It's cheerful, colourful and versatile, and though it technically has competition, Apple's iPod Touch still stands alone. While we still classify it as an MP3 player, the fully redesigned iPod Touch is more like a smartphone without the phone, bringing more than 700,000 iOS apps along with iTunes, iBooks, and the rest of the Apple ecosystem to folks who don't want to pay full iPhone freight. This year's Touch is a significant upgrade: It's faster, with a much better screen, a new camera, better headphones, and a new body design to die for.
This is the fifth iteration of the iPod Touch, and this time round, one immediately obvious factor is that the new entry-level price for this new model is high. It's now £249 (for the base 32GB model) or £329 (64GB), up from a base level of £169 last year. While the new entry-level model comes with a lot more storage than 8GB, it also makes the Touch much more costly for all the people who want to use it for light gaming, web browsing, and music. Although for those folks, last year's Touch is still available for £169 with 16GB of storage.
Physical design and Wi-Fi
The new iPod Touch is the most elegant device I've ever handled – and yes, that includes the iPhone 5. It's shockingly thin, feather-light, and clad in an absolutely gorgeous wraparound aluminium body. You hardly notice it in your pocket.
Longer, slimmer, lighter, and better-looking than the 2011 iPod Touch, the new Touch is available in blue, pink, red, yellow, grey, or black aluminium. At an amazing 6mm thick and 88 grams, it's almost two-dimensional and weightless. It's longer than previous Touches at 123mm high to accommodate a super-sharp 4in, 1,136 x 640 screen, but the same width as previous models at 59mm wide.
The new display is just like the one on the iPhone 5, and noticeably brighter than the previous iPod Touch's screen. On the bottom you'll find an extremely tinny-sounding speaker, the 3.5mm headphone jack, and Apple's new, compact Lightning connector, which, unfortunately, isn't natively compatible with any existing accessories without a £25 adapter. Apple says more Lightning docks and video-out cables are coming soon, but there's no exact timeframe.
In the box you get a pair of Apple's vastly improved EarPods, and a "loop," a colour-coordinated wrist strap that attaches to a pop-out button on the back panel of the player (see the image below). The idea for the loop is to make the Touch feel like a point-and-shoot digital camera, thanks to the 5-megapixel shooter that's been added to the back. The strap gets in the way when you're holding the Touch in both hands to play games, though.
One of the major improvements here is enhanced wireless performance, which is especially important in a Wi-Fi-only device. Like the iPhone 5, the Touch supports 802.11n Wi-Fi on the 5GHz band. In speed tests using the Speedtest.net app, we got double the Wi-Fi download speeds on 5GHz as opposed to 2.4GHz. That didn't have an effect on web page loading times, as the 2.4GHz network was fast enough that the Touch's processor speed was what mattered there, but latency in wireless AirPlay gaming was reduced.
Built around the dual-core 800MHz A5 processor of the iPhone 4S, the Touch turns in a solid performance. (The previous model had the iPhone 4's single-core A4 processor). On the Geekbench system benchmark and GLBenchmark graphics benchmarks, the Touch scored almost identically to the iPhone 4S running iOS 6.0. Scores on the web-based Sunspider and Browsermark benchmarks were both a touch higher than the 4S, but the Touch is in turn smoked by the much faster iPhone 5.
In real life, the performance differences between this Touch, the previous iPod Touch/iPhone 4, and the new iPhone 5 will build up with time. I couldn't find any app, even super-high-end games like Asphalt 7: Heat and Lili, that wouldn't run here, and those graphics-heavy apps will run much more smoothly than on the previous Touch.
Compared to the iPhone 5 (with its A6 processor, twice as fast as this one), I saw slightly smoother animations in games on the iPhone 5, much faster rendering of Google Earth images and faster web pages loads. That's to be expected.
The Touch runs Apple's iOS 6, just like the iPhone 5. This OS update includes the aforementioned Wi-Fi improvements, wireless syncing, and AirPlay mirroring of your Touch's display to an Apple TV, and also iMessage, Siri, Passbook, and the new Apple Maps. The older iPod Touch will get most of these features if you update to iOS 6, but not Siri – for that you need a new device, but remember, you'll also need a working Wi-Fi connection.
