Listening to the throngs of self-appointed technology experts can be an infuriating experience at times, especially when it comes to Apple’s iPod Touch. Most simply don’t understand what is is, who it’s for, or why it even exists in the first place. “Why not just get an actual iPhone?” they cry, oblivious to the possibility that not everyone can easily afford a contract-cheapened smartphone, or that not all of us marinate in the world of bleeding-edge juices.
Believe it or not, there are scores of us who simply don’t want an iPhone (or truth be told, any smartphone). We think they’re great, and would love to have so much usefulness and versatility wherever we go, but we don’t want to be tethered to extraordinarily high voice / data usage plans to have them. Even the least-expensive phones, mostly cheap Android giveaways, still require data plans and are barely more powerful than a Gameboy; great for sending a quick email but little else. We just want the goodies of the smartphone world, but without the hassle of the phone part; what else could explain the explosion of popularity with tablets, especially with Apple’s own iPad?
Yes, the iPod Touch can realistically be characterized as an entry-level drug into Apple’s ecosystem of devices, but for many it’s an addiction worth looking into. Compatibility between the various iPhone, iPad, and yes, iPod models is nearly seamless, meaning everything you buy is an actual investment that carries over to your next device, meaning nearly uninterrupted access to the largest digital ecosystem of music, movies, games, and apps out there. And yes, with apps like Talkatone, you can even make phone calls.
Like the iPad, the iPod Touch does all this without a monthly bill, yet still fits snugly in your pocket and costs a whole lot less. After skipping a yearly generational upgrade following the still-great iPod Touch 4, there’s absolutely no question that Apple’s iPod Touch 5 is the best and most fun model yet. But with a $299 minimum asking price you’ll be paying a little bit more for the cheapest point to iOS fun.
Under the Hood
While the iPod Touch 4 was, essentially, a miniaturized iPad 1 (with cameras) the 5th Generation is, likewise, a mini iPad 2. Both support similar dual-core A5 processors, 512MB RAM (twice that of the iPod 4), making the iPod Touch 5 as powerful as last year’s iPhone 4S, keeping in line with Apple’s ‘one-step behind the iPhone’ approach to the new device families. Nothing has changed in regards to button placement as the power, volume, home buttons, 3.5” headphone jack, and small speaker are all in the same handy places they were previously. On the rear, the new iSight camera lens sticks out a bit, and there’s now an LED flash (thank you), meaning iPod users can finally take advantage of all those flashlight apps they’ve been dreaming about. The other big add is the tiny circular nub towards the bottom that can be raised/lowered to snag the iPod’s new Loop strap onto.
Measuring 4.86″ H x 2.31″ W x 0.24″ D and weighing just 3.1oz, it’s a svelte little machine, and the new iPod retains all the gizmos and features of its predecessor, minus an auto-brightness sensor, meaning you’ll get the same bundle of gyroscopes, accelerometers, built-in microphone, and tinny speaker as before. The upgrade to the latest operating system, iO6, brings with a host of new software toys to play with (Siri, Dictation), as well as some downgrades (Maps…), but on the whole it’s a major improvement over previous versions. Sadly, there’s still no built-in GPS or 3G options, but in most cases WiFi still gets the job done.
After ten long years Apple has finally swapped out two of their most iconic elements for newer, better alternatives here: the Lightning connector and EarBud headphones. The Lightning cable replaces the ancient 30-pin connector, much to the consternation of peripheral makers around the world, while the new EarBuds arrive just in time to thwart the onslaught of giant headphone makers, like Dre’s Beats, from overtaking Apple’s ubiquitous and style-making white headphone cables.
It would have been nice if Apple would have thrown in a complimentary 30-pin adapter for those with existing accessories, but there’s no denying how much better and easier Lightning is to use than its clunky predecessor (indeed, it’s the first cable that goes both ways – no more fumbles), and I swear transferring files between computer-to-iPod was a touch faster – pun intended. The new EarPods are simply better, more comfortable, and a vast improvement over their iconic old relatives in every way that matters. Audiophiles may scoff, but these are the best out-of-the-box headphones currently out there.
Infuriatingly, Apple has blundered once again and only included the stock EarPods, as opposed to their volume/microphone rocker alternatives, meaning there’s no hands-free control of music unless you pick up one for yourselves. Would it really have been so expensive to include the real version of the otherwise superb headset, especially given the Touch’s reputation as the world’s most popular music player? Slave to convenience that I am, I did indeed go out and snatch the real EarPods for myself; the new raised rocker clip is much easier to click and better-than-ever.
