Apple iPod touch (2012) fifth generation review
The iPod touch has always been an interesting device. Branded as an Apple music player, it's rich feature set, sitting alongside the wide functionality of the iPhone, has always attracted those who either couldn't afford, or didn't want, an iPhone in their pocket.
Apple says that the touch is about gaming and media, and that with its massive library of apps and games the iPod is the future of portable entertainment, rather than the PlayStation Vita or the Nintendo DS.
The question, though, is whether people will be prepared to spend quite a lot of money on an enhanced music player, when most of them have a phone that has similar features. Does the iPod touch still justify its existence?
For the first time, the iPod touch gets some colour options beyond black and white. Apple has always been a bit wary of colours, being happy to apply them to the nano and shuffle, but wanting the two flagship products - the touch, and iPhone - to keep a more sensible tone to them. While that's still true of the iPhone, the touch now gets some exciting shades.
Speaking in approximate terms, you get a device that's a sliver thinner than the previous iPod touch, about the same width, and a decent chunk taller. These new dimensions are because the screen is now taller, and identical to the one you get in the iPhone. The touch display is now closer to 16:9, which makes it better suited to movies than the outgoing 4th generation model.
On the left, there's a volume control, on the top is a power button and the bottom holds the headphone jack and Lightning port.
There are two cameras, one predominantly for FaceTime on the front - 1.2-megapixels - and a 5-megapixel rear-mounted camera with LED flash on the back for photos and 1080/30p video.
On the back you also get a small, pop-up tether point for an included lanyard-type affair. The mechanism is incredibly neat, and although we can't see us using it, for those who like such things it's likely to be quite useful. We're sure someone will come up with an ingenious use for it too, in due course.
With the changes Apple has made, including the new display, we do honestly think the iPod touch is the best-looking device the firm makes. The iPhone might be the popular choice, but the iPod offers a serious rival.
There was a time when you could say that Apple didn't have the best sound on MP3 players. Early iPods didn't sound great, and certainly devices from the likes of Cowon, iRiver and particularly Sony were nicer to listen to. That isn't true anymore. In fact, we'd go so far as to say that the iPod touch is just about the nicest-sounding MP3 player we've used.
The nice thing now, is that Apple offers a consistency across it's range that you don't get with Android. It's possible to get an Android phone or MP3 player that sounds brilliant, or one that sounds like someone has thrown an Amstrad speaker into an old beer barrel. And that's the problem - without trying them or reading countless reviews, you'll be taking pot luck on what you get. With an iPod, you know you're going to get something that sounds terrific.
For our tests we used our own earphones - the superb Phonak Audeo PFE232 - to give us a clear picture of how the iPod sounds compared to other devices we've tested. The results were very good. There's a decent range from the iPod, it's perhaps fractionally more bass-heavy than some other devices we've tested. But we found there was plenty of detail in the all our music, from ludicrous pop through to ridiculous trance, the iPod managed it all with skill.
Apple includes a lot of EQ presets, most of which we didn't really like. We found that with our reference headphones, leaving the EQ off was the best approach. Almost certainly, on some headphones, the EQ presets will help cover up the weaknesses, but with good headphones that shouldn't be necessary. There's no custom EQ setting either, which we think is a missed opportunity.
If you've used an Apple device, then you may well also have used AirPlay. It allows your iPod or other Apple device to talk to speakers, Apple TV or other equipment. It's like an upmarket version of Bluetooth audio, but with much better quality.
We paired the iPod touch with a very high-end audiophile system by Linn - the Kiko - and we're very happy with the results. There's a fantastic range to sound, and everything we played through the system from the iPod sounded terrific. While Bluetooth is generally fine, it's better to use the higher quality of AirPlay, although, be warned, it will use more power than modern Bluetooth devices.
If you have Apple TV, then you can also share video via AirPlay, or even use mirroring to play games on a TV, or display other content. It's a pretty easy way of connecting your iPod to a big screen, assuming you have Apple TV.
The iPod touch now, officially, has a Retina Display. The previous model didn't, because although the display had the same resolution as the iPhone, it was not an IPS panel. Now, on the new iPod, it is, so it can legitimately be branded as a Retina display.
And it is stunning.
Of course, not every app makes use of it, and there are lots of apps that are not yet built for the taller display, but for the most part, things look stunning. That means web pages look fantastic and videos are superb.
We nabbed some HD video from iTunes, sat back and enjoyed watching very much. The iPod can play 720p video, and it's well worth spending a little extra on the HD content from iTunes - you get both SD and HD for the price. But with HD, you'll also benefit when watching on Apple TV or your PC.
We do want to point out that the new iPod lacks one feature from last year's model: namely, the auto-brightness. This iPod can't, therefore, tell if you're indoors or outdoors, so you'll need to make adjustments to the screen manually. Apparently, this is because the new iPod is so thin there is no room for a light sensor.
Siri, notifications and iOS
We have reviewed iOS 6 in some detail previously, so we won't cover all that ground again. But suffice to say, it's very good. One feature we want to highlight though is notifications, which Apple has continued to improve. In iOS 6 you'll see boxes for tweeting and posting to Facebook directly, and the whole system feels like it's actually something you'll want to check on a regular basis. It's perhaps not up to the functionality of the Android system, but it's getting there, and it's a lot prettier.
Siri never made it on to the old iPod touch, but it's here now. The voice-activated personal assistant comes in for a bit of stick, because it's not always that useful, and requires you to bark orders to your phone. But actually, it has its uses. It is, for example, brilliant when you want to set an alarm, send a quick tweet. Indeed, it's tweeting we liked the best, as it's often a lot quicker than tapping in a message. You get plenty of chances to confirm that Siri isn't going to make you look stupid with a nonsense error message too, but accuracy didn't seem to be much of a problem for us.
