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Should Anyone Buy The iPod Touch?

Forbes logo Forbes 27-07-2015 Ewan Spence, Contributor

Does the world still need the iPod Touch? Surely the functionality that it fills is covered by the lower priced iPhones? I’ve spent a week with the media player to find out, and the answer boils down to cost, target market, and opportunity for the Apple ecosystem to monetize more users over the next three years.

Apple iPod Touch 6th Generation, 2015 (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Apple iPod Touch 6th Generation, 2015 (image: Ewan Spence)

On first glance there’s very little difference between the sixth generation iPod Touch and the previous generation. The color options are slightly tweaked, with Apple’s standard triumvirate of silver, space grey, and gold all available. Into that mix you’ll find a deeper shade of blue and pink, and tucked out of sight of many of the marketing materials is a Product (Red) version of the latest media player from Apple.

It remains wonderfully thin at just 6.1 mm, and the weight of 88g is almost unnoticeable in the pocket. The four-inch screen does give this media player a genuine one-handed operation, and while the screen is 1136×640, it retains Apple’s favourite non-HD retina display resolution of 326 pixels.

It’s worth noting that the auto-brightness sensor used by the iPhone is not in the iPod Touch – you’re going to need to leave the setting at a higher level to cope with going from inside to outside, or be comfortable working the slider in the quick settings panel available from dragging up the bottom of the screen. I’ve left this at slightly brighter than normal, which keeps it legible outside but a touch brighter than normal in the office.

For want of a better description, the whole package feels cute and cuddly, and is very tactile.

Apple iPod Touch 6th Generation, 2015 (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Apple iPod Touch 6th Generation, 2015 (image: Ewan Spence)

The interesting part of this iPod Touch is the choice of CPU. Including the A8 in the specifications not only brings the iPod Touch up to date with the iPhone line (at least until September), it also allows Apple to leverage the economies of scale of the A8 production. The A5 chip used in the last generation of iPod Touch devices now resides only in 3rd generation Apple TV device.

Part of me wonders if the decision to upgrade the iPod Touch in part was down to a dwindling supply of A5 chips, and if it has proven to be cheaper to adopt the A8 into the design? Given that the A8 in the iPod Touch is under-clocked to 1.1 GHz, that allows for an increased yield on the A8 manufacturing, again lowering Apple’s bill of materials on the device. The vibration motor in the iPhone is not present here, with FaceTime video calling, messaging, and all the potential notifications this feels like another measure to keep the cost down as much as possible. GPS is also missing, although the coarse nature of WiFi positioning is good enough for weather apps and widgets.

The RAM has also been bumped up, from the 5th generation handset’s 512 MB to this unit’s 1GB, again bringing it into line with the iPhone 6 to help compatibility with applications, and to provide a hardware baseline that should support iOS 9 and iOS 10 in the future. The specifications on this new iPod Touch should be good for another two or three years of use (at which point Apple will have the same choice of kill or update, but get back to me in 2018 on that one).

The audio chipset is similar to the rest of the iOS range, so there’s no discernible difference in terms of audio quality through headphones. To my ears it’s slightly tinnier playing music out loud, although this could simply be down to having a thinner design, or even the speaker being a shade closer to a flat surface. I’ve no complaints over the audio output – as is the case with almost every smartphone on the market the quality of the encoding on each sound file is more important than the hardware.

Apple iPod Touch 6th Generation, 2015 (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Apple iPod Touch 6th Generation, 2015 (image: Ewan Spence)

One major element from ‘modern Apple’ that is not present is the fingerprint sensor in the home key. That means no TouchID on the device, and none of the fancy security applications in iOS are available. That rules out authorising downloads in iTunes, unlocking the device with a finger press, or using Apple Pay. Don’t forget your Apple ID password and device PIN code!

There’s a lot going on here, and as expected it all leads to a drain on the battery. At 1043 mAh it’s slightly larger than the fifth generation’s 1030 mAh, and provides the same battery endurance. Much like mobile phones are providing more advanced capabilities with the same time on battery, the iPod Touch offers the faster processor and improved graphics with the operating system working to make the batter more efficient. The forty hours of (local) music playback and eight hours of video playback is as advertised, although gaming will place more demand on the circuitry for power, so your Minecraft time is going to be a little bit shorter than you might expect.

Charging is through the supplied lightning cable, and can be done through the mains adaptor or a convenient USB socket. You can also sync data to your desktop through the cable, or rely on iCloud to sync data online.

Apple iPod Touch 6th Generation, 2015 (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Apple iPod Touch 6th Generation, 2015 (image: Ewan Spence)

One significant improvement is the iSight camera. While the forward-facing camera matches the older iPod Touch, resolution on the rear camera has been increased to eight megapixels. While that is in line with the iPhone and the quality of images taken by this iPod Touch are approaching that of the iPhone 6, it’s not quite the equal.