The controversy over Apple's mapping app has just gone to show how spectacular Apple's array of third-party apps is. Within days of confirming issues with Apple Maps, we found 10 third-party alternatives in the App Store. That's the real strength of iOS, and that huge range of apps is why many people buy iPod Touches. While Android is certainly catching up, you'll still find many games and other apps come out first and work best on iOS because Apple makes it easier for developers to make money from their work. (For more on that, read my article entitled “An Android owner's jealousy over iPhone apps”).
The apps are getting huge, though, which is probably one reason Apple won't offer a new iPod Touch smaller than 32GB. (There's no card slot for expansion here: Built-in storage is all you get). It was easy to grab apps larger than 1GB each (Bard's Tale, Barefoot World Atlas, Asphalt 7: Heat, and Galaxy on Fire 2, to name a few), and my full load of 58 apps took up 10GB on our test device. Casual games are still much smaller, of course.
Battery life was a bit disappointing: In my initial test, I got 4 hours and 55 minutes of video playback with the screen at full brightness and Wi-Fi on. Since that's a bit less than the last generations' 5 hours and 32 minutes, and well short of the 8 hours Apple claims, I'll test it again after a few days' worth of charge and recharge cycles, and update this review with my findings.
Camera and multimedia
The 5-megapixel rear camera is one of the flagship features, but I'm lukewarm on the entire concept. Yes, it's much better than the previous iPod Touch camera, which was less than a megapixel. But it's still just a decent smartphone camera.
The 5-megapixel main camera and 1.2-megapixel front camera take sharp shots outdoors with plenty of light, but sharpness and focus suffer in low light. I also saw some serious problems with the autofocus locking in when the flash was needed. At least the camera doesn't have the iPhone 5's "purple flare" problem; while we could create lens flare by shooting near a light source, it was more like the less-annoying flare captured on the iPhone 4S.
In terms of video recording, we captured 1080p video with the main camera and 720p with the front camera, each at 30 frames per second outdoors. But in moderate indoor lighting, that dropped to 27 fps on the main camera and 24 fps on the front camera with focus problems.
Remember that you can get a good, basic 14.1 megapixel camera with optical zoom like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-S3 for around £70 nowadays. Once again, if the base level Touch was £169 rather than £249, I certainly wouldn't be complaining. The rear camera here is a "nice-to-have" feature, but I don't see it as a core part of the iPod Touch experience. The front camera, on the other hand, works with FaceTime, turning the iPod Touch into a great video phone when you're in a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Music and video playback are as high quality as always. These are the core iPod virtues that have sustained the line for more than a decade, and nothing has changed here. Sound is still quite bright, a little weak on bass, but that's nothing new. The Touch still syncs with iTunes (although now it'll do so wirelessly if you prefer) and still plays any MP3 or AAC music, or MPEG4 video file, whether purchased from Apple or downloaded from elsewhere. (It's perfectly compatible with Amazon's MP3 store, for instance). The Touch also plays Audible, Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV, but not FLAC or OGG files.
It still amazes me that no competitor has ever been able to touch the Touch. Yes, there are a few Android-based alternatives out there, such as the Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2, for example. But they're clunkier, with lower-resolution screens and fewer apps. Sit them next to the Touch, and they look like amateur hour.
The true competition for the iPod Touch might be sub-£200 7in tablets like the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and the Google Nexus 7, which offer top-notch web browsing, e-reading, and gaming experiences on a larger screen for almost £100 less than the Touch. Although they each have less on-board storage and neither will slip into a pocket, if your major uses are web browsing and gaming in the living room, or the back seat of a car, a 7in tablet is probably a better choice.
As a music player, the £249 Touch is overkill. The iPod Nano sells for £129 for 16GB, a much more reasonable price for a music-focused device. On the other hand, the Nano lacks Wi-Fi and doesn't run apps. Once again, it's not quite a competitor.
For teens who want to play Fruit Ninja and Temple Run, stick with the £169 entry-level iPod Touch. And if you already have the £169 model, there's no reason to jump on this one. Need a great camera? Buy an entry-level point-and-shoot and save yourself some cash.
If you are intending to use your Touch to store and play a lot of music or videos, though, spring for the new model. Once you're looking at 32GB of storage the difference between the two devices drops to £50, and the bigger screen, lighter body, and even the camera make a real difference in the experience.
Manufacturer and Product
Apple iPod Touch (2012)
59 x 6 x 123mm (WxDxH)
MPEG4, QuickTime, H.264
Storage Capacity (as Tested)
Music Playback Formats
AAC, Apple Lossless, MP3, Protected AAC