Review: iPod touch (late 2009)

Jason Snell
18 September, 2009
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The launch of the original iPod touch in late 2007, in the aftermath of a summer of sheer iPhone frenzy, was anticlimactic. The new device was hobbled by its hardware (no speaker or volume controls) and its software (Apple originally omitted Notes, Mail, Stocks, Maps, and Weather). It was, quite simply, Not An iPhone.

In the two intervening years, though, that afterthought of a product has become a powerhouse, with hardware and software improvements turning it into the match of the iPhone in every way except the fact that it’s not a phone. It turns out that 20 million people wanted an iPhone without the phone, compared to the 30 million who wanted the iPhone itself. When we write about the iPhone OS at Macworld, we generally just use the term “iPhone” to keep things simple—and frequently earn the wrath of iPod touch users who don’t want us to leave them out.

The iPod touch is now as big a hit as the iPhone. It appeals to people who don’t want to commit to 24 pricey months of mobile phone bills. With the addition in 2008 of the App Store and the vastly improved second-generation iPod touch hardware, the iPod touch became a versatile device that acts like a remote control, a game machine—you name it.

Just after the iPod touch’s second birthday, Apple has announced an update to the product line that’s a bit perplexing. From the outside, these new iPod touch models are identical to the second-generation models from 2008. Despite numerous rumours (and some supporting photographic evidence) to suggest that the iPod touch might be receiving a version of the iPhone’s onboard-camera hardware, these new iPod touch models still lack a camera. (Sorry, Boy Scouts, there’s also no compass or GPS.)

Now, it’s not fair to ding Apple for failing to live up to rumours, but I do think it’s fair to suggest that it’s high time that the iPod touch include a camera, given the robust camera support within the iPhone OS, and given that there’s now a video camera on the latest iPod nanos. It’s too bad that these new models can’t capture a quick snapshot and take advantage of all those great apps that support the iPhone’s built-in camera.

I’m a little less upset by the lack of a built-in microphone, since you can get one on a set of headphones, or a GPS receiver, since the iPhone 3G and 3GS take advantage of the position of nearby cellular towers to quickly acquire a GPS location—and accessing cell towers is most definitely not part of the iPod touch’s purview. Still, as the iPod touch evolves, it would be nice to see it gain more of the iPhone’s hardware features, since many apps are written with specific support for those features.

On the inside, the two top-of-the-line models (a $399 model offering 32GB of storage space and a $549 model with 64GB of storage) are quite different from their predecessors. With new, faster processors and graphics chips, the late-2009-vintage iPod touches have gained the same speed boost that the iPhone did when it leaped from 3G to 3GS.

Like the 3GS, the new high-end iPod touch models offer support for Voice Control, a feature that lets you hold down the button on your headphones and command your iPod to play songs from a particular artist, playlist, or album. They also support hardware encryption, meaning it’s much faster to erase your iPod and make its contents unrecoverable, because all the device has to do is erase its decryption key, rather than every single byte in its storage.

(The $268 8GB iPod touch model, on the other hand, is just the equivalent of the 8GB iPhone 3G—a collection of year-old technology that’s been kept around to be sold at a bargain price.)

In almost every one of my tests, the faster iPod touch was within a few percentage points of the iPhone 3GS, and undeniably faster than any previous iPhone OS model. The iPod touch started up in an iPhone OS-record 16.3 seconds, a test iPod touches have always excelled at since they don’t need to ready themselves to connect to a cellular network.

iPhone OS speed tests

Startup Peggle PCalc Star Defense Sunspider Web page
iPod touch 64GB (late 2009) 16.3 9.4 1.4 22.6 15.6 25.2
iPhone 3GS 28.5 9.3 1.3 20.6 15.5 22.8
2nd-gen. iPod touch 22.7 13.6 2.0 27.7 33.4 41.4
iPhone 3G 32.5 23.4 3.9 33.5 40.8 47.5
1st-gen. iPod touch 30 22.9 3.1 34.2 44.9 60
iPhone (original) 34 26.4 2.8 36 43 45.4

Results are in seconds. Best results in bold. Reference systems in italic.

All devices were tested running iPhone OS 3.1. Peggle and Star Defense were app launch times to end of initial load screen. PCalc was launch time to calculator ready. Sunspider was the time to run the WebKit Sunspider JavaScript benchmark. Page load test was amount of time it took to load nytimes.com.—MACWORLD TESTING BY JASON SNELL

Macworld’s buying advice. Functionally, the new iPod touch models are identical to the second-generation models we reviewed last year, especially when updated to version 3.1 of the iPhone OS.

What we said then still goes: The iPod touch is a terrific media player and portable computing device that doesn’t require any of the commitments or ongoing costs of the iPhone. The new high-end models add the blazing speed of the iPhone 3GS, making them even better for games. If you’re in the market for a game machine, video player, portable Internet device, and music player all in one—and if you don’t want to pay a mobile operator every month—you can’t do better than the iPod touch.

Cons Lacks camera, compass, GPS functionality offered by iPhone 3GS.
Rating 4.5
Pros Speedy as iPhone 3GS; support for thousands of App Store apps, including games; solid music and video player.
Product iPod touch 64GB
Company Apple
Price as rated $549

Cons Lacks camera, compass, GPS functionality offered by iPhone 3GS.
Rating 4.5
Pros Speedy as iPhone 3GS; support for thousands of App Store apps, including games; solid music and video player.
Product iPod touch 32GB
Company Apple
Price as rated $399

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