Fast processor. Excellent app selection. Well-built.
Mediocre battery life. Not an audiophile music player.
- Bottom Line
The Apple iPod touch is the best media player there is if you don't want a cellular connection.
By Sascha Segan
Apple's iPod touch is the last descendant of the proud race of PDAs that once roamed the wide open ranges of America. It's for people who don't want to be tied to yet another cellular subscription, forced to pay by the minute or by the month. There is nothing else like it. Its closest competitors, really, are 7-inch tablets, although those aren't pocketable. The new 2015 model brings the line up to speed with a processor that can handle the latest apps from the hottest Apple developers. The $199, 16GB iPod touch is still the least expensive way to experience iOS, and more importantly, it's the best value non-cellular media player on the market, which makes it a clear pick for our Editors' Choice. Its only true imperfection is, well, that we want more of it.
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The iPod touch has four capacity levels: 16GB for $199, 32GB for $249, 64GB for $299, and 128GB for $399. The sweet spot is probably the $299, 64GB unit, which has enough storage that most people won't run out on a habitual basis. The $199 model will, as before, find a home with many children whose parents don't want them to have phones yet.
The new iPod touch is exactly the same size as the old one, with the antennas, buttons, and cameras in the same exact places. It measures 4.86 by 2.31 by 0.24 inches (HWD) and weighs a light 3.1 ounces. It comes in blue, gold, gray, pink, red, or silver. The 1,136-by-640, 4-inch screen is the same size and brightness as the last model. This unit will fit into all of the cases, docks, and accessories that the previous iPod touch used. Apple's EarPods headphones also still come in the box.
The iPod Touch has always felt like an iPhone, but cheaper. It's nicely built, with a smooth matte metal back that isn't slippery. The white front with its Cyclopean camera up top and its round, physical Home button says iPhone, as do the shiny, chamfered metal edges. But its extremely slim body and light weight remind you that there isn't as much here as there is in an iPhone.
There's one key visible physical difference from the previous touch, and a few invisible ones. On the back, the pop-up wrist strap loop is gone; that's not much of a loss. The bottom-ported internal speaker is significantly louder than on the previous unit, although sound through the headphones is not dramatically different. The device has Bluetooth 4.1, but no NFC or a fingerprint sensor. There's also no GPS, but Apple uses a Wi-Fi hotspot database to determine location. And you get Apple's mysterious M8 motion coprocessor, which is designed to improve battery life in health and fitness apps.
Networking and Processor
Wi-Fi performance has improved considerably, especially at a distance or through walls. On a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network over a Verizon FiOS router, both the new and old iPod touch got the same speeds of 25Mbps down close to the router. At 25 feet away, though, the older iPod dropped to 5Mbps down while the newer one maintained 12.7Mbps. Add in some walls, and the older model barely eked out 1Mbps down while the newer one maintained a healthy 9Mbps. That's going to make for a lot less Wi-Fi frustration, better streaming, and much more reliable app downloads on the new model.
Let's get to the heart of why Apple needed to update this handheld: The old A5 processor is obsolete. It's just barely still on developers' radars because there are so many A5-powered iPad 2 units out there, but its days are clearly numbered, and Apple is clearly no longer developing its own software with the A5 in mind. Case in point: Apple Music, running on the previous iPod touch, is very noticeably sluggish.
Benchmarks show how huge the update from the A5 processor in previous models to the A8 chip is here. The multicore Geekbench score, which deals with behind-the-scenes processing tasks, went from 404 to 2447. Antutu's "UX Multitasking" subtest, which focuses on user interface, went from 435 to 7470. GFXBench's purely graphics-based T-Rex test went from 5.3 frames per second to 51.2.
These results, by the way, are all quite similar to the iPhone 6. The graphics benchmarks are identical, while the processor benchmarks are about 12 to 15 percent slower than the iPhone 6, reflecting a drop in processor clock speed from 1.3 to 1.12GHz.