READ: Apple iOS 6 review
Perhaps best of all though, these features make the iPod feel more like a phone-free iPhone, and that's a good thing. If you can't afford an iPhone, or want to use a different platform for your mobile, then the iPod gives you access to the best bits of the iPhone, for much less cash.
There's a lot to be said about gaming on the iPod touch. Like the iPhone, it's a solid graphics performer. It has seven times more graphical power than the previous generation, and increasingly the games appearing in the app store a spectacular.
It's not all rosy though, because the touchscreen is still a slightly less than ideal way of interacting with most games. For casual titles like Where's My Perry? it's fine, but for racing or FPS games, it can be too hard to control what's happening. That said, a lot of this rests with the developers, and there are good and bad examples of games on the market.
One thing's for sure, the new screen means that gaming is a great experience. It's bright, colourful and pin-sharp, so the experience feels like a premium games console would. We found that the new processor keeps everything smooth, and will most likely result in developers launching ever more impressive titles in the next 12 months.
The new white headphones
Apple has clearly heard some of the criticism of its old iPod and iPhone headphones. So the new set for 2012 is radically redesigned, including getting a name of their own - EarPods. Apple says: "Your ears aren't round, so headphones shouldn't be either." That's a bit of marketing talk, but we don't care, because the EarPods feel fantastic in your lug-holes.
What's perhaps most striking is how little force they take to go in, and stay in. In our full review of the iPhone's EarPods, we noted that they aren't well suited to exercise, because they can be tugged out with relative ease. We have to say though, that if the force exerted on your EarPods is just down, they don't pop out at all. The problems come if you pull them from the side. In short, we think most people will have no problems with these new earphones.
READ: Apple EarPods review
In terms of sound quality, our view remains unchanged from the full review. They sound terrific with the iPod touch. If you set the device to "flat" EQ then they seem reasonably well balanced. They push the bass a bit hard, and these certainly aren't audiophile headphones. What they are is a great addition to the overall package. They're comfortable, easy to clean, sound good and are a huge improvement on the previous generation of headphones included with iPods and iPhones.
It's also worth pointing out that the built-in speaker is also pretty good. Sound is a little thin, and there's predictably little bass, but the clarity of voices and dialogue is exceptionally good. This makes watching TV and films possible, although music will always be best enjoyed through headphones or proper external speakers.
New USB cable
Frankly, we're pleased to see the back of the old Apple USB cable for its iDevices. It was absolutely massive and swallowed space for no good reason. It was also a lot more fragile than the new design, with a larger area that was susceptible to damage and lots of parts that could be broken.
Of course, most people never had a problem, and those with older iOS devices will likely have docks that use the old connector. Apple does make an adaptor for those people, but it's quite expensive and also will mean added bulk and risk of damaging your dock. Even so, if you have a good bit of kit that you want to keep, all is not lost.
If you're new to the iPod though, or you just don't have any docks that use the connector, then you'll be largely unaffected by the change. And let's be honest, there are better ways to listen to music on an audio system than with wires. Use AirPlay or Bluetooth, both are more convenient.
The previous iPod touch didn't have much to shout about in terms of photographic skill. That's changed now though, and although the iPod isn't up to the same quality as the iPhone, things are a lot closer now than before.
The 5-megapixel sensor is smaller than the 8-megapixel one in the iPhone, but the lens is the same, giving you more of a chance of snapping a good shot - lenses are a lot more important than sensors. There are also some nice features now, such as HDR and panorama.
Images look good too, and there's plenty of fine detail. We were on the look out for the "cheap mobile phone" look to images, but the iPod manages to create pictures that look great blown up to full size. We haven't tried, but we're pretty sure that you could print them with good results too.
Both panorama and HDR are useful. HDR is our favourite, because it gives just a hint more dynamic range to images, without giving them an artificial look. If you're taking a photo with pronounced light and dark areas, then it can really help you pull out the detail in dark areas, without destroying the exposure of the bright areas.
Panorama is less useful, but fun enough. It's one of the best implementations we've seen in terms of software though. You're guided through the photo, given an indication if you're not holding the camera straight, and given the option to cut the photo off, if you don't need the full-width panorama. It's not a feature you'll use much, but when you do, you'll be really happy with the results.
And it's only really here we reach a sticking point, because the iPod touch is expensive. For the 32GB it costs £250 and jumps up to £330 for the 64GB model.
Perhaps the best way to think about it, is that it's half the price of an iPhone - if you consider the 64GB iPhone, it's much less than half the price. You don't get half the features though, you get 95 per cent of them. The only thing you can't do is make phone calls or send text messages.
Despite being expensive, it's still a good deal. There's so much included here: the screen is beautiful, the sound quality is superb and you get access to hundreds of thousands of apps and games. The camera is also credible, and if you grab a VOIP app or Skype, you can use the thing as a phone too.
The iPod touch clearly has plenty to offer in a market full of very good devices. Phones have never been better and they're so good that they've basically killed the standalone MP3 player. But not the iPod, which survives because Apple pours as much love into it as it does all of its other devices.
That means you get a mind-blowingly good screen, fantastic sound and access to the biggest collection of games and apps on any device. It's the experience that wins here, meaning you can have Apple while sticking to your venerable BlackBerry, for example. And while it's not cheap, it still offers pretty remarkable value, considering how close it comes, in terms of features, to the iPhone.
The iPod touch proves that there's a market for things that can't make phone calls, but do music, video, photos and apps with a skill you'd only get on phones that cost hundreds of pounds more.