Apple iPod Nano fifth generation
The iPod Nano MP3 player continues Apple's legacy of packing a multitude of features into a colorful, impossibly thin design and comes reasonably priced at $149 (8GB) and $179 (16GB). This time around, Apple is branching out of its iPod formula in a small, but not insignificant way by gracing the back of the Nano with its own video camera. If you've ever considered buying an iPod Nano, the fifth-generation model is the best one yet.
In 2008, Apple broke away from the traditionally flat, rectangular iPod design and surprised customers with a curved, wing-shaped iPod Nano. It's safe to assume that Apple is still pleased with that design, since the fifth-generation model is nearly identical to its predecessor, measuring 3.5 inches tall by 1.6 inches wide by 0.25 inch thick at its center.
To distinguish itself from previous models, the latest Nano includes a slightly larger 2.2-inch screen (up from 2 inches) and a glossy, polished aluminum finish that one CNET editor described as looking like a Christmas tree ornament. However, the easiest way to tell that you're holding a fifth-generation iPod Nano is to flip it over. Unlike its fourth-generation sibling, the latest Nano has a bead-size camera lens on its lower left backside. The lens runs flush with the Nano's aluminum body, but if the worn-and-scratched back of our fourth-generation Nano is any indication, we advise investing in a protective case to keep the camera in good working order.
The user interface of the 5G Nano remains almost entirely unchanged with the exception of a few new menu items for the video camera, FM radio, and fitness features. The larger 2.2-inch screen can now display up to 12 lines of menu text (up from 10) and the Now Playing screen lists artist, album, and title information in three bolder, more readable lines at the top of the screen.
The majority of the Nano's hardware design elements remain the same as well. Apple's iconic Click Wheel navigation can still be found on the front of the device, just below the curved glass screen. The Nano's wheel measures just an inch wide, but its operation is no less intuitive and responsive than the larger wheels on other iPods. A durable hold switch still graces the top of the Nano's, and an off-center dock connection and headphone jack are found on its bottom. Be aware, though, that Apple reversed the location of the dock and headphone ports, which may create some compatibility issues with third-party accessories and docks, or possibly cause an awkward fit. As usual, Apple includes a white, molded plastic universal dock fitting for the new Nano, which could help in adapting any docking iPod accessories you already own.
All of the features from last year's Nano have migrated to the fifth-generation model, including music, video, and podcast playback, as well as extras such as photos, calendar, games, alarms, stopwatch, contacts, notes, and clocks. If that weren't enough, Apple has upped the ante with an integrated pedometer, Genius Mix support, voice recording, a built-in speaker, video camera, and an FM radio that we've been asking for since 2001.
Even with the Nano's ever-growing stable of features, music playback is still the beating heart of this iPod. As a portable extension of Apple's popular iTunes computer software, the Nano offers an impressive number of options for playing music, audiobooks, and podcasts. The Nano supports all audio formats such as MP3, AAC, AIFF, and Apple Lossless, and it's a breeze to transfer media using Apple's iTunes software (a required install). For those of you with collections of WMA audio files, iTunes will handle converting your unprotected files (DRM-protected WMA files are a not convertible) into an iPod-compatible format. Niche formats, such FLAC and OGG, will also need to be converted; however, you'll need to use third-party software to get the job done.
The iPod Nano's ties with iTunes also brings fantastic media features, including standard, smart, and Genius playlists; the latter creates instantaneous 25 song playlists based around the characteristics of any of your favorite tunes. Aside from turning playlist creation into a simple, one-click affair, Genius playlists can be created directly on the iPod Nano, eliminating the hassle of creating and syncing playlists through iTunes.
Taking the Genius playlist experience one-step further, Apple has introduced a new feature called Genius Mixes, offering extended playlists of music grouped around a common genre. You can think of Genius Playlists as a more evolved take on shuffling your music library, with selections constrained by genre and ordered according to Apple's secret Genius mojo. Unlike Genius playlists, Mixes require no effort to create--they simply appear on your iPod as part of the automatic syncing process of iTunes. Understand, however, that if you set up iTunes to manage your iPod manually or prefer not to activate the Genius feature in iTunes, Genius Mixes will not appear on your Nano.
