iPod Nano 5G: The good, bad, and the weird

CNET Senior Editor Donald Bell gives his initial impressions of the fifth-generation Apple iPod Nano.

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Update: CNET's official review of the Apple iPod Nano (fifth-generation) is now available.

I'm holding Apple's fifth-generation iPod Nano, and it's feeling like deja vu. Here we are again with an 8GB and 16GB iPod Nano that bear the exact same shape and dimensions as last year's models, priced at $149 and a slightly more wallet-friendly $179, respectively. Sure, the aluminum is a little glossier, and the screen now stretches out to 2.2 inches (up from 2 inches), but most people would really need to have an Apple fanboy's eagle-eye to discern last year's model from today's.

But don't let looks fool you. Under the hood, Apple really juiced the fifth-gen iPod Nano up with a ton of tricks that serve to make the Nano better. I'm not convinced all of the Nano's new features were executed perfectly, but at least nothing about the fifth-gen Nano is a step backwards for Apple (unlike the third-gen Nano's awkward shape, or the button-less iPod Shuffle). For the sake of mentioning it, just know that everything found in last year's model is here as well, located in exactly the same place, with the same font, same everything. Music, photos, videos, podcasts, battery life, sound quality...same, same, same. Well, technically, rated battery life is up a little for video playback, clocking in a 5 hours instead of 4.

Photo of Nano taking a photo of Antuan Goodwin.
iPod Nano oddity No. 1: I can record video, but I can't snap a photo no matter how hard Antuan poses. CNET

So what's new? Well, for starters, the iPod Nano now has a video camera. On the back of the Nano there's an eensy-teensy fixed-lens camera that runs flush with the body, capable of capturing 640x480 standard definition video at 30 frames per second. Files are recorded as iTunes-friendly .MP4 videos with h.264 formatted video with AAC audio. Video quality looks, well...decent. We'll have a better sense after more testing, but I think it's safe to say that it won't be crushing the Flip Mino HD anytime soon.

Part of the problem isn't so much the camera technology as it is the placement of the camera--located right behind the clickwheel where you can't help but rub your nasty hands across the lens each time you pick it up. After just a few minutes out of the box, video recordings became increasingly cloudy with screen grime.

Maybe I'm just filthy, but I have to think Apple would have done better to move the lens closer to the top and out of harm's ways.

Photo of iPodearbuds.
iPod Nano oddity No. 2: The Nano now has the Shuffle's voice over feature, but the bundled earbuds don't include the clicker remote required to engage it. Donald Bell/CNET

The same complaint hold's true for the Nano's pinhole microphone, which is placed right beside the camera lens. While recording video it's obvious if you're holding your finger over the lens: the view is blocked, you figure it out, and adjust your grip.

The same can't be said for voice recordings, where it feels natural to grip the Nano like a microphone, only to find voice memos riddled with the grating sound of your hand rubbing against the microphone. The problem isn't helped by the fact that you can't actively monitor your recordings while you make them. That said, the capability to create voice recordings now without having to plug in a special headset or microphone accessory is a nice plus.

Another happy little plus included on the fifth-generation iPod Nano is an internal speaker. Granted, the sound quality of the speaker is like hearing your favorite music performed by a flea circus, but it gets the job done if you're just looking for a way to quickly share music or video with friends without passing around your earbuds.

iPod Nano dock connectors photo
iPod Nano oddity No. 3: Apple flipped the location of the iPod dock and headphone jack from last year's model. Some dock accessories may suffer. Donald Bell/CNET

One thing the built-in speaker won't work on, however, is the Nano's new FM radio, since headphones need to be plugged in for the radio to work. That's fine by us, though, since we were sure hell would freeze over before Apple would ever place a radio inside an iPod. Since 2001, customers have pleaded with Apple to add an FM radio to the iPod, only to find themselves shaking their disillusioned fists in air, year after year. Well, the iPod has an FM radio now, so I suppose we can all just shut up about that.

In fact, the iPod Nano has a fairly spectacular radio, capable of displaying RDS station info, tagging songs, and even pausing and rewinding. You heard right, you can pause up to 15 minutes of radio, which the Nano will cache internally until you're ready to start up again. And as far as song tagging goes, provided you can find a station that broadcasts enough RDS data to make an accurate song tag, your tagged songs live in a separate radio submenu.

Once you sync back up to your computer, iTunes will ask you if you want to look up your tagged songs in the iTunes store. It's neat, but not exactly reliable, since RDS info is hit or miss in most towns.

Photo of iPod Nano lens.
iPod Nano oddity No. 4: Why on earth did Apple place the camera and microphone right where you'd naturally hold the thing? Donald Bell/CNET

Wrapping things up, Apple added a new pedometer feature into a "Fitness" submenu that lives in the Nano's "Extras" directory along with games, voice memos, alarms, notes, etc. It's cute, and works a little like a poor man's Nike+iPod kit. In fact, iTunes will even prompt you after it sees you've used the pedometer, to see if you'd like to track your progress on the Nike+ Web site.

Apple has also thrown in a Genius Mixes selection under the music menu, which brings over one of the new ballyhooed features from iTunes 9. Essentially, these Genius Mixes are instant groupings of music based around a common genre, such as rock, pop, or jazz. So far, the feature hasn't really won me over, but I'll give it some more time and see if it surprises me.

So, now you know my first impressions of Apple's fifth-generation iPod Touch. Stay tuned for CNET's full review later in the week.

 

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