Can less be enough? Apple’s new iPod touch (starting at $199) is a breeze from a past when not everyone had a smartphone. It’s great for the few people left who are looking for an easily controlled gadget that plays games and music but doesn’t connect to a cellular network. I think almost all of those people are kids, and for the sake of their parents, I’m glad Apple is keeping the iPod line alive. It might be the only mainstream non-cellular handheld on the market, but it’s also good enough to earn PCMag’s Editors’ Choice.
A New Coat of Paint
The last iPod touch was released in 2015, and this one isn’t much different. It looks pretty much the same, with the same pocket-friendly form factor, the same 4-inch screen, and the same cameras. The major difference here is a new processor—a two-generation jump from the A8 to the A10—and double the RAM at 2GB. That’s meaningful because it extends the product’s software life, at least to iOS 14.
The 2019 iPod touch comes in three models, in blue, gold, gray, pink, red, or silver. A 32GB model costs $199, 128GB costs $299, and 256GB costs $399. The 32GB model will be enough if you rely primarily on streaming music services, even if you tend to cache music. You will need more storage if you store and record video.
This is one of the last new, tiny handheld devices available in America, at 4.86 by 2.31 by 0.24 inches and just 3.1 ounces. Most of the smartphones on the market approaching this size are used, discontinued, or in the TracFone bargain bin.
The new iPod touch has the same 4-inch, 1,136-by-640, 326ppi LCD as the iPhone 5s. That’s pretty old-school, but in the typical Apple way, it performs very well. I got a stunning 550 cd/m2 brightness when measuring with a Klein K-80 colorimeter and CalMAN MobileForge software, brighter than any current iPhone. Color accuracy is also excellent. But yet, the screen appears to be dimmer and less vibrant than the more recent phones I’ve been looking at. It’s smaller, so it’s putting out less light overall than the bigger screens we’re now used to, and it doesn’t have a wide color gamut, HDR, or anything like that, so it looks a little dim.
Music sounds surprisingly good on the bottom-ported speaker, considering how small the device is. And the included wired EarPods have decent bass.
The iPod touch has no fingerprint scanner or Face ID, just a physical home button and a passcode. It is not water resistant. It does, however, have a 3.5mm headphone jack, Bluetooth, and solid dual-band Wi-Fi.
Power and Performance
The iPod touch runs all the same apps and services as an iPhone, with the exception that it doesn’t work with things that need Face ID or Touch ID, like Apple Pay. Apple Music, iMessage, streaming video, games, and such all work fine.
So now you’re probably wondering why you shouldn’t get a used iPhone 5s. The reason is iOS 13. In my experience, Apple and developers don’t tend to target processors more than four generations old with new software, causing it to run sluggishly on much older devices. As we’re currently on the A12, we’re coming to the end of the A8’s full support cycle. This iPod touch has an A10 processor, so it’s likely good until at least iOS 14.
While the iPod touch shares the A10 processor with the iPhone 7, it runs at a lower clock speed, and as a result, performance isn’t as strong. The iPhone 7 runs at 2.3GHz; the touch runs at 1.64GHz. The iPhone 7 has a Geekbench Multicore score around 5700; the iPod is at 4624, just a bit above the iPhone 6s (4473). But because of the tiny screen and support for Apple’s Metal graphics APIs, gaming performance is very good: Scores of 32fps on the GFXBench Aztec test and 47.2fps on the Car Chase test are similar to the on-screen results on the iPhone XS Max.
One of the major advances in iOS 13, supposedly, is speed. Even if iOS 13 runs on A8 processors, I’m betting the speed advantages on iOS 13 will be calibrated for the A9 or even A10 because the A10 has a newer microarchitecture and jumps from dual-core to quad-core. That’s just a guess, but I feel good making it.
The A10 may be slowed down to conserve power. This small iPod has a tiny battery. As long as you have the screen off (for playing music, for instance), you’re fine; we got about 33 hours of music playback over Wi-Fi on a charge. But turning the screen on, we only got 3 hours, 2 minutes of Wi-Fi video streaming at maximum brightness. On the other hand, it charges back up quickly.
Just like an iPhone, there are also cameras. The main sensors appear to be from the iPhone 5, judging from the fact that it’s 8 megapixels at f/2.4. (Apple went to f/2.2 with the iPhone 5s.) Compared with the latest smartphone cameras, it does a bad job at HDR (either washing out backgrounds or producing too-dark foregrounds) and has poor low-light performance. It records 1080p videos at 30 frames per second.
You will not shoot your next feature film with this camera. But when the local playground “film group” wants to do a set of hilarious shorts featuring a cop in a frog mask, the iPod touch has iMovie, and you’ll find that kids are somehow able to do movie editing on a four-inch screen.
The front-facing camera takes one-megapixel photos and 720p videos, and does okay as long as there isn’t too much dynamic range in the shot; in that case, it completely whites out the background. It doesn’t have any features you’ll find on newer iPhones like Portrait mode.
Why Not a Phone?
The rational argument against the iPod touch is that you can very well get a SIM-less, unlocked phone for the same price or a little more. For $199.99 right now, you get a Moto G7 Play with a 5.7-inch screen and expandable memory. Used 32GB iPhone 7 units online go for $239 to $279; 128GB models go for $299 to $329. Those are all better buys if you’re looking for a low-cost smartphone.
But the iPod touch isn’t a smartphone. That’s the whole point.
The difference between the iPod touch and the iPhone is a little symbolic, but it’s important symbolism. You can, in fact, use the touch as a phone. It has FaceTime Audio and iMessage, and you can even download Sideline and give it a traditional phone number. Sure, it only works over Wi-Fi, but you can very well bootstrap it off of someone else’s hotspot.
But first of all, from a parental control perspective, it’s easier to cut off access to Wi-Fi devices than to cellular devices in your house. (It’s possible to do both, just more complicated.) But there’s also a value to saying, “You don’t get a phone yet; show us you can use this responsibly, then you’ll get one.” In the circle of electronics, a locked-down Amazon Fire tablet is replaced by an iPod touch with parental controls turned on, which is duly replaced by a phone with fewer controls.
The world of Android parental controls is a hedge maze. I’m navigating it right now. Google Family Link doesn’t work with some Google accounts; T-Mobile’s parental controls are defeated on reboot, and there are various caveats for every other system. Android is ideal for providing 20 different answers, each of which is perfect for 5 percent of the population, who have to find it by checking and discarding the 19 wrong ones. At home, I’m on semi-functional-child-proofing-answer number-four right now, if I’m counting correctly.
Apple’s parental controls, on the other hand, are simple and clear to use and fine for most people. You can set time limits, disable apps, restrict purchases, use a content filter, and lock it all down with a separate passcode. It’s all built into the OS.
There are other alternatives to the iPod touch that aren’t phones. You can also get a dedicated MP3 player; those still exist, from SanDisk and Sony, and they don’t have the ability to feed your child steadily more politically extreme YouTube videos when they search for Star Wars commentary. But many of us live in streaming music worlds now, and dedicated MP3 players are still stuck in the purchased-file years.
Wearable devices like the Apple Watch support music playback, but they don’t offer meaningful video playback or a robust app experience. The Apple Watch also starts at twice the price of the touch.
So the iPod touch still lives in a sweet spot for parents. The new model extends the line’s life to at least two more years of OS support and earns PCMag’s Editors’ Choice. I hope it never goes away.