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.
When Apple released the third-generation iPod nano and first-generation iPod classic, it debuted an updated interface that was modestly controversial at the time, using twin vertical panes to display menu choices and covers for album art and videos. One year later, it kept the same interface for the second-generation iPod classic, but changed it for the fourth-generation nano, moving the second pane to the bottom of the screen and making a bunch of other related changes discussed in our review last year. The fifth-generation iPod nano keeps last year’s interface almost entirely intact, with only a handful of real changes; most of the screens are exactly as before, only with a little additional space at the bottom and/or top of the screen. In short, unless you’re an iPod geek, we’d suggest just skipping the text in this section and moving along to the next one, perusing the pictures in between.
As with all screened iPods since the very first model, the key display in the fifth-generation iPod nano is the Now Playing screen, which appears whenever you’re playing music, audio podcasts, or audiobooks. Last year, this screen was iPhone-ized with a neat black theme, replacing the white that had been used in every Click Wheel iPod model since the beginning; album artwork became large and prominent, and the new nano gained an accelerometer, which let it switch into a scrolling horizontal Cover Flow mode whenever you turned the device on its side. The 56 pixels of added screen width now show a total of 9 album covers at the same time rather than 7, and a maximum of 12 lines of text rather than 10. On most of the device’s screens, such as menus and during 320x240 game playback, the extra space is filled by nothing or a continuation of a prior gradated background.
That said, the Now Playing screen has changed, moving the album title, artist name, and song title from below the album art to a gradated black bar immediately beneath a redesigned black top of screen bar that now displays the current time by default, rather than the words “Now Playing.” This three-line display eliminates the fourth-generation nano’s need to switch between artist and album names, which it used to do in a thin white font; now both lines are light gray and in a heavier font weight. When you view the About screens, the name of your iPod is placed to the left of the screen, unlike the fourth-generation version, which centered and then scrolled the name. Tweaks are for the most part as trivial as these, but do slightly improve the device’s interface when taken as a whole.
More dramatic changes are found in only a handful of screens. Previously, Apple sold an accessory called the iPod Radio Remote, which added an FM tuner to certain iPod models. On the fifth-generation nano, the radio tuner is built-in, and the software gains a nice new black-backgrounded look, as well as a somewhat less than entirely intuitive bottom-of-screen “Live Pause” bar that represents a 15-minute recording timeline. As long as you’re on a station, the iPod nano will cache its contents so that you can pause, rewind, and then fast-forward through several songs (or commercials) worth of audio; the recording disappears whenever you change stations. It’s a neat little feature, though not as well-implemented as a prior true radio recording accessory developed by Griffin for older iPods; this one is here to encourage you to buy more stuff through iTunes.
How? Apple has tried to popularize a new feature called “iTunes Tagging,” which supposedly enables the iPod nano to display and save data about currently playing songs—on certain stations—so you can buy them when you return to sync with iTunes. We couldn’t actually find any FM radio stations in our area that supported compatible tags, but there was bare Radio Data Service (RDS) information on some stations that the nano couldn’t record. This feature seemed like somewhat of a dog when it was introduced for HD radio accessories some time ago, and is even less useful now. However, the integrated FM radio works surprisingly well to tune in local stations, depending only on any pair of connected wired headphones to serve as an antenna. Static is present but low, and the tuner is easy enough to use, then mark with favorite stations that can easily be skipped to in the future. Disconnect the headphones and the radio won’t work at all. Five radio regions—Americas, Asia, Australia, Europe, and Japan—are selectable via a settings menu.
The same games designed for the third- and fourth-generation iPod nano work on the fifth-generation model, albeit with black bars on their left and right sides, and slight color and dithering shifts attributable to the new screen technology. Three games are still included with the fifth-generation iPod nano—Klondike, Maze, and Vortex—and are basically the same as the versions released previously. Apple has not released any new games for these iPods in many months, leaving a library of just under 50 titles to stagnate in the shadow of the hugely popular App Store, almost all at $5 a piece. It goes without saying that whereas a year ago the iPod nano offered plenty of games relative to the budding iPod touch, the touch is now the de facto gaming device of choice for iPod fans, and nano users will likely be disappointed with the pricing, selection, and quality of available titles. Game fans with iPod touches will save more over the lifetimes of their devices, and have better experiences, than the cost difference between the 8GB iPod nano and 8GB iPod touch.