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.

The fifth-generation iPod nano ($149/8GB, $179/16GB) preserves the shape of its fourth-generation predecessor while adding six primary features: a video camera capable of having special effects applied to realtime video recordings via holding down the Click Wheel’s central button, a microphone, an internal speaker, a wider 2.2″ screen, an FM radio tuner, and a pedometer for use in exercise. The microphone and video camera are found on a chromed plate on the unit’s back, in the lower left corner; it reverses the prior headphone port and Dock Connector arrangement on the device’s bottom. Apple has also used a new “polished anodized aluminum” technique to give the devices each glossy but otherwise similar — not identical — colors to last year’s versions; purple becomes richer, “black” lighter, and so on. It is, as expected, a challenge to hold the iPod nano to actually record video, but once you’re doing so, it’s actually impressive to see how Apple smoothly fades transitions from menu screen to menu screen within camera mode.

Update: A hands-on video of the iPod nano 5G is now available for viewing on Vimeo.

In 2005, Apple shocked the world with the original iPod nano—then the thinnest music player in the world—and it has spent the four subsequent years improving the device in a variety of big, medium, and small ways. Heading into the 2009 holiday season, the company has introduced the fifth-generation iPod nano (8GB/$149, 16GB/$179), which is without question the most capable version yet, adding a wider screen, video camera, microphone, speaker, FM radio, and pedometer to last year’s fourth-generation model. Yet apart from some significant changes to the color and texture of its casing, the fifth-generation nano manages to squeeze all of these new features into a body that looks and sounds a lot like its predecessor.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

Some people will consider the aforementioned laundry list of new features to be enough to make a purchase without further elaboration: the fifth-generation iPod nano can be blithely summed up as a better fourth-generation model, and left at that. But that’s not entirely accurate. Changes to its screen, body, and battery performance—particularly when using its new features—should be understood up front, lest you find yourself surprised by what you don’t know about the new model.

 

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

iLounge’s comprehensive review of the fifth-generation iPod nano looks both at the device as a whole, and at what has changed from its predecessor—more critically, how—enabling you to make a more informed purchase, or pass on one if you don’t find the new model’s performance characteristics to be to your liking. There are quite a few surprises in the sections below, so we encourage you to read through as many as you want; our Conclusions section at the bottom explains our rating and overall opinions on what we’ve seen.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

Physical Characteristics, Packaging, Pack-Ins, and Colors

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.

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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, 320×240-resolution color LCD with LED backlighting to a 2.2-inch, 376×240-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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

Black: Nearly identical in color to the fourth-generation charcoal version, save for the high-gloss finish.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

Purple: Decidedly different from the fourth-generation purple, possessing a darker, more blue purple tone.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

Blue: Decidedly different from the fourth-generation blue, with a stronger blue color.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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?”

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

Orange: Slightly darker than last year’s orange, this model is now approaching a copper penny in coloration.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

What’s Inside: The 5G nano’s Updated Interface and Radio

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.

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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 320×240 game playback, the extra space is filled by nothing or a continuation of a prior gradated background.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

What’s Inside: The Camera, Microphone, and Speaker

Most users will agree that the addition of a 640×480 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.

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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):

 

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

Capacities, Pricing and iTunes Synchronization

In prior years, Apple has played with various prices, storage capacities, and levels of storage component quality in its budget iPod series; the fifth-generation iPod nano simultaneously continues and changes the pattern a little bit. Last year’s fourth-generation iPod nano sold for $149 in an 8-Gigabyte capacity or $199 in a 16-Gigabyte capacity, and as previously mentioned, this year’s models have the same storage and more on-board features. The 16-Gigabyte version drops to $179, making its purchase all but a no-brainer for those who anticipate wanting to store homemade video or audio recordings on the device. Combined with their Swiss Army Knife-like expanding feature sets, these prices continue to be the biggest selling points of the iPod nanos; we consider them to be extremely attractive relative to what you’re getting.

