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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.and
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.
As for the iPad Mini...well,, 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.
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.