Review: Fifth-generation iPod touch is faster, finer than predecessors

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What comes around

The 5G iPod touch benefits from some features inherited from the iPhones 4S and 5. Delve into the Camera app, for example, and you'll spy the HDR and Panorama features found on the iPhone. Siri is also on board this latest iPod, and it works just as well (and I’ll let you be the judge of how well that is) as it does on the iPhone—provided, of course, that you're connected to a Wi-Fi network. (The iPod touch lacks cellular connectivity, making Siri useless when you're out and about.) The latest iPod touch also has an LED flash next to the camera on the back.

The 5G iPod touch ships with a variation of Apple’s new EarPods headphones. What makes them different is the lack of an in-line three-button remote control. And that's too bad. It’s not that the EarPods that contain this remote sound any better. The touch is one of those iPods that cries out for a remote, as many people keep their iPod in their pocket or purse, with the headphones trailing out. And with Siri now part of the package, we’re more likely than ever to talk to our iPod. The last iPod touch didn’t merit anything other than the bare-bones headphones and, in Apple’s eyes, this one apparently doesn’t either. I disagree, and think it's a bad move on Apple's part.

We reviewed the EarPods separately and I have little to add other than that they fit my ears far better than the original white Apple earbuds. And like our reviewer, I found their sound okay, but not great.

About those cameras

The 5G iPod touch packs two better cameras than its predecessor, and it shows. The new iPod clearly outshoots the old one. The fourth-generation iPod touch held a 0.7 megapixel camera capable of shooting 1280 by 720 (720p) HD video and 960 by 720 stills. The front-facing camera offered a bare 0.3 megapixels at a resolution of 640 by 480. The new iPod touch houses a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera that shoots 1080p HD video and still images at 2592 by 1936. The front facing camera shoots stills at 1280 by 960 and video at 1280 by 720.

The 5G iPod touch (left) clearly handles low light better than its predecessor (right).

But the improvements are far greater than resolution. The new iPod’s camera reveals far more details, is better in low light, and its color accuracy is a big step forward. The old iPod’s camera tended to drench images with a blue hue and produces very grainy results in low light. Indoor skin tones are warmer with the new iPod, whereas with the 4G iPod they tend toward pink.

The flash isn’t a great help in very low light. It can produce results good enough to embarrass your friends on Facebook, but otherwise tends (like the iPhone) to blow out subjects in a dark setting. It's better to reserve this feature for fill-flash when you want to brighten up backlit subjects who are standing in a reasonably bright environment.

The 5G iPod touch's (left) color is closer to reality than the 4G touch's (right).

New and missing

The one wholly new feature on the iPod touch is the wrist strap and the accompanying spring-loaded post for attaching it. Flip the iPod over and you will find, in the lower left corner, a silver disk a little smaller than the head of a thumbtack. Push on it and it pops out slightly. In this position you can slip on the included color-coordinated wrist strap that allows you to dangle the device from your wrist, purse strap, or belt loop. The strap seems plenty sturdy, and I can see it helping to prevent iPods from taking a deadly tumble. It’s something I’m unlikely to use, but Apple makes it easy to ignore. Just leave the post pushed in and treat it as a decoration.

Those seeking the legendary “iPhone without a phone” are as close as they’ve ever been to an iPod touch that matches the capabilities of Apple’s mobile phone, but there are important differences outside the device’s ability to make and receive phone calls. It holds no GPS circuitry so Maps’ turn-by-turn powers are lost on it. And because it can’t communicate over a cellular network, FaceTime conversations are, of course, limited to Wi-Fi.

I mentioned that Siri is dead unless you're connected to a Wi-Fi network. This seemingly introduces a problem that didn't exist on the previous iPod touch—spoken music navigation. On the 4G iPod touch, you could press and hold the Home button to initiate voice control. With that control you could tell the iPod what music to play, which was very helpful while driving. If you have Siri switched on, voice control doesn't work unless you're connected to a Wi-Fi network. So, if you're on the road and want to tell your iPod to play a song, you can't. However, there's a way around this. Go to Settings > General > Siri, and switch Siri off. Now when you press and hold the Home button, the old Voice Control feature appears, allowing you to play music by command even when not connected to Wi-Fi.

One other thing that’s missing is a $199 price tag on one of these iPod touches. Apple continues to sell the 4G iPod touch in two capacities—16GB for $199 and 32GB for $249. The 5G iPod touch is available in 32GB and 64GB capacities for $299 and $399, respectively. With its new look and continued appeal to younger users (and the parents of these users who’ve relied on avoiding a two-year iPhone commitment for their kid by slipping an iPod touch under the holiday shrubbery instead), that $100 difference may be significant. $200 isn’t cheap, but $300 may be something of a stretch. And frankly, once a kid lays hands on this new touch, they’re unlikely to leap for joy when they unwrap the older model.

Bottom line

Price aside, whether you’re in it for the apps, games, or media, this is an iPod you’ll treasure. With its improved cameras, zippy performance, bright and roomy display, support for Siri, and more colorful and statuesque form, the fifth-generation iPod touch is a winner.

Updated 12:00 PM 10/12/12 to correct information about Voice Control on the iPod touch.

At a Glance
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