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

Though the capacities may have stayed the same, the fifth-generation nanos continue a positive trend we saw in the fourth-generation nano: they synchronize faster with iTunes. Using iTunes 9 for both models, we benchmarked the fifth-generation iPod nano against the fourth-generation nano in a 1GB file transfer test, which saw the newer model take 1 minute and 15 seconds versus the prior model’s 1 minute and 32 seconds for the same files. While this isn’t a profound difference, it’s worth noting that the nano continues to lead Apple’s flash device pack in terms of transfer speeds: the third-generation iPod touch required 1 minute and 35 seconds, and the third-generation iPod shuffle a comparatively terrible 5 minutes and 48 seconds. Only the 160GB iPod classic, which again required only 57 seconds to transfer the same 1GB list, will save you more time when you’re trying to run out of the house with a bunch of new music or videos.

Audio and Video Performance, Including Battery Life

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 640×480, 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.

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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 640×480 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.”

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

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.

Photos, Fitness (Nike + iPod / Pedometer), and Other Extras

Color-screened iPods have been able to display photos on their own and external screens since 2004, but Apple has made clear that it doesn’t care too much about the feature: every year’s screened iPod hardware makes only the most modest of tweaks to photo playback, typically gaining a few photo-to-photo transition effects while losing a few. This year’s model is no different.

The fifth-generation iPod nano’s Photos mode has added one neat feature, the “Ken Burns effect,” which pans and zooms in on images gently as they’re being displayed. It also regains a Cube effect, which transitions from image to image with the very rough appearance of a 3-D side-shifting cube—a disappointment, really—and a Flip effect, while preserving Dissolve and Push effects from the prior model. It loses Slide, Fade Through Black, and Zoom, and retains the ability to randomize the transitions rather than using the same one every time. Pictures can be displayed in horizontal or vertical format depending on the nano’s accelerometer-judged orientation.

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

Apple has made more substantial, though not entirely disclosed changes to the fifth-generation nano’s Nike + iPod functionality. Found under a new menu titled Fitness, the new model adds an integrated pedometer, which is capable of making an approximate count of how many footsteps you’ve taken, based on your weight and motions observed during your movement. Calories burned and time consumed are tracked by the feature, which doesn’t have Nike+ voice prompting, but obviously does let you listen to music while you walk, and keeps track of your walking results for synchronization to a Nike server. While the pedometer is not perfectly reliable, we found that its count was only off by a handful of steps per walk, and Apple has enabled it to provide you with daily step goals that can be automatically tracked every time you turn on the nano, or manually activated as you desire. No additional accessory is needed for this, and a little shoe icon appears at the top of the screen to let you know the pedometer is active.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

Apart from layout tweaks, the past Nike + iPod Sport Kit functionality continues to work in the fifth-generation model as it did before, now speaking its verbal cues through the nano’s integrated speaker if you don’t have headphones connected. A prior option to use a wrist-mounted wireless remote control remains intact here, and has been augmented by a mysterious option called “Heart Rate Monitor.” Apple’s web site briefly referenced an iPod nano 5G-only accessory of this name before pulling down the document; one can guess that it adds yet another monitoring capacity to the nano’s existing walking hardware and the Sport Kit’s wireless running hardware.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

Additional “Extras” on the device remain substantially unchanged from before. The nano continues to offer multiple integrated alarms, world clocks, a stopwatch, and a sleep timer, calendar and contact synchronization, a text file display app called Notes, and a Screen Lock feature. Apple now includes 30 different translated languages for its menus, including right-to-left languages, many supported via VoiceOver as well.

Other Accessories and Defects

The fifth-generation iPod nano preserves most of the accessory compatibility of its predecessor model, which notably rendered FireWire charging devices—including ones found in prior speaker docks, car kits, and other accessories—incompatible and useless for power purposes. It continues to work flawlessly with most other accessories released over the past several years, including some but not all prior iPod nano cases, subject only to the potential for obscuring its camera, microphone, and changed bottom port orientations.

Though the iPod nano 5G is only a couple of days old at this point, our tests have already revealed a couple of notable potential defects that may inhibit your enjoyment of the device. During our testing of the video and speaker output capabilities of our yellow 8GB iPod nano, specifically the second of two tests that brought the unit’s total run time to a little under 7 hours, the nano completely died and could not be resuscitated. We have no idea what caused the failure, but it had not been connected to any unusual accessories, dropped, or otherwise subjected to scenarios that might have been deemed “abuse.” A local Apple Store had to be visited to replace the device, which to the company’s credit was hassle-free, apart from the hassle of having to drive to and from the Store to get a replacement for a brand-new device.

