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.
Audio and video tweaks to iPods have for several years remained small, and despite claims that the new iPod lineup was about to make a big change over to supporting high-definition video storage—a feature that is well overdue for this product family—this year’s event came and went without any change in video functionality. Once again, the fifth-generation iPod nano supports only two video file formats: MPEG-4 and H.264, capped at a top resolution of 640x480, except under unusual encoding situations. Videos that played on the prior iPods play on this one. Everything else doesn’t, requiring time-consuming and sometimes quality-dropping re-encoding. The lack of broader format and resolution support remain drawbacks for all of the iPods, though Apple has encouraged enough companies to follow its lead with MPEG-4 and H.264 that more videos today than ever before are originally encoded as capable of playing on its portable devices.
As noted in the discussion of the fifth-generation iPod nano’s new TFT screen, the quality of displayed videos has changed in a few ways from last year’s model—a net but not universal positive. Widescreen videos played on both devices appear on the new model to be a tiny bit shorter but considerably wider than before, while adding greater apparent shading detail, particularly in dark colors. The fifth-generation nano is capable of displaying videos more brightly than the fourth, with the same apparent smoothness. All that it doesn’t do as well is render certain colors as solidly as before; where one pixel looked flat and bright, it is now more likely to be displayed as two close-by approximating pixels. Since the screen’s dots are so small, this honestly isn’t a major issue, but it is worth noting, regardless. Video output to a TV continues to require overpriced Apple or third-party video cables, and looks the same, though the screen informing you of this limitation has now changed to include a dark gradated background and a cable that looks more like the actual oversized one that Apple sells.
Battery life during video playback depends on a number of factors, but we’ve held them constant over the years in our tests. On 50% brightness—incidentally, roughly the same level of very watchable illumination on the fourth- and fifth-generation models—and 50% volume through headphones, the new iPod nano ran our test 640x480 videos for an average of 5 hours and 12 minutes across two tests, an improvement of roughly 20 minutes over last year’s model, and enough to match Apple’s promised 5-hour run time. Played through the nano’s integrated speaker, which needs to be cranked up loud to be heard—we used the very listenable 100% as a stress test—the number dropped to roughly 4 hours, in one test going for 4 hours and 18 minutes, another for 3 hours and 48 minutes.
Sonically, the fifth-generation iPod nano is completely up to snuff with the fourth-generation model, the second-generation iPod classic, as well as the iPhone 3GS, all of which have almost completely eliminated low-level hissing noises from their amplifiers, creating cleaner-sounding audio that’s as close to audiophile-quality as any iPod we’ve previously tested. Even when using $1300 earphones to listen to the latest Beatles album remasters, which were given a fine-tooth combing for sonic imperfections by their producers, the fifth-generation iPod nano produced legitimately wonderful, “no complaints” sound on its default equalizer setting. We got lost in the music and really didn’t want to give up listening in order to write about it, consistently great performance that really kicked in across the family starting with last year’s models. All that continues to be missing from the iPod nano sonically is a true set of graphic equalizers, which Apple continues to leave out of all of its devices, most likely because its audio chips have only limited settings in which they can perform properly without distortion. Users keep asking, and Apple keeps on not doing anything about it, a disappointment for a company that claims to be constantly reminding itself that “it’s all about the music.”
That having been said, the fifth-generation iPod nano does have a number of sonic advantages over, say, the iPod classic. It includes a great optional setting called Audio Crossfade, which enables songs from different albums to blend into each other rather than starting and stopping abruptly. Apple also includes both “Spoken Menus” and “VoiceOver” technologies that, like last year’s model—a point obscured by Apple in order to market the otherwise anemic 2009 iPod shuffle—read everything from menus to media file titles to you, in multiple languages as necessary. A new feature called Genius Mixes lets you synchronize continuous and similar music mixes generated by iTunes directly to the iPod nano, a feature that’s also included in the classic and new iPod touch software, as well.
And it includes that speaker, which is, as is predictable given its size, not fantastic—better for watching movies than listening to music. It can be felt radiating from the iPod nano’s lower rear near the video camera and microphone, and produces sound that’s louder than the iPod touch’s but considerably more distorted, and less loud than the iPhone 3G and 3GS speakers, with less fullness. It works when the nano’s headphone port and Dock Connector are both obscured, and suffices as a previewing tool for video and audio recordings, while giving users a decent enough option when they forget their headphones. As a “free” addition to the fifth-generation model, it’s acceptable, but it goes without saying that anyone looking to actually enjoy their music with respectable quality should use headphones or external speakers, instead.
The fifth-generation iPod nano’s battery life for non-speaker audio playback exceeds Apple’s promised 24-hour estimates by a considerable margin. With volume on 50% and only the most minimal interaction with the device during continuous playback of a randomized music library, last year’s model ran for just shy of 31 hours continuously, and this year’s model ran for 32 hours and 32 minutes, a small but always welcome improvement. FM radio performance drops the nano’s battery life considerably: our test at 50% volume with Live Pause turned on ran for 7 hours and 54 minutes before the device gave out. In other words, plan to keep a charger or spare battery around if you’re planning to use the nano aggressively for either radio playback or video recording, which as noted in an earlier section will run for between 1.5 and 2 hours on a full charge.