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Review: iPod touch (2012)

The two iPod touches

Apple has tried to make it difficult for buyers to avoid rationalizing upgrades: the entry level iPod touch starts at 16GB/$199, just $50 more than the smaller but much less capable iPod nano. There's also a 32GB/$249 version available for $50 more, but if you spend another $50 you get the entry level 32GB/$299 version of the newest iPod touch, which offers the full gamut of fifth generation features.

The main differentiating features of the new model: a larger (4 inch, 1136×640), full color screen (the older iPod touch has a Retina Display resolution, but uses 18-bit color with dithering rather than full 24-bit color); an iPhone 4S-class A5 capable of supporting Siri; much better front and rear cameras with more sophisticated software; and a thinner, lighter new overall design with a choice of colors, an integrated wrist strap and Apple's new Lightning connector.

The new iPod touch isn't quite on the level of being an iPhone 5 without mobile: it's equipped with a previous generation A5, half the system RAM, a bit lower resolution rear camera (although much closer than in previous years, where the iPod got far inferior cameras or none at all), ships with EarPhones lacking an integrated mic (but it has a built in mic, unlike the iPod nano), and doesn't have a digital compass or GPS (which is built into the mobile baseband chip it lacks).

It is, however, the fanciest, most high end iPod touch Apple has ever offered, relative to the iPhone being sold alongside it. It's pretty clear Apple looked at which iPods its customers were buying and focused upon expanding its offerings to target the model representing more than half of its sales.

Unless buyers suddenly start clamoring for simple, cheaper iPods, you can expect Apple to continue to focus on the higher end range of iOS-based iPods priced between $199 and $399. It also appears likely that Apple will soon start offering a smaller iPad mini that dips down below $499 to provide even more options in this sweet spot of profitable products that no other maker has been able to gain traction.

Apple selling the tablets that don't make headlines

It's particularly noteworthy that, while there are plenty of alternative smartphones to compete against the iPhone, there are no real competitors to the iPod touch (Samsung's Android-based Galaxy Player and Microsoft's Zune HD have been notable failures in this space), and that smaller 7 inch tablets (closer to being a big iPod touch or smartphone than a scaled town iPad) have also struggled to sell, even as profitless loss leaders. Full sized tablets have failed across the board.

Clearly, Apple is offering a unique mix of hardware design, software and network cloud features that have enabled it to own this entire segment of the market to the same degree that it maintained dominance over the basic MP3 player market with its iPods over the past decade.

It's also interesting that Apple has been quietly selling around 20 million iPod touches every year, far more than the combined tablet/e-reader sales of Samsung, Amazon, Asus and Barnes and Noble together, despite the plethora of media headlines those vendors' products generate.

While Apple hasn't yet addressed the slowly emerging market for "moderately compact" tablets, it indisputably owns this "media tablet" market on both the high and low end of the size scale, the only places where these non-phone, non-PC devices are actually selling in quantity and earning sustainable profits.

iPod touch A5

The component specs of the previous iPod touch was about equal with the 2010 iPhone 4: Retina Display (although a lower quality version with 18-bit color) and A4 chip (albeit paired with 256MB, half the system RAM of iPhone 4 and the same as an iPhone 3GS). It remained there for two years.

The newest version is a hybrid of iPhone 5 specs (tall new full quality Retina Display, Lightning port) and iPhone 4S components (a dual core A5, 512MB system RAM). This results in benchmarking scores very much in line with the iPhone 4S, and in the ballpark of being around half of the iPhone 5 scores.

There are real world reasons for wanting a faster processor and more RAM: apps launch faster and you can switch between them without hesitation; there is enough horsepower to handle features such as Siri, Camera's Panorama, and Maps' Flyover (both of which work on the iPhone 4S and new iPod touch, but aren't supported on iPhone 4 or the 4G iPod touch); and there's power to run third party apps, particularly games, more fluidly.

The new iPhone 5 is much faster than Apple's A5-based devices, but there's fewer features that demand such unbridled performance capabilities, apart from games and some high end camera features. Rather than severely handicapped in comparison to the newest iPhone, the high end iPod touch is now reasonably equipped.

iPod touch camera

The best example of this improvement: Apple saddled previous iPod touch models with nearly worthless cameras. This year, the high end 5G version gets a front facing FaceTime HD camera on par with iPhone 5, which provides very good 720p video (but only serviceable 1.2MP photos; it's still intended primarily for video). This is much better than the (0.3MP) VGA camera Apple put on the iPhone 4S, previous iPod touches and even its new iPad.

On the back, Apple finally gave the iPod touch an LED flash and a very good camera. The 5MP sensor on the latest iPod touch isn't quite the 8MP version the iPhone 4S got last year; it sounds more like the 5MP sensor on iPhone 4.

It is, however, comparable in quality to the higher end sensor on newer iPhones, in particular because the iPod touch also gets a five element lens and supports a larger f/2.4 aperture (both features of the iPhone 4S and 5) rather than the 4 lens, f/2.8 setup of iPhone 4. More light means better pictures, so better lens features often trump packing more megapixels into a tiny sensor.

In the shots below, the new iPod touch offers better color and less noise than iPhone 4 (particularly visible around the iPod nano's home button), despite having the same 5MP rating, largely due to the new iPod touch's wider f/2.4 aperture shared with iPhone 4S and iPhone 5.

In addition to having better optics, the new iPod touch also, thanks to its A5 chip, runs more advanced photo software. It supports features like face detection and video stabilization, both of which are missing on the iPhone 4, despite having a similarly specced sensor. It doesn't quite match the iPhone 5 camera, especially in low light conditions, and doesn't have its ability to snap photos while recording video. While it can use WiFi to geotag photos, the iPod touch also lacks GPS to more accurately geotag every photo you take, anywhere you capture a picture.

The combination of the iPod touch's camera sensor, optics, software and its improved, iPhone 5-quality Retina Display screen (which is noticeably more vibrant than previously) brings it to or above the level of iPhone 4S as a camera. Unlike the iPad, which makes for an awkward camera just due to its shape, the iPod touch definitely needed a better camera, and its great to see Apple finally addressing this.