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iPod Touch review: An iPad for your pocket

Slimmer, souped-up, and candy-colored, the new Touch is an extremely complete pocket computer. But does it make sense in a world of ultracheap tablets? Think of this, instead, as the King of Mini-Media.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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14 min read

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Update, May 28, 2019: Apple has updated the iPod Touch, adding a newer A10 Fusion chip and a 256GB option. The product is otherwise unchanged, with the same basic design and available colors. It still starts at $199 for 32GB.

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8.3

iPod Touch

The Good

The <b>2012 fifth-generation iPod Touch</b> has an excellent set of features: better front and back cameras, 1080p video recording, iOS 6, and a 4-inch Retina Display just like on the iPhone 5, in a design even thinner than the iPhone.

The Bad

The iPhone 5 still beats it on performance. The Touch lacks any phone functions, and there are tablet competitors that beat the $299 Touch on price and screen size.

The Bottom Line

The latest iPod Touch is the best iPod ever, and as close to a phoneless iPhone 5 as you can get -- but its high price makes it a tough call versus cheaper tablets with larger screens.

Editors' note, October 15, 2012: Updated with final battery life results and screen-testing observations.

Editors' note, 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.

Editors' note, May 30, 2013: Apple has added a $229 16GB model to the fifth-generation iPod Touch line, and discontinued the fourth-generation Touch. Notably, the 16GB model does not feature a rear camera; the hardware is otherwise identical to the 32GB model reviewed here.

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.

The newest iPod Touch does everything except make calls (pictures)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The iPod Touch on top; iPhone 5 on bottom.

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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.

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iPhone 5 on the left; iPod Touch on the right.

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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.

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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.

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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.

iPod Touch and Nano: unboxed
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.

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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.

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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.

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Side-by-side: the Retina Displays on the iPhone 5 and new Touch feel nearly identical.

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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.

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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.

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iPhone 5 on top, iPod Touch below.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sample HDR photo taken with the fifth-gen Touch.

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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.

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Son and bagel.

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For average everyday snapshots, it'll do the trick. Will it compete with a point-and-shoot camera? Not yet, except for the convenience factor. The new Touch takes photos that match the quality on your above-average smartphone, but not much more.

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Meanwhile, 1080p video recording is possible -- with image stabilization, no less -- just like with the iPhone 5. A few videos I took around New York City looked good enough to make some people use this as their only camcorder.

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The front-facing camera is HD, just like the iPhone 5's, taking 1.2-megapixel shots and recording 720p video. It looks just as good as the 5's, and has much better pop when taking self-portraits or video clips.

Compared with any Touch ever released before, this is a quantum leap forward. This is, finally, an iPod that's also a camera. There's also, at long last, an LED flash. Keep in mind, the last Touch only took 960x720-pixel photos with the rear camera and 640x480 with the front camera. Back in 2011, our CNET verdict was that we still preferred using a Flip. Now, even if there were still a Flip on the market, the iPod Touch would be a credible alternative.

That wrist-strap loop's no accident. Part of the selling point of the new Touch is clearly the camera. It's better than before, but the iPhone 5 still beats it. Considering the camera's feature set and the number of camera apps from the App Store to play around with -- not to mention photo and video editors -- the Touch is a pretty intriguing candidate for a casual camera.

Performance: A5 processor
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, which is a dual-core processor versus the fourth-gen Touch's single-core A4.

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. Based on my few days with the Touch, any apps that worked on an iPhone 4S generally worked here, and quite well. iPhone 5-optimized games and apps including Netflix, Kindle, Tweetbot, and Apple's own apps including Safari all handled well. There should be a performance drop and small graphics gap between the A5 on the Touch and the A6 on the iPhone 5 -- you can see it in a few of the games -- but, in general, the difference was slight. A cold boot time on the Touch was 23 seconds, which is the same as the iPhone 4S', but only 3 seconds behind the iPhone 5's. Some games, like Lili, took significantly longer to load.

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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. This is a near-iPhone 5 analogue for most apps at this point, although iPhone 5-optimized games might emerge down the road that have a hard time running on the Touch.

iOS 6: Most big features intact
The new Touch comes with iOS 6 preinstalled. The good news is that most of iOS 6's features have made their way over here. Passbook, Facebook, and Twitter integration; Maps with 3D Flyover; Panoramic mode in the Camera app; and even Siri are all present.

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This gives the new Touch even more of an iPhone 5 flavor. Of course, the Touch still lacks any wireless other than Wi-Fi (which adds a 5GHz band like the iPhone 5), and doesn't have GPS. A built-in microphone does enable audio memo recording, FaceTime, and any other microphone-based app use (like Skype), just like the last Touch.