Design + Screen
I won’t mince words: the iPod Touch 5 is easily the most comfortable, stylish, and incredible looking electronic device I’ve ever held in my unworthy hands. The same aluminum casing of the Macbook Air is in play here, replacing the reflective metallic carriage of past models, resulting in a drastically more stylish, comfortable, and – dare I say it – magical experience than ever before. For my money, the Touch 5 outdoes its bigger, beefier iPhone 5 on looks, and really is fun just to hold in your hands. Oh, and like its oft-changed Nano cousin, it now comes in several fruity new colors (I opted for Red).
Believe it or not, but the Touch 5’s thinness is more optical illusion than reality, as laying it next to the iPod Touch 4 reveals they’re roughly the same depth; incredible, yes, but the Touch 5 is just so sleek and smooth, as well as impossibly light, that you’ll readily buy into the trick. The new iSight camera lens does add a slight bump to the underside, as does the raised Loop catch, but its an insignificant disruption in an otherwise perfectly molded piece of metal.
Let’s talk about one of the most exciting additions to the latest iPod: that beautiful, glorious new 4” screen. No longer a hand-me-down, this time around it’s exactly the same screen the iPhone 5 is rocking, minus one feature (which I’ll get to in a minute), meaning the same 1136 x 640 px (up from 960 x 640) at the same 326 ppi powered by a real IPS Retina Display. Color saturation is pixel-perfect (even better than fellow resolution monsters like Samsung’s HD Super AMOLED screens), making everything look just as developers intend them to look.
More to that, multi-touch functionality is now built into the display itself (opposed to underneath it), which makes everything flow better and more accurately. Typing, swiping, and game playing is a lot more accurate now, and you’ll definitely notice the subtle improvements after using it. Yes, the auto-brightness feature is gone (said to be due to the ultra-thinness), but whether that’s a loss or not will be up to you (I don’t miss it).
The screen is now 4” tall, yet retains the same width, which not only adds an extra row of Apps to the home screen but bumps up the available aspect ratio to roughly 16:9. While a bigger size was probably the most requested feature from iOS fans, preserving the same width keeps using the device single-handed considerably easier for those of us with smaller thumbs while still being able to enjoy a slight size bump. Not everyone needs a bigger, fatter screen (indeed, even size pioneer Samsung recently elected to offer a scaled-back version of their best-selling Galaxy SIII phone), so the compromise Apple made between size and function hits the sweet spot nicely.
Resolution-wise, this doesn’t make that much of a difference, unless developers choose to take advantage of those precious new pixels; those who don’t will find their Apps running inside a new letterbox mode to preserve their original formatting. But viewing angles absolutely pop and sizzle now, as the addition of a true IPS display works its magic in more ways than one. With so many iOS games requiring constant tilting, shifting, and other fuddy-duddy screen manipulation to play (thanks, gyroscope), its nice to have a consistent experience that doesn’t degrade the colors or intensity when giving it a twist or turn.
Another huge improvement is with reading digital books, as the new IPS screen’s black levels are stunning, easily putting the previous generation’s to shame. If you’re curious, try putting the iBooks app into the ‘Night’ theme and put both iPods side by side; there’s no comparison, and the added real estate doesn’t hurt, either.
Performance + Gaming
The A5 chip powering the iPod 5 is pretty much the same one that powered last year’s iPad 2, meaning it’ll handle just about everything thrown at it without hassle. While you may not notice much of a boost in regular app-handling tasks, switching between apps is faster than ever, and anything requiring graphical power is noticeably smoother (see the improved App Store). A big bump in battery life is nice, too, as Apple’s promises of a 40-hour playback for music seems to be true (I’ve recharged mine only twice in the first week, and that’s with heavy music, video, and graphically-intense game testing).
And speaking of game, while silly game nerds may scoff, iOS devices are home to some of the best mobile gaming out there, and this has been major selling point for the iPod Touch since the beginning. For those coming from iPod Touch 4 Land, get ready for a major boost on some of the most graphically-intense games out there, especially those running on powerful engines like Unreal or Unity. Gameloft’s The Dark Knight Rises added layers of new lighting and rain particle effects, Epic’s Infinity Blade series ran smoother than ever, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead chapters animated its rotten corpses enough to actually play this time (in a game featuring zombies you don’t want the scariest thing to be shambling frame-rates).
