Review: iPod touch (5th generation)

iPod touch gets 4'' display, thinner build (November 26th, 2012)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $299 as tested

The Good


  • -Extremely thin
    -Larger display
    -Attractive design
    -Improved performance

The Bad


  • -No light sensor
    -Not as fast as iPhone 5
    -Just $30 below iPad mini

The iPod touch now takes a back seat behind the iPhone, but Apple has continued to improve and refine its flagship media player. Arriving two years after its predecessor, the fifth-generation model boasts a thinner build, larger display, faster processor and better cameras. In our full review, we try to determine if the new Touch still has a place among stiff competition from smartphones and tablets.



Design

Where the fourth-generation iPod touch took inspiration from the iPhone 4 and 3GS, the fifth-generation model merges features from the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5. The characteristic polished-stainless backside has been replaced with a flattened aluminum housing featuring a choice between five anodization colors: black, grey, pink, yellow, blue or red.

We loved the polished silver appearance of the previous generations, before the device was placed on any surface harder than chamois leather. After a few months of casual use, the polished surface became inexplicably marred by a latticework of scratches. We always yearned for a matte finish to preserve long-term aesthetics, and Apple has finally granted our wish.

The black variant, pictured in this review, is the only model that features the black facade of previous generations. Other colors, including the raw silver option, are paired with a white bezel, that helps to highlight the bright hues. Offering several color choices is a great move for the Touch, differentiating it from the iPhone and satisfying customers who want a device that matches their outfit.





The fifth-generation Touch shaves more than 1mm its predecessor's thickness, bringing the measurement down to just 6.1mm. This may not seem like much, but the fourth-generation model was already down to 7.2mm. Surprisingly, despite a taller four-inch display, the new model is also a bit thinner and lighter.

The flat backside is a clear departure from the previous generations, but it follows the iPhone design evolution that switched beginning with the iPhone 4. The company appears to be placing a higher priority on overall thinness rather than ergonomics, though we do not find the new Touch or the latest iPhones to be uncomfortable to hold.

Upon close inspection, users will a diamond-cut "exquisite chamfer" around the front edge of the aluminum housing. Although attractive, this has been a much-derided feature of the iPhone 5. Unlike the iPhone 5, however, the chamfer on the iPod touch only surrounds the display bezel, rather than the front and back edge. We suspect that the backside perimeter of the iPhone 5 is most susceptible to damage. Any wear on the anodization also should be less noticeable on the silver model, or any of the brighter colors.





The new device also features the "iPod touch loop," a color-coordinated lanyard that attaches to the lower left corner of the back panel. Luckily the tether is included as an optional accessory, and its mounting point conveniently clicks back into the housing when not needed. We don't see ourselves using the loop, but it makes sense as a safety feature for children.





Display

The new iPod touch integrates a four-inch display, matching the general specs of the iPhone 5. Both panels share the same dimensions and 640x1136 "Retina" resolution, with 326 pixels per inch.

We already covered the new four-inch panel in our iPhone 5 review. In general, we found the new spread to be a great compromise between total display area and one-hand usability. Contrast ratios and brightness appear to be similarly improved with the new Touch, while IPS technology helps broaden the viewing angles out to nearly 180 degrees.

Interestingly, the fifth-generation iPod touch lacks an ambient light sensor. We were surprised by this omission, considering the new device is an improvement over its predecessor in every other regard. An alleged e-mail from an Apple executive suggests the company decided against a light sensor to help reduce thickness.



Software

The new iPod touch ships with iOS 6, which we covered in detail in our iPhone 5 review. Users can take advantage of the same improvements, most notably Siri in the case of the Touch. Other additions include Passbook and native Facebook integration, among other features.

Most of our iOS 6 review concentrated on Apple's new Maps app and the lack of Google Maps. We still feel Apple's own Maps app is a half-baked utility that does not come close to the capabilities and refinement of Google's long-running alternative, but this is not as much of an issue in a device that lacks a GPS receiver. Ultimately we would have liked to see a GPS receiver in the Touch, however it still disappoints as a device for navigation or other location-based services.