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iPod Touch as media player: Online matters
Most people don't think of the iPod Touch as a mere music and video player, but it's important to note that the Touch is a more essential media player for most modern forms of content consumption than the iPod Nano and Shuffle. Why? Because it can go online. The Nano and Shuffle require iTunes syncing. The Touch, like the iPhone and iPad, can operate away from iTunes, syncing with iTunes Match and iCloud and downloading music from the iTunes Store. Apps like Amazon Cloud Player, Pandora, Spotify, and many more offer essential features.

For video, you can choose to download from iTunes or use many streaming alternatives: Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, YouTube. You can also download podcasts on the go. I bring this up, even though it's obvious, because the iPod Nano can't do any of this. The online-enabled iPod lineup starts with the Touch. I appreciated those features, and they're what make the iPod Touch a superior overall media device.

Incidentally, music sounds as good as you'd expect, with the included EarPods giving a better out-of-the-box experience. However, do yourself a favor and buy some high-end headphones as soon as you can.

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Battery life: Good enough
The fifth-gen iPod Touch's battery life lasts, according to Apple, through 40 hours of music playback or 8 hours of video. That's a bit below the battery life claims for the iPhone 5. CNET's formal video-playback battery life tests matched that exactly: we achieved 8 hours on the dot with Wi-Fi turned off. Anecdotally, I found that the Touch had very strong battery life for media playback and even basic game playing. However, when power-using the Touch for Wi-Fi Web browsing, video streaming, and app/media downloads, battery life chewed up more quickly. I got a solid day and a half of use before needing to recharge, using many features and downloading over 8GBs of apps and files.

iPod Touch vs. its competition
Now, here is the million-dollar question everyone is going to ask: what, exactly, is the iPod Touch's competition? That depends on how you define it.

iPhone 5 or fifth-gen iPod Touch? The short answer: iPhone 5. The iPhone 5 is a superior product. It's, well, a phone; it has 4G LTE. It has turn-by-turn navigation. It can access remote data on the go. It has a better camera. It has a superior processor. But, it also requires a phone contract and eligibility for a subsidized price.

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 consider using as a camera. It's a multi-use device, and it could even be your phone of sorts for FaceTime calls and Skype. At $299 without a contract, it's an intriguing proposition, but no longer a bargain one for 2012, even with 32G of storage.

Do you compare it against similar media players? The Samsung Galaxy Players are capable competitors. Compared with the Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2, the new iPod Touch is more expensive, but comes out as a better product.

Or do you compare it with the growing world of larger, less expensive 7-inch tablets like the Kindle Fire HD and Google Nexus 7, which offer a ton of value and function? Those devices might be superior as e-readers, Web browsers, and video players, but they lack the cameras of the Touch, and don't have nearly the same depth of apps. For music playing, the iPod Touch is the clear and obvious choice. For games, the Touch is the way to go. And, needless to say, the Touch is a lot smaller. It also has more storage: the base 32GB beats the Nexus 7's base 8GB.

What about Android phones? There are plenty of those, and many with larger screens. Devices like the Galaxy Note might be tempting alternatives, gadgets that merge tablet and phone more seamlessly. The Touch is larger, but it's still tiny for the smart gadget world. That equation works brilliantly on the iPhone 5, but on the Touch, it may not make as much sense for everyone. (Dedicated Android media players -- phoneless Android phones -- exist, but we've found that none of them that measures up to this Touch, or those mini-tablets mentioned above.)

You could also choose to buy the $199 fourth-gen iPod Touch, but that hardware is already two years old.

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As for the iPad Mini...well, technically it doesn't even exist yet, but it seems to loom over this Touch like an unanswered question. Suffice it to say that it's still really tough to beat the all-around execution of apps and services on the Touch. After all, it's really a phoneless iPhone. For a lot of people, an iPad Mini might be the preferable choice.

Conclusion
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. It may not be the slam-dunk value that it used to be, and $299 now occupies a higher-end side of the gadget spectrum compared with other alternatives. But for now, it's still tough to beat, provided you don't already own a phone that can do the same thing. Call it the King of Mini Media, or the best music player out there. The iPod Touch owns its little world. And, unlike last year, spending the extra $100 to get up to the 32GB model gets you a whole new product, not just more storage. For all these reasons -- should you be able to afford it -- the new iPod Touch is a product I'd recommend over many alternatives -- as a music player, not a tiny tablet.

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8.3

iPod Touch

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 8