Incredibly thin, lightweight, and made of a durable aluminum, the fifth-generation iPod nano ($149 for 8GB, $179 for 16GB) doesn't look much different from its predecessor, but appearances, as they say, can be deceiving. The latest refresh brings a slightly larger screen, FM radio (finally), song tagging, new Genius features, and most intriguing of all, an embedded VGA video camera. The nano isn't a Flip killer by any stretch, and its audio quality could be better, but it's still the most well-rounded compact flash media player on the market.
One of the most attractive aspects of the nano is its wafer-like profile. Measuring just 3.6 x 1.5 x 0.2 inches and weighing a barely-there 1.3 ounces, the updated nano is far thinner than it even appears in photos--and now it includes a camera housed in its back. The andolized aluminum body provides sturdiness without heaping on weight, and there are nine eye-catching colors available (black, blue, green, orange, pink, purple, red, silver, yellow) to suit your mood. Despite being a marvel in modern gadget design, we were a little annoyed that the 3.5mm headphone jack is located on the bottom of the device to the left of the USB connection port.
Display and Interface
The majority of the nano's face is comprised of the 2.2-inch (240 x 376-pixel resolution) display, which is a bit larger than the 2-inch LCD on the fourth-gen nano. Beneath it is the familiar iPod clickwheel that let us swiftly navigate through menus by using our thumbs. When we purchased Spoonfed Hybrid's "Boyz in Zinc" music video from the iTunes Store, the nano played back the clip without a hitch. The glossy display kicked back some reflections, which became more pronounced during darker scenes. Our transferred photos of family, friends, and other subjects looked crisp and colorful, but viewing them in widescreen mode sometimes lopped off the tops of photos.
Turning the player to the horizontal position causes the accelerometer to launch Cover Flow, Apple's visual tool for paging through albums. The accelerometer also comes into play if you turn on the optional Shake to Shuffle feature, which let us randomly jump from song to song by giving the nano a brisk shake.
Music and podcasts sounded loud and clear, but they lacked the vibrancy and richness found in devices such as the Samsung P3 or Sony Walkman X series. Likewise, the built-in speaker is so poor that Apple should've just excluded it from the player. It made the horns in our Marc Seales' "Highway Blues" WMA file sound extraordinarily tinny, and bass-heavy tracks such as The J.B.'s "Giving Up Food For Funk" were a muddy mess. The nano is compatible with AAC (protected and unprotected), MP3, MP3 VBR, AIFF, Audible, Apple Lossless, WAV, and WMA, but true audiophiles may lament the absence of FLAC and OGG support.
The nano includes Genius Playlists, a feature that wrangles up similar sounding songs into a playlist. When we held the center of the clickwheel while listening to They Might Be Giants' "Twisting", an option appeared to create a playlist. When we clicked it, we were presented with a 25 song playlist that consisted of tracks from the aforementioned group as well as songs from Radiohead and TV on the Radio. Although we wouldn't necessarily place these songs together as a group, we didn't mind too much. Playlists can be saved on the nano for later playback and automatically copies to iTunes when you sync.
FM Radio and Song Tagging
New to the nano, and to the iPod family in general, is an integrated FM radio that provided, loud, static-free audio both indoors and as we walked around midtown Manhattan. You must have a pair of headphones plugged into the nano to get reception. We picked up several local New York City stations using the hard, uncomfortable bundled Apple earbuds.
Pressing the play/pause button while listening to Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" activated the Live Pause feature that let us pause and resume live radio. We paused the song for over 5 minutes before pressing the play/pause button again to resume. When a station is paused you can see the audio buffering on the bottom of the screen, and you can live pause up to 15 minutes of audio. Tapping forward or back on the clickwheel will cause you to move through the song or show at one-minute intervals. You cannot, however, record live radio.
In the place of radio recording is song tagging, which (similar to the Microsoft Zune HD) lets you tag songs by pressing and holding the center button and then purchase them at a later time using iTunes. You can't, however, tag any song; it has to be a song with a tag icon. In our time with the nano, these songs appeared infrequently, but we did manage to tag Drake's "Best I Ever Had." When we connected our nano to a PC, a "Tagged" listing appeared under the Store heading. Visiting that area revealed the tagged track name and a "Buy" button. A few seconds later, we were listening to the song on the nano.
VoiceOver is designed to give you audio cues so that you can navigate the nano without needing to look at the display. It's not built into the nano by default; you have to enable it on the "Summary" screen when you connect your iPod to a Mac or PC and download the audio kit. It came in particularly handy on a 40-minute subway commute, during which time we were able to cycle through the nano's many categories (such as Music, Video, Albums) and have them read to us in a mechanical female voice. One we selected an artist, its name was read, as then the title of the track when we drilled down further. It also read the names and episode titles of podcasts that we downloaded from /Filmcast, and Destroy All Podcasts DX.
