Editors' note, October 15, 2012: Updated with final battery life results and screen-testing observations.
Updated October 23, 2012: In addition to the iPod Touch reviewed here, Apple also now sells an iPad Mini with prices starting at $329. It has the same A5 processor as the Touch, but the 7.9-inch screen size is significantly larger.
In an era of tablets of all shapes and sizes, or smartphones of varying degrees of tablet-approaching vastness, what room is there for a device like the iPod Touch? I’d say “the humble music player,” but the Touch is no longer that, nor has been for years. It’s a phoneless iPhone, an “iPad that fits in your pocket,” as Donald Bell said last year about the fourth-generation iPod Touch. The 2012 model, the fifth-generation Touch, has made a vibrant return after essentially taking a year off: this is the first upgrade to the hardware since 2010.
It’s a big leap, both in terms of design and performance: a dual-core A5 processor replaces the last version’s A4. A 5-megapixel camera with 1080p video recording isn't as good as the iPhone 5's camera, but it's far better than the one on the last Touch. That’s in keeping with the iPod Touch tradition of offering a little less than the latest and greatest iPhone.
However, the new Touch has many features in common with the iPhone 5: that same crisp, longer 4-inch IPS Retina Display; an improved front-facing HD camera; and iOS 6, including support for Siri, panoramic photos, Passbook, and AirPlay. It also, of course, has the same drawbacks as the iPhone 5 -- namely, a new Maps app that adds 3D flyover, but is now devoid of the Google data that made the earlier version so useful.
One thing that’s the same: the price, at $299 for a 32GB and $399 for a 64GB model. This time, however, there’s no $199 fifth-gen Touch: instead, you’ll have to settle for a fourth-gen model, which is being sold side-by-side at the Apple Store.
When we last reviewed the Touch, we said it had “a world of entertainment that is unmatched at this price.” That’s no longer true. In fact, you can get a $199 Google Nexus 7 tablet, a $199 Kindle Fire HD, or any number of other affordable portable gadgets. Even the PlayStation Vita, which is $249. Apple might even have its own competitor of sorts in the iPad Mini, although we know nothing for certain about when such a product might appear and what it will cost.
There are key differences, though: none of those gadgets is exactly the same as an iPod Touch. In its $299 iteration, it also has more onboard storage than most of those competing tablets. The Touch has the superior app ecosystem, is by far the most portable, and has a camera none of them can match. That camera might be the secret killer feature: Apple’s added a hand-strap loop to this Touch, a wink to you, the consumer, that using the new Touch as a point-and-shoot, and even a camcorder, is a big part of its utility. The Touch, more than the iPhone, might be the Apple Camera in disguise.
The Touch remains an excellent and shockingly slim portable with a gigantic list of features: it’s really a pocket computer, not a music/media player. It doesn’t trump the speed and power of the iPhone 5, but it comes close. This is Apple’s second-best handheld iOS device. Call it a mini-tablet or a phoneless phone, but the new Touch remains an excellent product, albeit one that has major competition. Is it for you? It depends on whether you own an iPhone, want an iPhone but don’t want to pay for a contract, or crave a do-it-all gadget that’s a little more portable than a tablet.
Design: Unbearable lightness of iPod
The new Touch is ridiculously thin: so much so, that you might wonder if it needed to go this far. Next to an iPhone 5, it makes the 5 look like a brick. It’s 0.24 inch thin compared with the iPhone 5's 0.30 inch, and 3.1 ounces versus 3.95 for the iPhone 5. It's thinner and lighter than the fourth-generation iPod Touch (0.28 inch, 3.56 ounces), which already felt like a razor blade. It's the thinnest iPod. It’s also, probably, your thinnest gadget period. The black model that I reviewed looks like a screen that fell out of some other large device, or a simple onyx mini-monolith. Everyone I showed the iPhone 5 to remarked how light it is; everyone I showed the iPod Touch to remarked how thin it is.
For a few years now, the iPod Touch has been the Invisible Device, an iOS product that took a backseat to the iPhone in both features and design. The new iPod Touch is a coming-out party. It looks slightly different from the new iPhone, deliberately so. There are bright color options, and a funky loop-shaped hand strap. The curved contours on the back have replaced the Touch's old shiny polished steel. The new Touch is made to stand out in a store and look different from an iPhone, and that's a good thing. Even after using an iPhone 5 for several weeks, the new Touch manages to impress.
