Review: Apple 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.
Most users will agree that the addition of a 640x480 video camera, microphone, and speaker to the fifth-generation iPod nano are its three most important changes from the fourth-generation model: together, these features for the first time enable the nano to serve as a standalone, headphoneless audio player—previously reserved for the iPod touch and iPhone—as well as a tiny camcorder. The camera requires literally no expertise to use: it begins to record when you hit the central Action button and stops when you hit it again, doing so continuously in vertical or horizontal orientation depending on what position the nano is in when the recording starts. Holding down the button before the video brings up a realtime display-aided list of special effects that can be slowly scrolled through with the Click Wheel; there is no focusing mechanism or zoom capability to help videos or be concerned about.
The lens, microphone, and sensor used in the new iPod nano are all smaller than the ones in the iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPhone 3GS, however, they enable this nano to do what pre-3GS iPhones and other iPods cannot, namely, to create audio-video recordings that are decent enough in quality for kids and casual users to have fun; moreover, Apple goes beyond the iPhone 3GS by adding a total of 16 different video effects—including “Normal”—which create entire recordings with realtime color and geometric distortions that are similar to the company’s iChat and Photo Booth software.
A video of all of the nano’s video recording effects can be seen below. Past Normal, they include Black & White, X-Ray, Sepia, Thermal, Cyborg, Security Cam, Film Grain, Kaleido, Mirror, Bulge, Motion Blur, Dent, Twirl, Light Tunnel, Twist, and Stretch.
In “normal” recording mode, the iPod nano produces videos that are smooth but not silky, colorful but not always accurate, and generally in focus but not razor-sharp. These videos come in an unchangeable H.264 video format with stereo AAC format audio and a 30 frame per second display rate, exceeding the quality of the recording hardware; the iPhone 3GS makes videos with a higher bitrate despite recording only in monaural mode. The nano’s videos can be nearly 3000 kilobits per second in size versus the iPhone 3GS’s nearly 4000 kilobit per second rate, and the nano can record for between 1.5 and 2 hours on a full battery charge, consuming a little over 1GB of storage capacity for every hour of recording. One of our pure recording tests ran for 1 hour and 27 minutes, the other for 1 hour and 50 minutes, with the use of special effects not appearing to have a negative impact on recording time. This is roughly on par with competing devices such as Flip Video’s series of dedicated point-and-shoot video cameras, though they enjoy considerably better video quality, and come nowhere near the nano in terms of offering extra features.
Video comparison, shot with iPod nano 5G:
Video comparison, shot with Flip Video (cropped to match aspect ratio of iPod nano 5G):
Video comparison, shot with Flip Video (uncropped):
Besides the fact that it has included a relatively high ISO sensitivity that enables the nano to make grainy but viewable recordings in dim light, Apple deserves credit for adding those special effects to the iPod nano’s camera; some, including the Terminator-like “Cyborg” overlay, Security Cam, Film Grain, and Motion Blur are positively inspired additions to an inexpensive video recorder, and it’s obvious from day one that it’s only a matter of time before amateur auteurs—or people posing like them—will create small films entirely on the iPod nano for upload to the Internet. The only omissions from the iPod nano as far as video recording are concerned are its inability to actually edit video clips, change special effects mid-recording, or send clips to people without requiring a computer for synchronization. Its inability to take still pictures, even primitive ones, will bother some users more than others; our gut feeling is that young users will not care a lot. The iPhone 3GS remains a more impressive on-the-go video and photo recording device due to its versatility, but the nano’s camera isn’t bad considering the size of the device it’s inside.
Voice Memos, previously found on the fourth-generation iPod nano, has been given a cosmetic overhaul for the fifth-generation model, using the old-fashioned microphone imagery found on the iPhone and iPod touch application of the same name. Recording remains as simple as pressing the central Action button to start or add chapter markers, and the Menu button to stop. You can now label memos after recording them, using not a keyboard but the phrases podcast, interview, lecture, idea, meeting, and memo; recordings are made for whatever reason as 128kbps stereo AAC files at 44.1Hkz, and require roughly a Megabyte per minute of recording space. The integrated microphone turns out to be surprisingly good—even clearer at the same one-foot distance than the microphone in Apple’s Earphones with Remote and Mic, effectively eliminating the need for the inexpensive microphone add-ons that appeared for the fourth-generation iPod nano.