Another advantage of the iPod/iTunes relationship is the capability to download and transfer movies, TV shows, music videos, video podcasts, and other video content with minimal fuss. The Nano also handles iTunes-rented movies, many priced as low as $0.99, but typically costing about $3. Other welcome features on the Nano's video player include support for chapter markers, playback auto-resume, video podcasts, and subtitles. If you're wondering what video looks like on a device that's hardly larger than a pack of chewing gum--well, you'd be surprised. The extra twentieth of an inch added to the Nano's pixel-dense 240x376 resolution screen is a fairly significant bump over the previous model's 2-inch screen--especially when it comes to viewing videos formatted with a wide-screen aspect ratio. With its significantly larger screen, the iPod Touch is still the better choice if you plan to watch TV shows and movies frequently. However, for casually viewing short-form videos and podcasts, or showing off videos shot with the Nano's video camera, the quality and size of the screen makes is more than adequate.
The Nano's video camera
Of all the bells and whistles Apple added to the fifth-generation iPod Nano, the video camera is the most notable. Placed on the back of the Nano in the lower right corner (or lower left, if you're looking at the back), the small, bead-size lens brings yet another convenient and useful feature to an already impressive product. We're not thrilled with the camera's video quality, the location of the lens behind your hand, or the inability to take still photos, but it's difficult to criticize when you consider the Nano's relatively low price. A comparable, VGA-resolution video camera such as the Flip Mino has a street price of $130 and includes only a fraction of the features found on the Nano.
There are plenty of nice things to say about the Nano's video camera. First, the Nano's camera is easy to use, letting you to jump right into recording after only two clicks from the main menu. Its 640x480-pixel resolution and MP4/H.264 video recording format (bit rates range between 2,500Kbps and 2,800Kbps) works natively in iTunes and most video playback software as well as video streaming Web sites including YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook. With up to 8GB of storage, the Nano can store an impressive 16 hours of recorded video, and as far as convenience goes, you'll have a difficult time finding a smaller, lighter video camera than the iPod Nano.
In spite of its features, many factors prevent us from recommending the Nano as a camcorder when other options are available. Without a case, it's impossible to use the Nano without repeatedly smudging and abusing the lens on its back. Holding the Nano sideways and gripping its 0.25 inch-thick edges takes practice and patience. Its indoor video quality is poor, and without even basic controls for brightness and contrast, there's nothing you can do to compensate for bad lighting. The iPod's proprietary USB cable and one-computer allegiance makes it difficult to transfer videos to computers other than your own. Its videos are often shaky because of the Nano's exceptionally lightweight design. The Nano's internal tilt-sensor mistakenly recorded some of our videos sideways, requiring intervening software (such as iPhoto) to correct the orientation. There's no easy way to display your recordings on a television without purchasing a video dock or third-party video output accessory. Finally, audio from the Nano's pinhole microphone is easily distorted by wind noise. If you're serious about recording video on a sub-$200 budget, we prefer the image quality of the Flip Ultra HD (here's an image quality comparison).
These complaints aside, there's nothing about the Nano's newfound video recording capabilities that ruin the product. We wouldn't go out of our way to use the Nano's video camera over the one on our mobile phone, camcorder, or point-and-shoot camera; however, we're glad to have the option to shoot video with a Nano. The only instance where the Nano's camera might prove problematic is any situation where privacy concerns are at stake. With an increasing number of schools and health clubs banning camera phones because of privacy concerns, the Nano's video camera might be unwelcome in some circumstances. For better or worse, the Nano offers no outward indication (neither light, nor sound) when it enters video recording mode--making it a particularly small and stealth device for those interested in recording video unnoticed.
It seems hard to believe, but the fifth-generation Nano marks the first time Apple has included a built-in FM radio on an iPod. We have no idea why it took Apple eight years to bring radio to the iPod, but to Apple's credit, its FM radio is one of the best we've used on a portable device.
Common radio features such as station presets, selectable world radio bands, and manual or automatic station scanning control, are all handled in Apple's typical and intuitive style. Going beyond the competition, Apple's FM tuner includes support for radio station RDS data (often identifying artist and song title information, along with station call letters), including the capability to tag songs for later purchase, and even lets you pause and resume radio playback. We've seen song tagging and RDS support before, in Microsoft's Zune media player (looks like the Zune is actually teaching the iPod a few tricks), but the capability to pause, rewind, and resume audio playback are features that are unique to the iPod Nano. The Nano's time-shifting capabilities come courtesy of its built-in memory cache that can hold up to 15 minutes of recorded radio temporarily until you decide to resume playback.
We had limited luck using the Nano to tag songs from the radio; mostly because of a lack of area stations broadcasting the full RDS data required to identify songs, we had the same tagging problem when using the Zune. Song tagging aside, the Nano's FM reception was great overall, and its radio pausing feature came in handy more often then we imagined (especially during restroom breaks, phone calls, and other distractions). Like the radios on most MP3 players, the Nano uses the wiring of your headphones as its antenna--so be aware that changes in headphones, or using different headphones, may affect reception quality.
