How can Apple improve the iPod Touch?

Is Apple's iPod Touch condemned to live the rest of its days in the shadow of the iPhone, or can it break free and stand on its own as a middle ground between Apple's phone and its tablet? Donald Bell lists all of the expected and unexpected ways in which Apple could improve the fifth-generation iPod Touch.

Photo of 2010 iPod Touch
Apple's iPod Touch can't get much thinner. Is there still room for improvement? Josh Miller/CNET

OK, let's cut to the chase, folks. Apple's rumored October event is around the corner, and we're all expecting an iPhone 5 and a new crop of iPods, right?

Now, it's no mistake that I gave iPods second billing in that sentence. The iPod line doesn't print money for Apple the way it once did, especially now that the iPad and iPhone have entered the spotlight. Still, the iPod Touch continues to sell well as the often overlooked third pillar of iOS.

Apple needs to do more to bolster its star iPod, but what more can it do to improve the iPod Touch and keep it selling in spite of the allure of its higher-profile siblings? So let's put on the thinking cap, break out the crystal ball, and try to piece together the future for the iPod Touch.

Make it thinner
Gadgets can never be too thin, right? This is especially true for any iPod, which must fight desperately for pocket real estate in today's world of gigantic smartphones.

The problem is that its current 0.28-inch depth is already barely adequate for fitting today's standard headphone minijack.

Apple could give it a wedge shape, like the Macbook Air, keeping ports on the fat end and thinning to a blade at the other. Or, it could go without the headphone jack altogether and create a boon for the Bluetooth headphone market.

Regardless, thinness alone is not going to make the iPod Touch a holiday must-have. Apple must have something else up its sleeve.

Photo of the iPod Touch headphone jack.
The headphone jack on the 2010 iPod Touch takes up nearly the entire width of the device. Donald Bell/CNET

Make it white
I want to laugh, but sadly, this is probably true. Now that there's a white iPad and a white iPhone, you can bet there will be a white iPod Touch. How about a gold one to mark the iPod's 10-year anniversary? No? Too much? Yeah, probably.

Make it 3G
I've been over this one before (exhaustively). An iPod Touch with the iPad's no-contract 3G cellular service would shake up the mobile industry and give antisocial misfits like me a way to text, tweet, and e-mail without the whole awkward voice calling thing.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to believe a 3G iPod Touch won't happen. For one, it would cannibalize iPhone sales. Two, carriers might not support the device if it presents too much of a threat to their business. And finally, the 3G hardware would bloat the design and the price .

Photo of iPad 3G.
If there's a reason Apple is keeping the iPad's 3G capability out of the iPod Touch, it's just as much a political concern as a practical one. Josh P. Miller/CNET

Better cameras
I really hope this one is true. The exceptional photo quality of the iPhone has always been part of the secret sauce that's made it such a hit. Unfortunately, the iPod Touch uses an entirely different sensor and the results are less than spectacular.

Rumor had it that the iPod's thinner design made it impossible to fit the iPhone 4's camera sensor. Perhaps technology has advanced sufficiently enough over the past year to solve the problem.

Faster processor
While we're collecting all the low-hanging fruit, let's assume Apple will upgrade the iPod's processor to at least be on par with the iPad 2's dual-core A5 chip. With any luck, more power will translate into faster performance, and smoother gaming.

Glasses-free 3D screen
Lord, let's hope not. You're better than that, Apple. Let's not resort to gimmicks. Plus, remember that whole lawsuit about iPods making people deaf. Imagine the lawsuit in store for Apple when parents are convinced the iPod's 3D screen is melting their kids' eyeballs.

Price drop
Right now, a $399 iPod Touch (64GB) is just $100 away from a 16GB iPad. That math seems off. Make the base 8GB model $149 (kill off the Nano while you're at it, or take it down to $99) and you'll make Nintendo weep as kids unwrap their iPod Touch from Santa and pour money into your App Store and iTunes store.

Lose the dock connection
Apple has already made it perfectly clear that the new version of iOS allows you to activate and sync devices without physically connecting to a computer. It calls the feature PC Free, and the icon shows a pair of scissors cutting away the dock cable. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to put this one together.

The dock's days are numbered. CNET

Users can sync their media and contacts via iCloud, and continue to download new content through the mobile iTunes and App stores. You can stream content via Bluetooth or AirPlay. The world becomes wireless, and Apple gets to brag about pushing you into the future.

You still have the problem of charging, but I'm sure Apple could whip up some MagSafe style connection from its MacBook line or go with some newfangled inductive charging system.

What's the payoff for Apple? Well, aside from preserving its legacy of pushing the envelope, it gets to extract one less component from the guts of the device, giving it room to make it thinner. Add this to the theory about it ditching the headphone jack and you could really start making an obscenely thin device.

Apple will also benefit from the flock of third-party accessory developers who will need to create new solutions for charging and streaming media from these connection-free devices. That means a lot of AirPlay licenses, as well as whatever proprietary charging standard it comes up with.

Bigger screen
If Apple really wants to differentiate the iPod Touch from the iPhone, why not give the thing a bigger screen? Make it the Goldilocks device between the iPhone and the iPad.

A 5-inch screen like the Dell Streak's would be really interesting. It's still small enough to fit in your pocket, but the added screen real estate is a great match for games, video, and e-books (sorry, iBooks).

Final thoughts
Some of these ideas will undoubtedly filter into the iPod Touch we see next month. A few probably won't emerge until next year, and some may never happen at all.

In my experience covering Apple announcements over the past four years, these things are always a mix of surprise and disappointment. Inevitably, Apple gives with one hand and takes with the other, always leaving you wanting more but still reaching for your wallet.

If Apple is in top form this fall, I suspect the new iPod Touch will be yet another beautiful, flawed, but nonetheless drool-worthy gadget for us all to rant and rave over for another year.

 

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