Of course, considering that most iOS games are relatively tame in the visual boundary-pushing department, like Rovio’s Bad Piggies or Ubisoft’s Rayman Jungle Run, you’ll still enjoy them a whole lot more thanks to the larger screen, so it’s a win-win all-around.
Another department the new processor helps with (so says Apple) is with voice recognition, as the new iPod supports full Dictation and Siri features, meaning you’ll be more hands-free with it than ever before. I absolutely adore Dictation, as simply speaking small sentences for notes and instant messaging is much easier than tap-tapping on the screen. Siri, on the other hand, is still very much Siri, despite the improvements in language recognition and sentence context. Thanks to Apple’s new partnerships with Rotten Tomatoes and others, she (it?) is definitely more useful than her (it?) gimmicky beta-phase, though Apple’s leading-lady (bot?) still has some work left to be completely reliable. It’s not possible to look up certain ‘types’ of media (no music), and while I liked using Siri to open apps and search for interesting trivia, I think I’ll stick to sending my emails and messages myself for the time being. But thanks, anyway.
The best thing you could say about the Touch 4’s set of cameras was that, to be charitable, they existed in the first place. Yes, the device was capable of snapping shots, but the quality was just so below-average that you’d never drop your point and click shooter favorite for them. All that has changed with the Touch 5, as the combination of a new set of lens and improved software helps the device’s photographic options fall somewhere in-between the iPhone 4S and newer iPad 3, giving the new iPod its ‘most improved area’ award.
Powered by Apple’s iSight Camera the vastly improved rear camera now packs 5 MP (seven times more than iPod 4), advanced optics, tap-to-focus, an LED flash, HDR, and even facial detection if it ever becomes useful enough to matter. Images look dazzlingly better, to the point where you’d be proud to show them off to the world (hello, built-in Facebook integration), with proper coloring and blacker levels that no longer look like pixelated sloppy seconds. There’s still some issues with low-light photos, but the built-in LED flash helps out some, meaning you won’t be left in the dark – literally.
Another big software bump is the addition of panorama picture taking, make possible by the built-in gyroscopes for some impressive stabilization. Even the front-facing camera received a nice bump from the pitiful VGA-quality mess to a much better 1.2MP lens; still not great, but it certainly makes for cleaner FaceTime and/or Skype video connections if that’s your thing, as well as snapping quick profile pictures (better tidy up first). Apple even suggests you’ll love the new iPod so much that you’ll want to ditch your point ‘n shoot camera for good. I don’t know about that, but there’s no question the new iPod’s cameras are pretty great this time around.
When I reviewed the iPod Touch 4 back in 2010 one thing I praised to the heavens was Apple’s decision to solidify the iPod lineup, removing both the 2G and 3G versions entirely, making the 4G the only iPod Touch option available. And they even performed this consolidation magic while retaining the lower-end models’ 8GB entry level pricing at $199, allowing users to scale up in both memory and pricing as they wanted. This isn’t the case with the iPod Touch 5, as Apple has gone back to slightly generational fragmentation and higher-priced luxury. The cheapest iPod 5 is back to being $299, albeit fitted with a beefy 32GB, while the 4G remains on the shelves.
To be fair, the same exact thing happened with the 3G model when it was introduced, featuring a slight-improvement over the 2G and boasting 32GB for a minimum $299 price. The iPod Touch 5 is the most substantially-improved iPod, and perhaps Apple product, ever, and 32GB does keep it within previous pricing options. It’s just a shame that Apple hasn’t made a cheaper version for those who still consider $299 a major investment, especially in this day of surprisingly great $199 Android tablets that can do most of what the iPod Touch 5 does for less.
Unquestionably, the iPod Touch 5 is the sleekest, lightest, most powerful, and enjoyable iPod Touch yet. After two years, the bump in processing power, larger IPS screen, vastly improved iSight cameras, and gorgeous aluminum casing make this a substantial upgrade for those coming from previous models. A featherweight and thin body make it a joy just to hold and play with, and don’t be surprised if it draws jealous looks from other tech owners, even new iPhone 5 ones. Unfortunately, the lack of a $199 option means those seeking an inexpensive jumping off – or maybe jumping into – point to the wide and wonderful world of iOS should think carefully before making the plunge this time around. But for those already primed for the latest and greatest Touch, it’s everything you wanted and then some.