Hands-on with the New iPhone 5 and iPod touch

As I’m sure you know by now, yesterday Apple held their annual music event where they unveiled their new lineup of iPods for the holiday season as well as took the wraps off of the new iPhone 5.

Well, whatever shreds of wrap there was left, that is. Part leaks and anonymous tips helped the tech sites out basically all the big surprises well ahead of Apple’s official announcements, so there was very little that we didn’t already know was coming.

That’s not to say all the new gadgets aren’t exciting, though. I got to play with all the new toys during a brief hands-on session following Apple’s presentation, and like with all their products before them the new iPhone and iPods feel like you’re holding a little piece of science fiction in your hands. The new devices come with larger screens and are significantly thinner and lighter, but I think it’s the internal upgrades that will have the most impact from a gaming perspective.

The new iPhone, officially named the iPhone 5, is a sexy piece of kit. As expected it comes equipped with a 4-inch Retina Display which makes the screen taller but not wider, with a new resolution of 1136×640 that allows for an extra row of icons on the home screen. Apple improved the clarity and color saturation of the screen, and it’s a noticeable difference. This screen really pops, more so than even the iPhone 4S.

The increase in screen real estate will be a real benefit to iOS gamers, I think. If you’ve ever felt that virtual sticks, d-pad, or buttons have obscured the action while playing (I’m looking at you, Metal Slug 3) then even just this extra few centimeters of stretched screen should make a real difference.

On the flip side, the taller screen means that the top is harder to reach with one hand in portrait mode. I have some pretty large hands, and I can just barely reach the top of the screen with my thumb comfortably. The upper corners are popular spots to put UI elements like pause or settings buttons, and people with smaller hands might feel it’s a bit of a stretch to reach them. I don’t see it being a major issue, but it will be interesting to see how developers build games and apps around the taller screen from a usability standpoint, or if that means they’ll forego the portrait orientation for the now-much-friendlier landscape one.

Probably the most surprising thing was just how much lighter the iPhone 5 is. If they hadn’t actually been operational I would have believed they were hollowed out or something. At the same time it still feels like a well-built, high-quality device and still has enough weight to feel substantial. The lighter device will also probably contribute to a better gaming experience, like during long gaming sessions where the weight can start to wear on you.

Here’s a brief montage of hands-on video with all the new devices:

The iPhone 5 gets a big bump in performance too, with a new A6 chip that Apple claims is twice as fast as the A5 in the iPhone 4S. Unfortunately there were no games on any of the demo units, so I was stuck just fiddling around with the built-in apps and stuff, but even still you can tell just how zippy this new iPhone is.

This was really noticeable in the new Maps app, which Apple has built themselves and does some crazy 3D rendering. iPhone 5 handles it all beautifully, even when panning and zooming around the little digital 3D cities it displays. It almost felt surreal swiping around a near-perfectly rendered San Francisco using your fingers. It was really impressive, and developers are going to be able to do some really amazing things with games using the new A6 chip.

Then there were the the new iPod touches. These things are going to be just crazy popular. They get the same taller screen as the iPhone 5 and a bump up in performance from the A4 chip to the A5 used in the iPhone 4S. The iPod touch line has long played second fiddle to the current iPhone from a hardware perspective, but I think this time around they’ll be able to keep up pretty well (as long as they have enough RAM, that is). Also, they come in a variety of awesome colors for the first time ever, which I can already tell will be really appealing to those who want an iOS device but don’t want a 2-year phone contract.

Apple has updated the iPod nano too, going back to a more elongated form. This device is just incredibly small, light, and thin, but it doesn’t feel fragile at all. Video playback being back in the Nano is very cool, and the fact that you can watch movies on a little device that’s barely larger than a book of matches is pretty mind-boggling. The iPod shuffle is back this year too, though it isn’t any different except that it comes in all the colors of the nano and touch lines.

These media events usually have Apple showing off the technical prowess of their new devices with games, and yesterday was no different. Natural Motion was there showing off a new app they have coming out called Clumsy Ninja. It features a little ninja character that you can interact with, which doesn’t sound all that exciting on the surface but the tech behind it is really impressive, something Natural Motion is known for. Advanced body movements and AI really brought the little guy to life, so while it’s not the kind of game I typically look forward to it will be interesting to play around with when it comes out.

The real jaw-dropping demo was for Real Racing 3. It looked stunning, as it has previously in its debut trailer, but Firemonkeys also debuted a new feature they’re calling “time-shifted” multiplayer. It allows you to finish your own race and then have your friends compete against your performance at a later time. At first this just sounded like “ghost” racing, but during the demo we saw that you can actually run into and manipulate the saved run of your friend during your own race.

Talking with Rob Murray from Firemonkeys during the demo session, he tells me that the time-shifted run is actually the same run that you set but when someone else is playing it an advanced AI can kick in to make intelligent choices against whatever takes place in the current race it’s being utilized in. So, think of it as your saved “ghost” run augmented with advanced AI that will do everything it can to counteract your opponents moves. It’s really quite brilliant. Rob also hinted, but couldn’t confirm, that you’ll have the ability to race multiple “time-shifted runs” in the same race. I can imagine that it will be really awesome to sit down and download a bunch of your buddies’ runs and race against them at the same time. We’ll see how it all turns out when Real Racing 3 launches later this year.

So that was about it. New iPhone and iPod touches, bigger screens, thinner, lighter, more horsepower on the inside. I have no doubt that this year’s upgrades will make for some seriously mean little gaming machines, and I can’t wait to get my hands on them again when they launch later this month.

[Images via Slash Gear]