GamesBeat

New iPod Touch uses last year’s parts, will become obsolete a year sooner

Yesterday, I reported that the new iPod Touch would ship with the A5x processor. That was a mistake in reporting. Greg Joswiak, the vice president of iOS and iPod product marketing, said that the new iPod Touch will ship with the A5 chip, the very same inside the iPhone 4S — not the A5X, which is used in the iPad (2012 model). This error in reporting made sense considering the announcement of new iPods: The A5x, scaled down, could provide the extra horsepower that games need. Or so it seemed.

After confirming with an Apple spokesperson earlier today, the upcoming iPod Touch does in fact have last year’s A5 chip. That information can further be confirmed on Apple’s features webpage for the iPod Touch. But in light of this error, a larger question arises: How is an A5 chip, the same as in the iPhone 4S, going to keep the iPod Touch relevant? The iPod Nano and Shuffle both have very specific functions; the Touch has always been an iPhone minus the phone — all of the capabilities without the girth, the two-year contract, or cellular service. That’s the price. Buy a phone and get an all-in-one device, or get the Touch, pay less, but split the cost between the iPod Touch and something else.

For most people, that’s a no-brainer — buy the iPhone. And with the ridiculous sales figures the iPhone has, Apple knows this. So who buys the iPod Touch? Simple: people who don’t need or want a new phone but still want the benefits of the latest iDevice. We all know parents who buy them for their kids — the responsible sort that doesn’t need a constant connection with their children through another line on that expensive family plan. Or it’s a gift to friends, family, and neighbors. The iPod Touch has always been relatively inexpensive yet remarkably useful, so year after year, it made for one of the best holiday buys.

That changed last year when Apple announced the iPhone 4S but no new iPod — not the Shuffle, not the Nano, and not the Touch. These devices were barely even discussed. Only the iPod Nano was mentioned, and only because Apple wanted owners to upgrade the firmware so they would have access to new watch faces.

Not updating the iPod Touch made sense. The only real difference between the A4 and A5 as far as most people were concerned was that the A5 was a dual-core CPU while the A4 had only one core. But there’s more: The A5 is an ARM Cortex-A9 with a PowerVR SGX543MP2 on a 45nm chip, clocked at 1GHz but scaled back to 800MHz for the iPhone 4S. The A4 is an ARM Cortex-A8 with a PowerVR 535 GPU on a 45nm chip, also scaled back to 800MHz. That’s a whole generation difference in ARM-processing technology.

The reason the iPod Touch never needed to be upgraded is simple enough. Business Insider reported that for the iPad 2, the cost of making the new A5 processor was 75% more expensive than the A4. Apple built the chip to fit in the iPad but didn’t manage to scale it down to the smaller, easier-to-fit-in-a-smartphone 32nm frame. With only a year for each new product and only seven months from the iPad to iPhone 4S, Apple didn’t manage to do that, and the same A5 chip went into the iPhone. This can account for a number of possible reasons why the 4S was such an iterative update. There simply wasn’t enough space to add in features like an LTE antenna or a larger battery.

And the iPod Touch? As a hugely profitable company, one that’s struggled to fit this processor into a larger device while simultaneously knowing that every phone has at least a two-year lifespan, there was only one smart business decision to make: don’t release a new iPod Touch. The old A4 was in tens of millions of iPhone 4s sold worldwide, and they were all capable of running the same applications as the newer iPhone 4S. Meanwhile, the manufacturing of the iPod Touch, with no changes, gets cheaper and cheaper, and the product itself makes money either way. And most customers don’t know the difference because unlike the iPhone, the iPod Touch isn’t numbered. We media label them by generation number … but even in conversation, it’s still the same iPod Touch.

So the new iPod Touch? There’s very little new or noteworthy about it. Just like the iPhone, the iPod Touch lives on a two-year cycle because it has all of the same hardware. Only this time, for this new model, that hardware is already a year old.

Don’t get me wrong. You can read Meghan’s impressions on the iPod Touch for judgment on the actual device. And the upgrades since the last model are pretty major: It has the same 5MP camera that was in the iPhone 4, Siri, a widescreen display … and it even comes in six colors. It may well make for an excellent buy or a great gift.

But don’t be fooled — the iPod Touch doesn’t have new hardware. It has a bigger screen, but that’s it. Everything else is from either the iPhone 4S or from the iPhone 4 (like the camera). In one year’s time, the current iPod Touch will be two generations behind the next iPhone, which is historically when devices stop getting regular software updates and when applications require more power than the older devices can afford. In effect, Apple has limited the lifespan of the iPod Touch by a whole year by using an older processor and older parts while still charging a $300 premium for the device.


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