It all started with an iPod touch, a gift from my parents years ago. I’ve since bought a half-dozen more iPods, two iPhones, an iPad, and a MacBook Air. Somehow I'm sure Apple planned it that way. The touch is the entry point into people’s worlds, the easy and kid-friendly device that has gotten so many people hooked on iOS. It's also the de facto MP3 player, the device that became synonymous with its function the way tissues are just called Kleenex now.
This year, Apple bestowed upon the touch perhaps its biggest update ever. The 2012 iPod touch has a 4-inch Retina display, a 5-megapixel camera, iOS 6, and 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. It’s a combination of Apple’s last three cellphones, with particular emphasis on the internals of the 4S. It’s also the thinnest, lightest, and most colorful touch yet. But it all comes at a price: the touch is now $299-$399, depending on how much storage you get. There’s a lot packed into the tiny device, but is it worth the price when most of its competition, and many full-fledged smartphones, come so much cheaper? Read on to find out.
It's no iPhone 5, but it's still well-made
"Thin" almost isn’t a strong enough word to describe the iPod touch. When you finally get it out of its impossible-to-open plastic packaging, it almost feels like you left part of it behind. It really is only a quarter-inch thick, though, and it really does weigh only 3.1 ounces. Remarkably, it doesn’t feel cheap or flimsy — it’s certainly a far cry from the incredible craftsmanship of the iPhone 5, but its aluminum back panel still feels quite solid and the slightly rounded edges are comfortable in your hand. The touch now comes in five colors (white, slate, pink, yellow, and cyan), which actually look pretty good, though the colored back panel does look a bit like a case you could peel off.
The headphone jack is on the bottom of the device, where it’s been on previous models — the iPhone 5 was playing catch-up. There’s also a Lightning port on the bottom, next to a single speaker. Up top you’ll find the power button, and two separate volume controls live on the left side. Sound familiar? It should.
On the colored back are a camera lens, an LED flash, and an unsightly black plastic strip for the wireless radios. There’s also a big iPod logo, and the Loop. Oh, the Loop. This is a small, circular protrusion on the back of the touch that connects with an accompanying lanyard (which matches your chosen color scheme, natch), giving you a wrist strap for your iPod. If you like the feature, it’s a nice thing to have; personally, I was thrilled that the nub could be pressed down so that it’s flush with the back, and I promptly forgot it existed.
The iPod touch’s display is exactly the same one as the iPhone 5 — a 4-inch, 1136 x 640 panel that looks fantastic. It's a much bigger upgrade for the touch, too, which used to have a washed out screen far worse than the iPhone — parity is a huge leap forward. More space is a good thing for almost every activity, but it’s most noticeable with movies and games, both of which take full advantage of the larger 16:9 screen. Movies and games are two of the most popular things to do on the iPod touch, I’m sure, so the screen is welcome.
The device is powered by a dual-core A5 processor, the same one inside the iPhone 4S. It’s a generation behind the new A6, which gives me some pause about how long the touch will be able to get software updates, but for now it’s quite capable — there's a definite downgrade in gaming power, but it still does fine. You also get Bluetooth 4.0 and dual-band Wi-Fi. Obviously, there’s no cell radio inside the iPod touch — that’s an omission I can live with. More frustrating is the lack of GPS: this could be an absolutely killer in-car nav system with TomTom or Garmin apps and cached maps, but the capability is simply removed without any obvious reason why.
A huge upgrade, but not yet at iPhone or point-and-shoot level
Apple’s made a bold pitch with the new iPod touch, suggesting in no uncertain terms that this device can replace your point-and-shoot camera. It’s true, to an extent: the iPod touch’s camera is surprisingly good. Yes, it’s only a 5-megapixel sensor, equal to the iPhone 4 and bested by 4S and 5, but because its lens, software, and processor are all much newer, the touch is a much better camera than the iPhone 4.
Pictures look good, especially if you're in good lighting. Colors can occasionally look washed out, but for the most part things are accurate and sharp. The camera app is fast, too, and HDR and panorama mode both work remarkably well. In low light, photos get really noisy really fast, but in all but the worst terrible lighting shots should be usable for Facebook — but you'll have to be okay with using the flash.
The touch also shoots 1080p video, which doesn't look quite as impressive. It’s good enough for this type of device, and certainly gets the job done if there’s no other camera nearby, but it’s not particularly great. The same goes for the 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera, which does a nice job with FaceTime, Skype, or teeth checks, but is by no means a good way to take pictures.
I’m not sure the iPod touch will make you throw your point-and-shoot away, but it might obviate the need for one in some cases. And as a "My First Camera," a way to learn how to frame, compose, and shoot pictures, it’s awesome.
Software and performance
I’ve been saying for years that the iPod touch is just the iPhone minus the phone parts. That’s never been more true — the new model has just about every feature on the iPhone other than the ability to make phone calls.
The touch runs iOS 6, with every feature intact and every app compatible. Siri’s available on the touch for the first time ever, and works as well as you'd expect — though since it has to be connected to the internet, the places you can use Siri are severely limited. Apple’s new Maps are here, though there are plenty of connectivity-created limitations as well. Passbook, Panorama, Facebook integration, iMessage, and FaceTime are all here. It's a truly complete iOS 6, and it makes the touch feel increasingly less like a dedicated music player and more like a mini-tablet — it competes more with the Nexus 7 than the iPod nano.
The music and movies setup is exactly the same as on the iPhone 5, with a redesigned app that I quite like. It’s really easy to send audio to a Bluetooth speaker, or use AirPlay to mirror or just push playback to your TV. The bottom-facing internal speaker has been improved a bit, though it’s still not very loud or impressive; ditto the new EarPods, which are a definite step up from the uncomfortable earbuds that used to come with Apple devices but are still aggressively mediocre. A good Bluetooth speaker or set of headphones is a great addition to an iPod touch.
Since there’s no battery-killing cell radio inside, the iPod touch has always been long-lasting. I haven’t had the device long enough to kill the battery entirely yet, so I'll just say this: I did basically nothing but use the device for eight hours, and my combination of music, movies, games and browsing killed only about 20 percent of the battery. So when Apple says you’ll get 40 hours of music playback from the new touch, I believe it. The camera seemed to cause the most battery drain, but not so much as to be a problem.
It really is an iPhone minus the phone
Upgrades across the board, but for $300 I'd want the absolute bleeding edge
This year’s iPod touch is the best one ever, without question — Apple updated all the right things, and by giving the touch a big screen and good camera has made this mini tablet a more versatile device than ever. As a gateway drug into the iOS ecosystem, it does a great job of showing off all the iOS 6 features and apps, on a really solid piece of hardware. It’s also a great way to get into the huge iOS ecosystem without putting an expensive data plan on your account — and thanks to iMessage, FaceTime, and Skype, there’s a lot of communicating you can do just over Wi-Fi.
Even as we continue to think the market should be dying in the age of the smartphone, the iPod touch continues to sell. It's really a device without competition, with no Yepp or Galaxy Player putting up a compelling fight. But is there a market for a $299 iPod touch? With no cheaper entry-level option, the touch is far from an impulse purchase. Selling the last-generation model for $199 isn’t a good compromise, either: it has a terrible camera, a much worse screen, and seriously outdated internals. If you’re looking for a device like the iPod touch, buying this year's model is an absolute no-brainer, but I’d bet more people are going to think twice before laying out $300.