The poor, neglected iPod touch hasn't been upgraded since late 2010, when the fourth-generation version got a Retina display and the A4 chip that powered the iPhone 4. But when the iPhone 4S came out, Apple did nothing with the iPod touch - they lowered the price a bit, and touted its ability to run iOS 5, but the actual hardware stayed the same.
No more. Apple's most popular iPod got a big upgrade at the September 12 event, including the same taller screen as the iPhone 5. Measuring 4 inches diagonally, the screen is 640 pixels wide but now 1136 pixels high, leaving room for an extra row of icons on the home screen.
With its 16:9 ratio, you can watch widescreen video without letterboxing. We watched some scenes from The Avengers, and every pixel was used for video, a welcome change for anyone who uses the iPod touch for entertainment.
Developers will be able to upgrade their apps to take advantage of the extra real estate. Any apps written for the older 960x640 iPhones and iPod touch models run just fine, with the interface centered on the screen and black bars above and below. The demo units Apple had included an unmodified version of Algoriddim's djay app (which has a great design and a relatively dark interface), and the black bars weren't distracting or even quite noticeable while we used the app.
New Body Design
What is noticeable as soon as you pick the iPod touch up is how thin and light it is. At less than a quarter-inch thick (0.24 inch, 6.1mm) and barely over 3 ounces (3.10 ounces, 88 grams), it feels almost inconsequential, like a stack of 10 index cards, something you could just toss around. But when you look closer, it's a precisely machined single piece of aluminum, seamless, with a handsome matte finish, vibrant colors, and a shiny Apple logo on the back. We actually prefer the black version, since it has a black face. The silver, pink, yellow, blue, and red iPods have white faces.
The back of the iPod touch has a new surprise, too. Press a silver button at the bottom-left, and it pops out just a bit. Then you can attach a rubber wrist strap called the iPod touch loop -- think of it like the leash that keeps you from dropping your Wii remote. It's a clever idea, comfortable, adjustable, and free—Apple includes a matching loop with each iPod touch.
The rear camera shoots 1080p video (the last iPod touch could only do 720p), with image stabilization and face detection, and it can take 5-megapixel stills. Conditions in the demo room weren't ideal for testing photo quality, but the iPod touch took pictures quickly. And the cool Panorama feature (also on iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S) is easy to use and produces impressive results almost instantly.
The front camera is much upgraded too -- it can take 720p video at 30 frames per second, perfect for high-quality video calls or vlog posts, and it takes 1.2 megapixel stills that look a lot better than the VGA stills the old iPod touch's front camera could muster.
Performance and Software
Apple packed a dual-core A5 system-on-a-chip, with twice the processing power and 7 times the graphics performance as the last iPod touch's A4 chip. Apps opened nearly instantly, everything felt speedy and responsive. No apps should be off-limits to this hardware -- in fact, this is the first iPod touch that can run Apple's iPhoto and iMovie apps, for example, and handle AirPlay Mirroring to an Apple TV.
This is also the first iPod touch to have Siri, which does require Internet access. It's getting new tricks with iOS 6 (sports scores, Rotten Tomatoes movie data, OpenTable restaurant reservations), but Apple's site still lists it in beta. Siri's been working better on our iPhone 4S lately, so we hope performance doesn't take a huge hit once a few million iPad 3 and fifth-gen iPod touch users jump on board too. In the demo room, Siri could hear us relatively well, with good dictation results.
Maps has Flyover and Turn-by-Turn, although you'll need Wi-Fi for turn-by-turn directions, maybe through a product like the MiFi. (Flyover and Turn by Turn are also on iPhone 5, iPhone 4S, iPad 3, and iPad 2, but not supported by the old fourth-gen iPod touch.) We couldn't test Turn-by-Turn in the demo room, but Flyover was a neat way to pan around a 3D image of a city, like Google Earth. Of course, not every city is supported, and you need an Internet connection for maps to load - performance was a little sluggish in our hands-on time, probably due to so many people hammering the same Wi-Fi network at once.
Some other things we couldn't test in the demo room will have to wait for the full review: Battery life (Apple claims 40 hours of music, 8 hours of video). The quality of the built-in speaker and the microphone sensitivity. The new durability and sync speed of the new Lightning connector, which replaces the 30-pin connector and allows the incredibly thin design. And the dual-band Wi-Fi, 2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11n, which can allow theoretical download speeds of 150Mbps.
Both in design and its hardware capabilities, the fifth-gen iPod touch is a big step forward. Its battery life and low cost of ownership (since it has no cellular contract) best the iPhone, and it can do just as much, in a thinner, lighter package. It's definitely a worthy upgrade for owners of previous iPod touch models that want to take full advantage of iOS 6's new features. Apple's fifth-gen iPod touch can be preordered at www.apple.com: $299 for 32GB and $399 for 64GB, and it ships in October.