The most-talked about new feature in the new iPod nano is the inclusion of a 640 x 480-pixel camera that allows users to shoot video at 30 frames per second. When we shot video of a coworker talking to us as she stood next to a bouquet of flowers, we noticed that the nano didn't measure up to the quality of the original 2GB Flip mino, which also sports 640 x 480 resolution. The nano's colors were severely muted; reds and purples in both the flowers and the subject's clothing lacked the vibrancy seen on the Flip, and the entire room in which she was standing looked washed out. We shot video outdoors to see how the nano handled natural lighting. The footage looked better; the soft, white haze wasn't quite as prominent. Still, we prefer the Flip.
The nano does have two advantages over the standard-def Flip; visual effect and capacity. Pressing and holding the center button brings up a menu of visual effects that you can use when shooting video. There are 16 options in total, including normal, sepia, black & white, x-ray, film grain, thermal, security cam, cyborg, bulge, kaleido, motion blur, mirror, light tunnel, dent, stretch, and twirl. Thermal proved to be one of our favorites as it gave the people and surroundings a very Predator-like view. Plus, our 16GB nano had 8 times the storage capacity of the Flip, which means you can shoot far greater amounts of video before needing to clear room for new footage. The larger Flip Video Ultra offers 4GB of storage.
Several new features were added to iTunes 9 that are designed to enhance your multimedia enjoyment. The most obvious is the tweaked layout; it's now far easier to navigate the iTunes Store, thanks to the category tabs at the top of the screen that also serve as category drop-down boxes when you click their arrow icons.
Genius Mixes creates a playlist of similar songs within iTunes when you connect your nano. Genius Mixes scanned our library and sent info to Apple about our iTunes tracks and--in under 3 minutes--it presented us with "Alternative Mix" (based on songs by Interpol, Regina Specktor, Rufus Wainwright, and others), and "Alternative Mix 2" (based on songs by Fiona Apple, Iron & Wine, M. Ward). For the most part, the songs flowed well together, but we thought that the edgy guitars on Built To Spill's "Keep It Like A Secret" (which appeared in both lists) made the song not blend very well with the rest.
The greatest addition to iTunes 9 is the introduction of iTunes LP, which gives music fans who lament the death of vinyl a reason to get excited about digital music purchases. When we plunked down $12.99 for The Doors: 40th Anniversary Mixes, we were treated to a "Break On Through (To The Other Side)" music video, band photos, video interviews, lyrics, and three additional tracks that weren't on the $9.99 normal version of the album. It took nearly 30 minutes to download the entire package, but don't fret; if you lose your Internet connection or simply don't have time to grab the LP in one sitting you can click Store > dCheck for Available Downloads to finish up. Syncing the LP to the iPod transferred over the music and music video, but not the photos or interviews, which was a bummer.
iTunes Extras works in a similar way, but for movies; now when you purchase select movies (such as The Dark Knight), you can watch trailers, special features, and view photo galleries, much like a DVD. However, you don't get these extras on the iPod nano or iPod touch.
Home Sharing finally frees users up to move content across five authorized computers on a local network. You can import what you wish, and automatically add new purchases made on any of the computers to your own library.
If you own a iPhone or iPod touch, you'll dig the improved syncing, which lets you organize your Apps across your device's different home screens, and have that exact arrangement transfer to your handheld when you sync it to your Mac or PC.
Pedometer and Nike Plus
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The included pedometer lets you input your weight, and select the number of steps you'd like to achieve per day (2,500 to 100,000 by default or you can create a custom number). We kept track of all our steps when we walked to a store to grab lunch. When paired with the $29 Nike + iPod Sport Kit, you can track your walking or running distance, times, and performance history.
Extras and Battery Life
Under the "Extras" heading you'll find alarms, calendars, clocks, contacts, fitness, games, notes, screen lock, stopwatch, and voice memo. Under the fitness tab you'll find a pedometer and under games you'll find three titles, Klondike, Maze, and Vortex. Apple rates the iPod nano to last 24 hours on a charge when playing audio, and 5 hours when playing video.
The Apple iPod nano is a great mini-portable media player for those that are fans of Apple's slick design aesthetic and iTunes. The addition of the VGA camcorder is more of a bonus than a Flip-killer, and competing players offer better audio quality. However, when you add in other enhancements, such as the larger screen, FM tuner with song tagging, Genius features, VoiceOver, and pedometer, the latest nano is a good value. Overall, we prefer the iPod touch (starting at $199) because of its Web browsing and vast array of apps, but if you want to travel really light the nano is the way to go.