Cameras

The iPhone 4S camera was generally regarded as one of the best--if not the best--camera in any smartphone. The fifth-generation iPod touch brings many of the same camera capabilities as the iPhone 4S, stepping down to a five-megapixel primary sensor but retaining backside illumination, a five-element lens with f/2.4 aperture and LED flash.

The megapixel discrepancy on paper seems to be a considerable downgrade, but we found the new Touch cameras to be comparable to the iPhone 4S in all other areas. The software/hardware combination is great at low-light shots, while color representation is impressive across a wide range of lighting conditions.

The primary shooter is complemented by a 1.2-megapixel front-facing sensor, which enables users to shoot 720p videos or participate in 720p FaceTime chat. The primary camera is still the better choice for video, capable of shooting 1080p at 30fps. Previously, users were limited to 720p video with the backside camera, and SD recording on the front-facing shooter.

Both cameras represent a significant leap beyond the technology available in the fourth-generation model. The iPod touch has always been regarded as an iPhone without cellular radios, and the improved cameras help reinforce this reputation. The new Touch is one of the best pocketable cameras on the market, aside from the iPhone 5 and a couple of other flagship smartphones.



Performance

As expected, the fifth-generation iPod touch features faster processor than its predecessor. As noted in a recent teardown, the media player appears to integrate the same A5 chipset as the iPhone 4S, along with 512MB of RAM.

Considering the component similarities between the iPhone 4S and the new iPod touch, we expected performance to closely match. This proved a correct assumption, as the Touch scored 624 on the Geekbench 2 benchmark tests. In contrast, the iPhone 4S typically scores around 630 and the iPhone 5 surpasses 1600 (higher is better).

Running SunSpider JavaScript benchmarks suggests the new Touch may have a slight edge over the iPhone 4S. We were able to achieve SunSpider 0.9.1 results of 1764.3ms for the fifth-generation Touch, in contrast to iPhone 4S results above 2200ms, when using the stock Safari browser (lower is better).

In real-world tests, the fifth-generation iPod touch clearly keeps up with the iPhone 4S and most of the smartphones currently on the market. The hardware is fast enough to smoothly play any of the current games for iOS, greatly exceeding the performance of earlier generations, though developers are already working to push the limit of the iPhone 5 hardware.





Audio, EarPods

With its thinner build, the new Touch lacks the iPhone 5's 16 small audio ports for the internal speaker. Instead, the iPod utilizes just five ports. We wanted to avoid jumping to conclusions regarding the audio output, but after playing music and movies without headphones plugged in, the Touch did prove inferior to the iPhone 5 in terms of audio volume and quality. The internal speaker isn't bad, and it may be an improvement over previous generations, but it definitely ins't spectacular.

We hooked up our trusty Etymotic ER-4P earphones to test the Touch's internal headphone amplifier. The hardware effectively powered the tiny drivers, which are rated at 27 Ohms, without distorting the audio at moderate volume levels. This falls in line with our expectations, as previous generations have proved capable of powering high-end headphones at typical volume levels, though higher-impedance cans still require a dedicated amplifier for best results.

The iPod touch now ships with Apple's redesigned EarPods, which mark a significant improvement over the company's previous earphones. We extensively covered the EarPods in our iPhone 5 review, but it is worth noting that the EarPods may be the best earphones in the $30-50 segment and competitive in the $50-100 arena. For the best audio, users should still look for an in-ear design that seals in the ear canal, but the EarPods provide decent audio quality and a "universal" fit that will be comfortable for a wide range of ear shapes.



Final thoughts

Most smartphone users, especially iPhone owners, may not have a need for a dedicated media player among their mobile gadgets. Admittedly the iPod touch will continue to serve more of an isolated niche, but it serves this niche well--better than any competing device that we've had a chance to try.

Anyone who already uses an iPod touch will find the fifth-generation model to be the best yet, by leaps and bounds. Newcomers to the product may be similarly wooed by the colorful housings, larger display, excellent camera and fast hardware. Yes, the iPhone 5 is available for $100 less through carrier subsidization, but for cross-platform users who love their Android or Windows Phone handset, the iPod touch is still the easiest way engage the iOS ecosystem.

by Justin King


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