The difference in application performance isn't as dramatic, because a lot of apps see the slower, older iPod touch and ratchet themselves back. Launching Need for Speed: Most Wanted took 17 seconds on the new iPod and 21 seconds on the old one. But anything involving photo or video processing gets a huge bump here. Exporting a one-minute iMovie took 110 seconds on the old device. On the new one? 15 seconds.
To be really picky, I'm a little concerned about the confluence of the new A8 processor and the old 4-inch screen on a low-volume product. The touch has to draft behind the more popular iPhones, and developers might think of the A8 processor as going with the larger iPhone 6 screen. But the result may actually be that apps overperform on this device, as it'll essentially act like an amped up iPhone 5S.
Battery and Camera
Amping up the processor while essentially keeping about the same size battery as the last generation (1,043mAh as compared with 1,030mAh) means a loss of battery life, though. Our battery rundown test is brutal: we stream a full-screen YouTube video over Wi-Fi with the brightness and volume turned all the way up. In that test, we got about 4 hours to 4 hours, 15 minutes of battery life with the new iPod, as compared with about 4, 45 minutes with the previous unit. Apple promises eight hours of video playback, but that's locally stored video, and with the screen brightness set to about half.
Apple kicked the touch's camera up from 5 megapixels to 8 megapixels, but the increase in quality isn't uniform. The new iPod is much better at focusing flash photos and at eking out images in very low-light contexts, both with its 8-megapixel main camera and its 1-megapixel front camera. But in good light, the additional megapixels can appear compromised by noise or artifacting. Sure, you have more data, but it isn't as gorgeous as, say, the iPhone 6's 8-megapixel shots.
I've never loved Apple's one-size-fits-all video recording modes, but they always record nice 720p video at 30 frames per second on the front camera and 1080p video at 30fps on the main camera, in all lighting contexts.
And because of the word "iPod," let's take a moment to think about music. The touch sounds fine through headphones and supports uncompressed ALC audio natively, along with FLAC through third-party apps. But the iPod touch line has never had, or intended to have, audiophile-quality components. You can get an external digital-to-analog converter that hooks up to the Lightning jack, but really, if you want a dedicated audiophile music player, these things exist. Get one.
Comparisons and Conclusions
Apple seems to have very thought-through life cycles for its handheld products. Year one is premium; year two, midrange; year three, budget; year four, supported but not sold; and year five, for God's sake will you buy a new one already? One of the reasons that many iPod touch owners currently feel burned is because Apple kept selling the A5-powered touch well into what would have been year four, giving it (at the end) the shortest real lifespan of any iPhone-like product. Powering the new touch with an A8 resets the clock to just before year two, and makes the handheld a solid buy again.
And as I said at the beginning, there's nothing like the touch if you want a handheld media player that doesn't require a phone subscription. At its price point, it's competing with unlocked phones like the Alcatel One Touch Idol 3, the Asus ZenFone 2, and the Huawei P8 Lite. In all those cases, you're trading the touch's flagship-level graphics and processor performance for a cellular modem you may not want. This is the most power-per-dollar you can get in a truly handheld form factor, and it runs gorgeous games, high-quality media apps, and even Microsoft Office. It's great for kids and for anyone else who wants iOS apps without investing in a $600 iPhone.
I very rarely award products five stars, but I would have done so here if the iPod touch had better battery life. That one caveat doesn't change the central attraction of the touch, though, and it shouldn't deter you from buying one. If you're looking for a handheld media player that doesn't force you into an intimate relationship with a cellular carrier, the new iPod touch is the best option out there by far.
PCMag.com's lead mobile analyst, Sascha Segan, has reviewed hundreds of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets in more than 9 years with PCMag. He's the head of our Fastest Mobile Networks project, one of the hosts of the daily PCMag Live Web show and speaks frequently in mass media on cell-phone-related issues. His commentary has appeared on ABC, the BBC, the CBC, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, and in newspapers from San Antonio, Texas to Edmonton, Alberta. Segan is also a multiple award-winning travel writer, having contributed… More »
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