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iPod Touch: Hands-on with the almost-iPhone

The fifth-generation iPod Touch is a close relative of the iPhone 5, with the same brilliant 4-inch screen and updated iOS 6. We spent a day with the new Touch, putting it to the test. Here's what we found.

Now playing: Watch this: First look: iPod Touch (fifth generation, 2012)

The fifth-generation iPod Touch, unveiled at Apple's iPhone 5 event back in September, is finally shipping now. (Expect it in stores very soon.) I received a review unit here at CNET and I've been using it all day. Even after using an iPhone 5 for several weeks, the new Touch manages to impress.

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. It's also a product that took a year off: the last Touch was released two years ago in 2010, and while it was celebrated then for having a Retina Display and video recording, it's gotten very long in the tooth. (That same 2010 fourth-generation Touch remains on the market in 16GB and 32GB capacities, for $199 and $249, respectively.)

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

It's also far more powerful than the old Touch: a 5-megapixel camera with 1080p video recording replaces a VGA camera with 720p video. An A5 processor replaces the A4. A big, long 4-inch IPS Retina Display -- just like that of the iPhone 5 -- replaces the non-IPS 3.5-inch screen on the fourth-gen. Siri is onboard and ready to play.

Do you need all those features in a device that's supposedly called an iPod? Perhaps not. But this is really the iPhone alternative, a device with power somewhere between the iPhone 4S and 5, a feature-rich mini-handheld that's as much a mini-tablet or handheld game player as it is a music/video device and camera.

With prices dropping on phones, is the $299 entry price for the entry-level fifth-gen 32GB iPod Touch a wise investment? Remember, the fourth-gen model (now with iOS 6) is still available. And there's another iOS portable -- the perpetually rumored iPad Mini -- which seems due to rear its head imminently.

But, if you're looking for a new Touch that should work very well with every newly updated-for-the-iPhone-5 app and feel nearly as cool, this looks to be an excellent product. It may not be a product you need, but it could very well end up being a product you want.

The iPhone 5 (white) and iPod Touch (black). Sarah Tew/CNET

Much like the iPhone 5, the fifth-generation iPod Touch has been completely redesigned, but it's a much different product than its phone counterpart. The Touch is very, very thin: 0.24 inch 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 crazily thin.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Despite the thinner look, it feels more comfortable and somehow less fragile than the more angular, steel-backed iPod Touch of old. The Touch has a flatter, curved-rectangle look, and the matte anodized aluminum finish is softer. Apple seems to be acknowledging the iPod Touch's use case. Available in a series of candy colors alongside white/aluminum and black models, the Touch seems more akin to the rest of the iPod family. It’s a bit 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.

Now playing: Watch this: iPod Touch and Nano: unboxed

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In the 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.

Inside: A5
The Touch has survived over the past few years by always being a technological step behind its trailblazing latest-iPhone sibling: call it the Younger Brother Syndrome. That trend continues with the fifth-gen Touch. While the latest iPhone 5 has a new A6 processor, the Touch finally moves into the A5.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What does that mean, exactly, in terms of performance for this Touch? It’s a bit of a hybrid, really, since no other device has an A5 with a longer 4-inch screen. It should mean, at the least, that any apps that worked on an iPhone 4S should generally work here, and quite well. iPhone 5-optimized games and apps will also, for the large part, be compatible, because they share the same screen. However, there could be a performance drop and small graphics gap between the Touch and the iPhone 5.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You might notice it if you own both devices and compare them side by side, but here's the thing: you probably won’t. You’re more likely to compare the new Touch with the old Touch, and here it’s a clear and marked leap forward.

And, how does it compare with the iPhone 4S? Pretty well, especially since it has a newer, better screen and a better camera. This is a better iOS device than the 4S, yet it has many of the same features, including Siri, which makes its iPod Touch debut for the first time.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The 5-megapixel camera in the Touch isn’t the same as the 8-megapixel one in the iPhone 5. It isn’t even the same as the one in the iPhone 4S, because that one’s 8 megapixels, too. It’s a megapixel match for the camera in the iPhone 4, but that’s not the real measure at all. It’s the same lens construction as the camera in the iPhone 5, and shares its 1080 video recording and image stabilization. It has a backlit sensor. The front-facing camera is HD, just like the iPhone 5's, taking 1.2-megapixel shots and recording 720p video.

So, it’s best to call the camera a hybrid as far as iPhone-type legacies go. What pictures can you expect? Compared with any Touch ever released before, this is a quantum leap forward. This is an excellent camera for an iPod Touch, and a great one even compared with iPhones and smartphones. This is, finally, an iPod that’s also a camera. Hence, perhaps, the wrist strap.

Just a reminder of how far things have changed in just two years: the last Touch only took 960x720-pixel camera snaps and had a 640x480-pixel front-facing camera. In terms of video recording, our CNET verdict was that we still preferred using a Flip. Now, there is no Flip. This a killer portable video recorder, too. So far, it seems to be taking impressive photos and video. More to come.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Retina Display
The iPod Touch is a gaming handheld. The App Store is its game library. Adding an improved 4-inch Retina Display that matches the iPhone 5's isn’t just a way to show off; it’s a guarantee that newly released games should work interchangeably between the two devices. Games optimized for the display have extra room for virtual onscreen buttons in landscape mode. Check out the comparison on an iPhone 5 and you’ll understand the difference.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For video, too, this a huge win. Even though, as I said in the iPhone 5 review, the difference in screen size from the previous 3.5 inches and 960x640-pixel resolution to the new 4-inch screen at 1,136x640 pixels is small, but the impact -- especially for an iPod -- is huge. Video playback no longer has as much letterboxing: a 16:9 video, such as any HD episode of a TV show, fills the screen perfectly. Movies are sometimes shot in a wider aspect ratio, but even those -- like "Wall-E" -- have smaller black bands at the top and bottom.

The more subtle addition of IPS, which the last Touch lacked, allows for wider, cleaner viewing angles. This is standard on iPhones now, but new to the Touch.

iPod Touch on top of iPhone 5: even thinner. Sarah Tew/CNET

iPod Touch vs. iPhone 5 (or iPad Mini?)
I’m going to save this analysis for a later date after the full review, but this is the million-dollar question that everyone shopping for an iOS device is going to ask. Both have new screens and improved cameras: which is the better product? In a sense, the iPod Touch and iPhone 5 are very similar. In another, they’re completely different. The iPhone 5 is, well, a phone: it has 4G LTE and requires a contract that supports that service. The advantages of true turn-by-turn navigation on iOS 6 only comes alive on a device that can access remote data on the go. It has a superior processor.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The iPod Touch is incredibly thin, very light, extremely pocketable, and highly versatile. It’s a near-5 in terms of function, the fastest Touch that’s ever been made, and the first Touch you’d seriously use as a camera. It’s a multiuse device, and it could even be your phone of sorts for FaceTime calls and Skype. At $299 without a contract, it’s a very attractive deal, but it's also an expensive device that starts with 32GB of storage (a 64GB version costs $399). You could also choose to buy the fourth-gen iPod Touch. For many people, that might make more sense as a basic, more affordable option, although that Touch is two years old.

Now, would you want one over an iPad Mini? Well, that’s a debate for a different time as well. The iPod Touch is the best iPod, but it’s also something more: it’s a clear everything-gadget that’s well past being about an iPod. Or, maybe that’s what the "iPod" name was really meant to represent all along. Stay tuned for a full review soon.

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