With the introduction of several capabilities we never thought we'd see in an iPod nano, Apple's fifth-generation model is the most feature-packed since the device was launched in 2005.
The latest nano comes in two storage capacities -- 8GB for £115 and 16GB for £135 -- and nine resplendent colours. Eagle-eyed readers will notice the 8GB model is £6 more expensive than last year's model, while the 16GB version is £14 cheaper.
At 6mm thick, the fifth-generation nano is just as thin as ever. With this in mind, it's perhaps even more impressive that Apple has managed to squeeze a video camera into the chassis, along with a slightly larger LCD display. This 56mm (2.2-inch) display, running at 240x376-pixels, is the largest, highest-resolution screen any nano has ever had. Compared to the OLED screens used in costly new MP3 players from Cowon and Sony, its colours aren't as rich when playing video. But, for the price, it's still one of the best displays on the market.
Apple explicitly named the popular Flip Video camcorders as the inspiration for the nano's adoption of video recording. What's odd is the video camera's placement. The lens sits on the opposite side of the player to the click wheel -- exactly where your hand spends most of its time. In our first few hours with the player, this took some serious getting used to. In fact, we'd go so far as to say it's in the worst possible place.
The lens is almost certainly placed where it is because, internally, there was nowhere else that provided enough space to graft a camera in. We found it best to hold the nano horizontally when filming, with the click wheel on the left and LCD display on the right. Then we held the player on the right-hand side so the lens could film unobstructed on the far left. Annoyingly, you can't listen to music while recording video.
Aside from the screen, video camera and much glossier finish on the nano's chassis, little else has changed. It's just as light and ludicrously simple to operate as previous versions. Apple's click wheel makes browsing large music libraries easier than it is with offerings from rival companies.
Attractive, simple interface
Similarly, no rival MP3 player makes browsing music as visually appealing an experience. Inventive use of cover art throughout the music menus makes the simple interface more attractive than that of most other players, and the Cover Flow browsing feature -- activated automatically when you hold the nano horizontally -- is an intuitive and fun way to sift through a large collection of digital music. Apple even offers free, high-resolution album artwork through iTunes, making sure your music has the correct cover art attached to it.
Our readers have made it plain that FM radio has been a much-missed feature on all iPods. The fifth-generation nano is the first version to incorporate it inside the player itself. In addition to letting you listen to FM radio, you can also pause and rewind up to 15 minutes of it. The interface is as lush as you would expect from Apple. After hitting the pause button, the nano continues to listen to and record whatever frequency you're tuned into. Hit pause again and it continues from where you left off. You can also skip forwards and backwards through however much of the broadcast you've recorded. Unlike on some players, however, you can't save these recordings as an audio file.
The nano supports the MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless and WAV audio formats, as well as H.264 and MPEG-4 video. Movie downloads from the iTunes Store are also supported, as well as any subtitles contained within those files. Podcasts can be subscribed to and managed through iTunes, and they sync seamlessly with the nano. Press pause 8 minutes into a podcast on your computer, and it'll resume from that point on the device. The same applies to Audible audiobook downloads, which are also supported.
We'll come to video performance shortly, but first we'll address the video files themselves. The nano creates a single video file for each clip you record. On a Mac you can access these through iPhoto, or by putting the player in disk mode and browsing to them through the Finder. On a PC, you'll need to use the disk method as well. In Mac OS X Snow Leopard, QuickTime X has an integrated upload tool for YouTube, and you can exploit this to get your nano videos up on the site with a couple of clicks. Alternatively, you can always just upload the individual files via the Web site as usual.
Other features new to the nano include VoiceOver, which very effectively reads out menus and song titles to aid navigation for the visually impaired, as well as voice recording and playback, a pedometer that integrates with Nike +, and some attractive and well-designed games.
What you don't get is any multi-band EQ settings (you're still stuck with Apple's basic enhancement options), a microSD card slot for memory expansion, or support for offline playback of BBC iPlayer content -- something that many UK MP3 players now offer. But there's one flaw that's more significant than all of these combined.
In the gravest oversight, the video camera
doesn't take still photographs -- it only records video. That's probably down to
issues with physically not being able to fit a decent-enough still image sensor into the body, but the result is an epic disappointment
Basic video quality
Once you discover your favourite way of avoiding obstructing the lens on the back, you can get some filming done. But you have no control over recording settings or quality. Everything is recorded at a 640x480-pixel resolution in H.264, at roughly 2.5Mbps. The data rate is variable, but these settings result in 1 minute of footage consuming about 20MB of memory, or around 1.2GB per hour. That's actually pretty good.
The problem, dearest consumer, is that the lens is so small and the microphone so tiny that the nano's video is absolutely no replacement for that of even the most basic of camcorders, although it is on a par with that of a very good camera phone. Admittedly, the nano is perfect for capturing quick clips of friends falling into waste compacters or cats doing something hilarious with a baby, and its video is in the perfect format for sharing on YouTube or Facebook. But, if you're planning on filming your holidays around the Caribbean, we'd strongly advise against using the nano as your primary video-capture device. For one thing, colours can look washed-out during outdoor filming.
As for sound quality, if you only use the cheap little earbuds that Apple provides in the box, there's not really any audible difference between this and other players. Those headphones are, as you should know, abysmal. But, if you plug in even a half-decent pair -- perhaps the Sennheiser CX 400s or the high-end Shure SE530s -- the nano delivers good sound quality. Sony's Walkman line offers more powerful, bass-packed audio, but, for the vast majority of people, the nano's sound quality will be perfectly good enough.
In terms of watching video, the nano doesn't compare to the iPod touch (or, of course, a TV). But, for its size and the cost of the device it sits inside, the nano's screen delivers excellent video quality. A tight pixel density produces crisp images, and a handy internal speaker will come in useful for watching a TV show or video podcast in bed. Be warned though: the speaker breathes new vigour into the word 'atrocious' when it comes to music -- it's just too small.
Without question, the fifth-generation model is Apple's best iPod nano yet, and the 16GB version is exceptionally good value. That's not to say this nano is perfect though, and, unless you badly want a video camera, there's no reason to upgrade from the previous model. Overall, it's even more feature-packed than its predecessors, yet leaves intact the spot-on functionality that we've always adored.
Edited by Charles Kloet