Recording voice memos is technically not a new feature for the iPod Nano, but previous generations of the Nano required an investment in compatible headsets or recording accessories to use the feature. Now that the Nano includes a built-in microphone, recordings can be made without additional accessories. However, if you're serious about using the Nano as a voice recorder, spending a little money on a better microphone isn't a bad idea. In our tests, we found the Nano's microphone placement causes a considerable amount of noise caused by handling the device to be captured. If you're careful to keep your fingers away from the internal microphone--no easy task with the mic behind the Click Wheel)--the 128Kbps AAC recordings made by the Nano get the job done and conveniently import directly into iTunes labeled with the recording's time and date.
Under the Nano's Extras menu, you'll find a list of features almost as long as the main menu's list. Traditional extras such as an alarm, stopwatch, calendar, games, contacts, clock, notes, and voice memos, have all made the jump to the Nano in its fifth-generation. A new item labeled Fitness now graces the Extras menu, grouping together a new pedometer feature with any other fitness-related items introduced by third-party add-ons, such as Nike+iPod kit.
The Nano's small, lightweight size already makes it a big hit with the fitness crowd, but the introduction of an integrated pedometer can only help its reputation. The pedometer records your steps, estimates how many calories you've burned, and lets you transfer the data to the Nike+ Web site whenever the Nano is connected to a computer. Nike+ Web accounts are free to create, but don't act surprised when they try to sell you on the Nike+iPod hardware kit.
Although not found in the Extras menu, the fifth-generation iPod Nano includes another new bonus feature called VoiceOver. Introduced as a necessary feature for Apple's button-less third-generation iPod Shuffle, VoiceOver gives your iPod the capability to announce artist, song, and playlist information in a multilingual synthetic voice. The feature comes in handy when you have the Nano in your pocket or bag and want to identify the currently playing song without taking your eyes off whatever you're doing. To use the VoiceOver feature, you'll need to install an optional voice kit software package for iTunes (the download is free) and purchase a pair of headphones that include a compatible iPod remote.
In spite of the dizzying assortment of features Apple has brought to the fifth-generation iPod Nano, its battery life estimates and audio quality haven't budged. Apple rates the battery of the fifth-generation iPod Nano at a respectable 24 hours of audio playback and 5 hours of video playback (up from 4 hours). Apple's numbers seem to err on the side of modesty, however, since our own CNET Labs test results found an average battery drain time of 33.6 hours for audio and 5.3 hours for video.
Sound quality is not one of the Nano's (or any iPod's) strong suits. Apple has gone another year without introducing any sound-enhancement settings to the iPod line beyond its traditional slew of EQ presets. To be fair, while the iPod Nano doesn't offer the sonic richness and advanced EQ settings of a Sony X-Series or Cowon S9 player, its audio sounds balanced and should please most listeners. To make a dramatic improvement to any iPod's sound performance, we highly recommend upgrading from the stock Apple earbuds.
Video playback on the fifth-generation iPod Nano is better than ever, although holding your iPod sideways still takes some mental adjustment. The wide-screen-friendly, crisp, 204ppi display makes watching a full-length movie on your iPod Nano a legitimate (but still somewhat silly) possibility. Compared with the flat screens of the iPod Touch and iPod Classic, the fourth-generation's rounded glass screen makes it difficult to eliminate glare, but images still look remarkably bright and clear on it. Like most portable video players, the iPod has specific file requirements for video playback, so you may have to spend some time converting video on your computer before transferring it. Fortunately, the iPod Nano's video formats are widely known by purveyors of Internet video, which often arrives preformatted for the iPod.
The iTunes factor
If you're considering buying an iPod for the first time, we feel it's worthwhile to remind you that Apple's iTunes software is a required installation for your computer. The software is free and available for both Mac OS X and Windows computers, and we encourage potential iPod owners to get familiar with the software ahead of time to ensure that it works well for you and your computer. To learn more about iTunes, we recommend checking out CNET Download.com's latest review and any user feedback associated with it.
Worth the upgrade?
It's hard not to be swayed by all of the Nano's new features--especially its video camera. If you have an older iPod and you've been waiting for an excuse to upgrade, you can rest assured that the fifth-generation Nano is the best Nano yet.
That said, with the highly rated 8GB iPod Touch sitting pretty at just $199, you'll need to decide whether the Nano's slim design, FM radio, pedometer, and video camera are more meaningful to you than the touch screen, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and App capabilities of the iPod Touch. From our perspective, it's hard to go wrong either way, but the bright colors, sturdy construction, and lightweight design of the Nano make it an easy choice for children and athletic types.