The iPod Touch camera lens is an f/2.4 (matching the older iPhone 5C, but both the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 6 come with an f/2.2), and it does not have the sapphire crystal cover on the lens. There is an LED flash, but it’s a simpler white focus light and flash rather than the two-tone LED flash on the newer smartphones that offer a more natural color reproduction.

If the iPhone camera is approaching DSLR levels of quality, the iPod Touch is approaching the quality of a strong point-and-shoot casual camera. It’s great at picking out detail, although light level is a stronger factor than on the iPhone - start to get into challenging circumstances and digital noise will creep into the picture.

Apple iPod Touch 6th Gen sample image (top, iPhone 6 bottom) (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Apple iPod Touch 6th Gen sample image (top, iPhone 6 bottom) (image: Ewan Spence)

The image signal processing , coupled with the faster A8 CPU and PowerVR GPU chip allows the iPod Touch to use burst mode and 120 FPS slow-mo filming. Apple’s software does pitch in to boost the saturation and color levels. On first glance the iPod Touch images are more appealing, but they lack the finer details of the iPhone 6 coupled with the increased colour swamping some of the detail that is present gives the edge to the iPhone for its more accurate capture.

Apple iPod Touch 6th Gen sample image (top, iPhone 6 bottom) (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Apple iPod Touch 6th Gen sample image (top, iPhone 6 bottom) (image: Ewan Spence)

As noted, the big advantage for Apple’s ecosystem is that the iPod Touch is now on iOS 8.4. While the fifth generation iPod Touch can also run that version, it’s at the edge of the acceptable performance envelope, and will likely struggle with iOS 9.

With so many applications and games limited by the version number, keeping an iPod Touch in the family beyond September and the next version of iOS will need this new hardware. iOS 8.4 runs as expected, and while the smaller screen does reduce the information on show in some applications (notably the web browser and email clients), that’s balanced off by the ease of scrolling and one-handed operation.

The big winner in terms of software for me is family sharing. Assuming that a parent or group leader has set up a family group in iCloud, purchases of music, video, apps, and games from iTunes can be shared at no extra cost. If one person has bought Minecraft, everyone has access to it. Not having to buy multiple copies for family members is a huge mental saving. Apple Music is also available on the iPod Touch, and the family plan will allow everyone in the iCloud group access to the new streaming music service.

Apple iPod Touch 6th Generation, 2015 (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Apple iPod Touch 6th Generation, 2015 (image: Ewan Spence)

The sixth generation iPod Touch is a smart device. It handles the role of being a media player with aplomb, serving up music, radio, video, podcasting, and everything in between with ease. It’s a familiar environment to iOS users, and arguably to anyone who has picked up a mobile device over the last few years. That’s testament to the ease of use offered by iOS.

iOS also allows the strong secondary function of ‘gaming’ to be taken seriously. Here the iPod Touch is very well served with the inclusion of the A8 chip and the 1GB of RAM that matches the current iPhone generation. There’s no need for developer to re-target the iPod Touch, it now matches the mainstream phone and that’s going to open up a huge catalogue of games that owners of previous iPod Touches could only have dreamed of.

Functionally there is very little to critique the iPod Touch over. Apple has a keen sense of who the target market will be, and its a younger audience who don’t have debit or credit cards to add to the system. The smaller size means it fits easily in the hand, the lower cost (compared to $700 for an iPhone 6) makes it an attractive buy, and the addition of family sharing of apps, media, and music subscriptions.

Apple iPod Touch 6th Generation, 2015 (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Apple iPod Touch 6th Generation, 2015 (image: Ewan Spence)

That said, for the majority of people an iPod Touch would be a unnecessary purchase. The ubiquity of the smartphone means that much of the teenage and college audience that would have flocked to the iPod Touch three or four years ago can pick up a smartphone with ease. Was Apple right to update the iPod Touch for 2015? Given that the choice was update and keep production ticking over for a few million sales per quarter, or kill the product line completely, Apple has rightly taken the sales, taken the profit, and taken the increased revenue from additional services.

The iPod Touch is the perfect answer to a very narrow question. For most people it’s a device to pass over, but for families looking for a cheaper entry-level device, for those looking for a standalone media player for a specific reason, and perhaps those who want something with a lot of functionality but without wanting the larger touchscreen that come with modern smartphones, the iPod Touch will be the best choice.

Like any consumer electronic device, think clearly about your wants and needs. If your list matches the iPod Touch’s list, you are not going to be disappointed. But once you stray away from that very narrow audience, you’d be far better served with something else.

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