Review: Apple Inc. iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)
Pros: An iterative update to the 2008 iPod nano, most notably adding a low-end video camera, very good FM radio tuner and microphone, and a fine pedometer as integrated hardware. New 2.2” wide, brighter TFT screen makes videos more viewable than on prior model, while preserving the rest of the prior nano’s interface and ability to play music and games. Continues to include font size options and optional voice prompting to aid those who would otherwise have trouble reading the small screen, as well as a less intrusive VoiceOver feature for those who just want occasional song title prompting. Maintains high audio quality from prior iPod nano, improves battery life for audio and video. Changes prior anodized aluminum texture to a new polished gloss, with updated colors that may appeal more to some users.
Cons: Video recording quality is mediocre, even by reference to simple camera found in iPhone 3GS, and consumes considerable battery life; lacks still photo capability. Game support for nano models has flatlined during growth of App Store, and appears unlikely to recover. New colors and glossy texture won’t thrill all users. Continues to have somewhat dull knife-like feel in the hand, albeit softened a little from prior version, and smaller Click Wheel is less than ideally sized. Lower-end version has little storage capacity for video recordings. Otherwise impressive radio tuner has slightly confusing “Live Pause” recording interface and mostly useless tagging feature. Build quality and longevity are concerns in light of a couple of tested units.
To call the fifth-generation iPod nano a cosmetic retread of the fourth-generation model is only half fair—particularly in light of the greater similarity of the latest and prior iPod touch models—but after three years of major annual changes to iPod nano bodies, comparatively little has changed this time. The new iPod nano has the exact same exterior physical dimensions as last year, measuring 3.6” tall by 1.5” wide by 0.24” deep, and weighing 1.28 ounces, just barely down from the 1.3 ounce prior weight. It continues to possess the dull knife-like sides of the prior model, albeit a little smoother, and nine different colors that span the entire rainbow, plus silver and black.
Each ships in a clear hard plastic box that is virtually indistinguishable from the fourth-generation model’s, apart from an updated reference on the back to iTunes 9; similarly, the included charging and synchronizing USB cable, earphones, and Dock Adapter are all the same as last year’s, but for some very minor changes. For instance, the headphone plug casing is thinner and made from hard plastic rather than soft plastic; the new number 18 Dock Adapter now has a Dock Connector hole on its left side, and the instructions now depict the new model, its FM radio, and video camera.
Apple has, however, made five noteworthy changes to various facets of the fifth-generation model’s body. First, the screen has expanded from a 2-inch, 320x240-resolution color LCD with LED backlighting to a 2.2-inch, 376x240-resolution TFT display. Practically, this means that the screen now stretches further down on the new nano’s face, adding 56 pixels to the bottom of the vertically-mounted display, which are used alternately for additional lines of text, black bars on the sides of games, slightly wider presentations of video, and other minor interface tweaks discussed in the next section of this review.
The new screen is brighter at its maximum than the prior one, but has a slightly pink tint when it’s not at its peak, and appears to be rendering videos and games with dithering—a technique to approximate colors that can’t be produced naturally by the limited-color display. Consequently, videos on the new nano do look better overall than they did on the fourth-generation model, but with nuances: subtle shading is improved, particularly in dark scenes—more shading is evident than with even the iPhone 3GS—but when viewed up close, video and games are a little grainier than before. On balance, we’d pick the new nano’s screen over the fourth-generation version’s, but most people would call it a tossup in every way except size.