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

The second yellow fifth-generation iPod nano also had a problem: even obvious through the box was the fact that its its front casing left too much of a gap around the Click Wheel; closer inspection of several other fifth-generation iPod nanos revealed that they too had gaps, albeit not as pronounced as this one, making it less likely that they’d fill up inside with pocket lint or dust over time. Notably, the 11 different fourth-generation models we tested had no such problems, though some developed odd little quirks during a year of on-and-off use; our impression is that Apple has adopted a relatively casual “it happens” attitude towards such defects and assuming that the devices don’t betray any abuse, will similarly be replaced without a problem. It goes without saying that 2 out of 10 iffy iPod nanos in our testing does not a bad product make, however, we’d strongly advise potential customers to examine their new nanos before purchase by tilting the box a little to see if the Click Wheel moves, and buy only if you can make meaningful use of a return policy in the event that something happens to your nano.

With that unfortunate bit of discussion out of the way, we will note that there is one way that the fifth-generation iPod nano has impressed us in build quality relative to its predecessor: the paint. It is not easy to gouge or disfigure the polished anodized aluminum of the iPod nano, a big surprise given the historically awful scratch attraction of almost every one of the heavier stainless steel iPod shells that Apple has released. While this model isn’t going to withstand true brutality, we believe that its colored surface will do at least as well as the fourth-generation version’s, and may well serve as an early example of the materials planned for eventually colored iPod touches.

Conclusions

All in all, the fifth-generation iPod nano has many positive characteristics, many of them additions to the fourth-generation model that appeared only a year ago. It is at the core an excellent audio player, a very capable video player, and an increasingly capable workout companion—each the best Apple has ever sold under the iPod nano name—with numerous bonus features, big and small, which it offers with varying degrees of competence. The FM radio, pedometer, and microphone aren’t perfect, but they work very well, while the video camera and speaker are all at least decent given the device’s small size and price. It’s easy to make the comment that they should all improve in the future, but Apple’s first stabs at including these features are all closer to hitting their marks than missing them.

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

That having been said, going into the fifth-generation iPod nano with high expectations for anything other than its audio, video playback, and workout capabilities will lead some users to disappointment. On the video recording side, the nano is not the match for the iPhone 3GS or bigger-lensed, better cameras; as a gaming device, it has fallen way, way behind the only modestly more expensive iPod touch, and at a time when people still enjoy carrying around still photographs, it continues to merely sidestep prior iPod models in this regard rather than definitively improving on them. Some users will like its newly glossy, tweaked colors; others will prefer the tones and matte surfaces of the prior model. Those who, like us, wind up with defective units will also likely find themselves cursing all the way to the Apple Store, at which point a hospitable, friendly employee might turn the experience around. Or so we hope.

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

 

Review: Apple iPod nano (Fifth-Generation)

Our B+ rating of the fifth-generation iPod nano may be somewhat controversial. With the device less than three days old, we realize that many critics piled on top of each other to praise the new model before testing even a fourth of its features, and the pale collective “wisdom” has boiled down to “more is better.” Yet having spent time actually using the new devices en masse, as well as time at Apple Stores watching people approach the counters with less than total glee over the new colors and features, it’s apparent that this model will really fire some people up and strike others as pass-worthy. Last year’s models were breakthroughs in color options, capacities, and pricing, handily eclipsing the less than warmly received “fat” third-generation iPod nano; this year’s versions feel somewhat warmed over, as if Apple has come precariously close to running out of ideas to justify its asking prices for 8GB and 16GB devices, particularly with the iPod touch continuing to gain such momentum in both app functionality and capacity. If you’re looking for a small, thin, colorful iPod—particularly for workouts, even in light of the less expensive iPod shuffle—the fifth-generation iPod nano should be in your sights, especially when stocks of cheaper fourth-generation models run out. Similarly, if the idea of having a simple video camera to carry around along with your media player is appealing, the nano is currently the only way to go unless you’re willing to commit to the iPhone. Otherwise, pick the iPod touch, which apart from its absent video camera offers so many of the nano’s features, and many more, that it will be a better long-term companion for its asking price.

Our Rating

B+
Recommended

Company and Price

Company: Apple Computer

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPod nano (fifth-generation)

Price: $149 (8GB), $179 (16GB)

Compatible: PC/Mac

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