new iPod touch to wirelessly stream audio to the Apple TV over AirPlay, nor using it for the same purpose with Bluetooth speakers. Since it now supports Bluetooth 4, we tested it with SuperTooth’s Disco 2—the first Bluetooth 4 speaker we’re aware of—and found pairing and streaming audio to be just as reliable as with earlier iPod touches and iPhones. However, as noted earlier in this review, AirPlay Mirroring is somewhat of a different story: we did hear audio dropouts in songs during video streaming from the device, even when we were just mirroring the iPod touch’s own user interface. Again, we have every reason to believe that Apple will remedy this issue in an iOS or Apple TV software update, but nothing’s certain.
Battery and Transfer Speeds
We’re always happy to see Apple improve and increase the capacities of its batteries, even if that means slightly thickening its devices—something it previously all but refused to do. This year, the iPod touch has seen its lithium-ion battery jump from 930mAh to 1030mAh, a nearly 10% improvement in available power, while the device’s thickness and weight have both dropped. For most things, the new iPod touch will get at least as much run time as its predecessor, and in some cases, it’ll even squeeze out a little extra run time.
Video Playback: For the prior-generation iPod touch, Apple promised “up to 7 hours” of video playback, and surpassed it in our testing with an 8 hour and 18 minute run time. This year, Apple claimed “up to 8 hours” of continuous video playback time for the iPod touch, as before when the brightness and volume are set at 50%, and the touch is connected to a Wi-Fi router. The fifth-generation iPod touch again beat Apple’s number, coming in at 8 hours and 53 minutes of video playback with Wi-Fi on—not as much of a jump above expectations as the fourth-generation model, but still better overall. As was the case before, we’d expect the number to be even higher with Wi-Fi off.
Video Recording: Apple doesn’t make any claim regarding the new iPod touch’s longevity as a camcorder, but we were able to record continuously for 2 hours and 8 minutes before a fully-charged battery was depleted. This is slightly below the iPhone 5, which ran for 2 hours and 30 minutes on the same test, and the iPhone 4S, which achieved 2 hours and 20 minutes, each with a substantially larger battery.
FaceTime: We were able to continuously use FaceTime video calling for 2 hours and 48 minutes, up modestly from the prior model’s 2 hour and 35 minute run time; again, Apple doesn’t provide estimates for this feature. Notably, the video quality with FaceTime is markedly superior on this model, particularly in low light conditions, so achieving a longer run time with higher quality results is doubly impressive. Note that the iPhone 5 ran for 3 hours and 2 minutes with a similar FaceTime HD camera system and larger battery.
Audio Playback: Apple promises 40 hours of continuous audio playback with the iPod touch at 50% volume with headphones and Wi-Fi connected, but nothing else going on. Our test ran for 44 hours and 33 minutes before the battery gave out, beating Apple’s number by 10%. Notably, the fourth-generation iPod touch promised 40 hours and hit 39 hours and 23 minutes in our prior testing.
Transfer Speed: Using the Lightning to USB Cable, the new iPod touch was able to transfer 2GB of media from iTunes 10.7 in 1 minute, 21 seconds, versus 1 minute and 36 seconds for the fourth-generation iPod touch. Though we’ve continued to run transfer speed tests for iPod and iPhone models over the years, the shift to wireless synchronization is rapidly rendering these results less important; in any case, wired speeds are not appreciably different between generations, but slightly better on the newer iPod.
In recent years, Apple hasn’t been plagued much by the “right device, wrong price” dilemma, as it has tended to replace its best already right-priced devices with new models every year, keeping competitors on their toes while constantly advancing the state of the art for small and thin electronics. Just consider what $499 bought in last year’s and this year’s iPads, and the same for $199 iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 models: the jumps have been huge—from one great device to the next—and consumers have responded by boosting year-over-year iPad and iPhone sales to unprecedented levels. In short, the Apple strategy’s been working incredibly well for those devices, and great new features at great prices has been the key.
With the iPod family, however, Apple’s in a different situation. The fifth-generation iPod touch is indeed a huge jump over its predecessor, but the fourth-generation model is now over two years old, and in certain critical ways, it wasn’t even cutting edge when it was introduced. Recent iPad to iPad and iPhone to iPhone jumps have introduced new processors and major new features, but the new iPod touch is largely rehashing the user experience of the year-old iPhone 4S, albeit with some non-trivial screen and camera improvements. Since the release of smaller iPads is looming, and there are undisputably good 7” Google and Amazon tablets right now selling for $199, the new iPod touch is by no means a slam dunk release for Apple; to the contrary, we’d expect it to have a rough time this holiday season, and it remains to be seen whether the aging $199 to $249 fourth-generation iPod touches will be able to maintain any momentum given other available options, and apparently waning interest from some leading game developers.
All of this is to say that the fifth-generation iPod touch is a good rather than great product—worthy of our B+ rating largely on the strength of its much-improved screen and cameras, but disappointing in pricing and storage capacity. Although it comes closer than ever before to the current flagship iPhone, the $299 starting price just seems unrealistic for the features Apple is offering compared with the latest crop of small tablets. While the hardware inside the shell is great for an iPod, Apple again passed on the opportunity to boost its storage capacity to a level that could replace the crusty old iPod classic, and made some industrial design decisions that fall short of the iPod family’s previously high standards. Parents who have previously considered the $199 iPod touch a viable holiday gift will most likely think twice before laying out the extra cash for this model, and start considering other options, perhaps including ones not developed in Cupertino.
If you were planning to rush out to the store to buy an iPod touch, our advice would be to hold off on a purchase until Apple officially reveals its smaller-sized iPad, which will likely deliver superior value at similar prices. However, there is a very legitimate difference between pocket-sized and tablet-sized devices that raw dollars and cents calculations won’t capture, and the question of what you really want to use and carry around every day should be paramount in your considerations. You can decide what’s better for your needs, but our suspicion is that this particular model will need to become less expensive and possibly more capacious in order to achieve the market penetration enjoyed by its predecessors—it’s a very good device, but unless you’re really enthusiastic about the new colors, it would be a stretch to call its improvements as exciting as the flagship iPhone and iPad releases have been this year.
May 2013: The 16GB iPod touch (Fifth-Generation)
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.