Despite the thinner look, it feels more comfortable and somehow less fragile than the more angular, steel-backed iPod Touch of old; it has a flatter, curved-rectangle look, and the matte anodized aluminum finish is softer. Beware of nicks and scuffs, though. My black review model had little dings on one angled edge in my third day of use. With a device this wafer-thin, you'll want to find a case. The Touch has the same extra space above and below the screen that the iPhone has, despite not needing a speaker. I might have preferred a pure edge-to-edge design. The home button, located in the same place as always, is shallower and feels a little less clicky than the iPhone's button.
My black review model clad all in dark glass and slate-colored aluminum looks like a stealth plane, but other Touch models are brighter. Available in a series of candy colors (blue, yellow, pink, and red) alongside white/aluminum and black/slate models, the Touch seems more akin in spirit to the rest of the iPod Nano and Shuffle family. It’s more festive, and with its flat matte anodized aluminum back, more casual than the razor-thin polished metal of previous models. Could this be a preview of the iPad Mini? The purported pictures of that as-yet-unannounced device shares much of the same anodized aluminum finish.
There’s also a wrist strap (the "loop"), which snaps easily onto the back. Is this for iPod photographers, kids, or both? I know plenty of families who use the Touch for kids and travel, and this seems like a nod to tote-friendliness. It also seems to help when taking photos. You decide.
iPod Touch and Nano: unboxed
In the box: Lightning, EarPods, no remote
Inside the Touch’s clear plastic box you get an iPod Touch (of course), a USB-to-Lightning cable (no AC adapter brick), and a pair of Apple's new EarPod earphones, minus a remote.
The iPod Touch, like the iPhone 5 and iPod Nano, uses Lightning for its syncing, charging, and accessory connections. The smaller connector port is more elegant but means you'll need new accessories or have to buy an adapter from Apple, which doesn't work with every accessory function.
The EarPods are more comfortable and better-performing than previous Apple earbuds, but it’s a shame these don’t have an in-line remote and microphone, like the $29 EarPods do. You can still make FaceTime calls on the Touch using its built-in mic, or you pay up and use the other in-line remote and mic headphones with the new Touch instead.
Longer screen: A subtle improvement
The new iPod Touch bears some familial similarities to the iPhone 5, and first and foremost is that screen. The new IPS display has grown from its previous 3.5-inch, 960x640-pixel resolution to 4 inches at 1,136x640 pixels, and looks better at wider angles. Much like the iPhone 5, the impact of a slightly longer, larger display grows on you the more you use it.
It’s not dramatic like the mega-screens on “phablets” like the Samsung Galaxy Note, but it’s better than before. I found that reading books on the Kindle app actually felt more comfortable; meanwhile, an HD episode of "Planet Earth" looked as good as it did on the iPhone 5.
You can fit more e-mails or lines of text in vertical portrait mode, and landscape mode becomes a much better fit for games and video. The new 16:9 aspect ratio means an HD episode of a TV show fills the screen perfectly. Movies shot in a wider aspect ratio may still have letterboxing, but less than before. It’s an excellent addition to the Touch, but it does mean a longer iPod body.
Games also look better, especially those in landscape mode. There are more games daily that take advantage of the longer screens on the Touch and iPhone 5. FIFA 13, Galaxy on Fire 2 HD, Lili, and Asphalt 7 looked awfully sharp.
iOS devices have become major gaming platforms, and these extra tweaks make the Touch a better gaming handheld in a similar way to the iPhone 5. Considering how many use iPods and iPhones for that use alone, it's an important upgrade. Based on more extensive testing of the fifth-gen iPod Touch display by TV editor David Katzmaier, it's very close in quality to that of the iPhone 5, so much so that the average person probably won't notice. The iPhone 5 display has higher maximum screen brightness, but the iPod Touch demonstrated slightly better black levels.
Camera: Better, but not as good as the iPhone 5's
The real difference-maker most iPod Touch upgraders are going to be curious about is that camera. It’s an odd hybrid: one part iPhone 4S, one part iPhone 5. The 5-megapixel rear iSight camera isn’t exactly the same as the one in the iPhone 4S or 5 (those both were 8-megapixel), although the lens is made from the same scratch-resistant sapphire crystal as the 5. Pictures are good, but didn’t look as sharp as those on the iPhone 5. Low-light images didn’t have as much pop or clarity, but HDR and panoramic pictures, both possible with the camera app, looked better than expected.