I'm seeing double!
Don't let its appearance fool you. There's a lot that's new about the Nano fifth generation despite its similarities to the previous incarnations, not the least being the addition of a video camera at the back of the device. The screen has also had a boost to 2.2 inches (up from 2 inches) and though it looks a little odd on first inspection it certainly grows on you — no pun intended. It's still ridiculously thin and light, hardly tipping the scales at 36.4g.
Available in a kaleidoscopic array of nine colours, the capacities are still 8GB (AU$199) and 16GB (AU$249, a price drop of AU$30 from the previous Nano at launch). The glossy surface also adds another layer of interest to the exterior configuration, and is pleasingly scratch-resistant. After a few days of having it rustle up next to a collection of keys and other domestic accoutrements that wreaked havoc on something like the silver back platter of the iPod Classic, the Nano came away mostly unscathed. The minute hold switch is still at the top left and all other connections (headphones and iPod dock) are at the base, though the configuration has been swapped from the 4th generation, with headphone and dock changing sides.
An upgrade to iTunes 9 is required to use this version of the Nano, but it enables a few new features like Genius Mixes, which makes its debut here. Essentially, the Nano creates custom mixes based on a loose appropriation of the genres present on your pod thanks to the alchemy of the Genius logic — such as Alternative & Punk, Hip-Hop/Rap or Electronic to name a few. These are fully automated so there's no extra work on your part to activate them, but do note that the iPod does need to be synced with iTunes to use this feature.
Just like the previous generation, Nano number five displays its home menus with a list of the standard options at the top (music, movies, podcasts and so on) with a rotating strip of album art or, more intriguingly, stills from videos you have captured on the device. The accelerometer also orients the cover flow display and photo display on the screen. Audio file formats that the Nano can play back include MP3, AAC, AIFF, WAV and Apple Lossless.
Side by side by side ... Cover Flow in action. (Credit: CBSi)
Pound the pavement.
Exercisers are also catered for with the addition of a pedometer to track steps taken and the ability to sync with a Nike+iPod account. Under the appropriately named heading Fitness, a daily step goal and your weight can also be set, with the calendar displaying progress in terms of calories expended and the number of steps taken. Shake to shuffle is another one of those "love it or hate it" features and suffers the same fate as the scroll wheel — it's either too sensitive or not sensitive enough. It's also a bit temperamental in terms of what motion it deems acceptably "shaky": we found that a simple up and down motion worked better than the side-to-side action.
Apple rates the Nano's video playback at five hours rather than the four that the previous player managed. Audio is rated for 24 hours which is also impressive, though we found that after a full day of playing music on shuffle, and using features intermittently like the video camera and pedometer, the battery was nearly exhausted.
Video and the radio star
One of the most noted absences on all versions of the iPod has been an FM tuner, and it seems that years on Apple has finally taken notice and acquiesced. Not content to do things by halves, the Nano's radio is one of the most innovative on a portable music player, most notably as it's capable of pausing, rewinding and tracking live radio. Once the Nano has successfully tuned into a station, via the scroll wheel on a pleasingly retro tuner interface, it begins buffering the broadcast so you can pause, rewind and resume up to 15 minutes of audio from the point at which you began listening. Rewinding and fast-forwarding through the buffered audio works in one minute increments, stamped with the original broadcast's time.
It's just like listening to Fireside Chats on the wireless! (Credit: CBSi)
Track name display also works well too, though your radio station of choice will have to be equipped with RDS (Radio Data System) to broadcast this information and more often than not only the large commercial stations will be able to do so. Fortunately, if this is where your tastes lie, once you hear a song that piques your interest, you can "tag" the track to find later in iTunes.
Though the video camera is only VGA resolution its clips are impressive for such a small lens and microphone. Encoding is taken care of in H.264 at 30 frames per second, with iTunes-friendly MP4 files being the output. The camera's placement is a little odd though, for such a forward-thinking design powerhouse like Apple. Why on earth put the camera at the base of the Nano where you're most likely to grip it? Your palm will be making more starring roles than ever before unless you orient the Nano to landscape.
Preset video filters are included — like black and white, sepia and x-ray — which can be applied and processed over the video in real time. There's no provision for still image capture and we can only wonder why Apple would have left off such functionality. iPod Nano sixth gen, maybe? Also there's no option to tweak any shooting settings like contrast, saturation or brightness.
The microphone on the back also doubles as a primitive ghetto blaster when the headphones are unplugged and — here's the surprise — the sound isn't all that bad, though just mentioning this feature is giving us visions of obnoxious commuters unplugging their headphones for all the world to hear on the morning train ride to work. It's also worth noting that the headphones act as an antenna for the radio so you won't be able to ghetto-blast your way with radio coming out of the internal speaker.
Sound quality is relatively similar to previous iPods. The bundled headphones do a capable job of rendering FM-quality broadcasts but fall a little flat when it comes to high-quality audio files, and still struggle with sounds at either extremes — rolling, deep bass or high trebles came out a little squidgy for our tastes. The equaliser didn't make much of a discernible difference either, and there's still no ability to make custom presets. The best option for audiophiles is still to invest in a dedicated pair of headphones.
Thanks to the elongated screen, watching video is a lot nicer as it provides more scope for widescreen. Playback is also nice and smooth like it was on the fourth generation. Voice memo recording is also easier to use as there is no need to buy compatible headphones, just use the internal microphone. Unfortunately, there's no way to monitor the recording so observing the visual gauge on the screen is the only indication of levels that's available. Again, the placement of the microphone doesn't make for a particularly pleasing recording experience, as it's far too easy to leave your hand over the mic as noted earlier.
Should I buy it?
The candybar design and colours will undoubtedly sway many teetering on the edge of to Nano or not to Nano, and the addition of an FM radio and pedometer will go down well with those looking for a lightweight device to take jogging or to cart around as their primary media player. We doubt the video camera alone will entice that many people to upgrade, but with a range of useful features the fifth generation is the sleekest and most enticing version yet. For the price it will be hard to beat.