By comparison, the new nano’s Click Wheel is a step down from its predecessor. Apple has been playing with the sizes of nano Click Wheels for years, stepping down from a nearly 1.5” diameter Wheel in the second-generation model to a 1 and 1/16” wheel in the third, then modestly re-upping to a 1 and 1/8” wheel in the fourth. The fifth-generation model goes back to the smaller third-generation size, and as a result has less touchable surface area, which makes a big finger slip off more often when scrolling or playing games. It’s a small change, but one that some users will find annoying. Additionally, as noted in the Other Accessories and Defects section below, several of our iPod nanos arrived with fairly significant gaps off to the sides of their Click Wheels, most notably, the yellow version. Whether it’s due to a new production technique, lowered quality control standards, or some other reason, there are greater than previously permissible gap tolerances in this model than its predecessor, which means that if you wind up with the wrong nano, you’ll find that dust and dirt can get inside. Since the gap can be seen from inside the plastic box, it’s worth an in-person inspection of your particular unit before purchase; most of our units were fine.
The third change is the aforementioned addition of a chrome and glass video camera and microphone plate to the rear of the casing. We’ll discuss their performance below, but from a cosmetic and functional standpoint, the addition of this small pill-shaped plate to the bottom-left of the iPod nano means that you’ll need to re-learn how to hold the device to use it as a video or audio recorder, making sure that your fingers don’t fall into a natural resting position atop the panel. Apple’s positioning of these elements was certainly far less than optimal, and deserve to be changed in a sixth-generation model; a higher, more central position would have been better to avoid finger problems.
Fourth is a change that will impact some fourth-generation iPod nano cases, and potentially other accessories: the Dock Connector and headphone port have been reversed on the device’s bottom from the positions they’ve held for years, such that the headphone port is now on the bottom left, and the Dock Connector is on the bottom right. The only other practical impact this will have for past iPod nano users will be a need to re-learn how to seat the new model in docks; virtually no one will care.
Fifth is a set of very significant changes to the iPod nano’s colors and textures, which see all nine of the fourth-generation model’s “nanochromatic” iPods preserved, but given an all-new glossy finish and slightly different metallic tones. Apple refers to the new body material as polished anodized aluminum, but it looks like every model has been given a coating of automotive-grade paint, with a similarly shiny texture. Only the rear engraving, top, bottom, and Click Wheel surfaces are still matte in texture, and unlike prior glossy iPods, Apple appears to have come up with something this time that’s actually scratch-resistant. iPod touches, iPod classics, and two different iPod nanos both have had rear plates that seemed to scratch with little more than a fingernail worth of pressure; the new iPod nano makes such things roll off as if film had been applied to most of its surfaces. Those interested in the color differences can read below and see our Flickr iPod nano collection for larger images.
Silver: Substantially similar to the fourth-generation version except for the high-gloss finish; one of only two models to preserve black Click Wheel, top, and bottom surfaces.
Black: Nearly identical in color to the fourth-generation charcoal version, save for the high-gloss finish.
Purple: Decidedly different from the fourth-generation purple, possessing a darker, more blue purple tone.
Blue: Decidedly different from the fourth-generation blue, with a stronger blue color.
Green: The single most different color of the bunch from the fourth-generation predecessor, green is now more blue-shifted, to an almost pine tone. We’ve already watched someone pooh-pooh this color in the Apple Store—“why did they have to change these colors again?”
Yellow: Now an Apple Store exclusive color, due most likely to lower demand than anything else. Very similar to last year’s yellow, but seemingly more saturated due to the glossy finish.
Orange: Slightly darker than last year’s orange, this model is now approaching a copper penny in coloration.
Red: Once again, an Apple Store exclusive color with some proceeds going to the Global Fund to fight AIDS in Africa, bundled with a red card noting as much. This year’s tone is candy apple red, darker than its predecessor, and again shifting a little towards the third-generation nano’s color.
Pink: Shifting away from hot pink, this tone is a little rosier than the ones in fourth-generation and second-generation models, and darker than the ones used in third-generation nanos and iPod minis.
Our opinions on the new color selection vary from editor to editor, and surely, you’ll have your own favorite and least-favorite colors; we’re not totally thrilled or put off by the selection relative to last year’s rainbow rendition. Their collective appearance takes the iPod nano family from looking like traditional matte Apple metal devices into a new, car body-like direction, with less of a difference in slipperiness than we’d expected when first seeing them.