The iPod Nano MP3 player continues Apple's legacy of packing a multitude of features into a colorful, impossibly thin design and comes reasonably priced at $149 (8GB) and $179 (16GB). This time around, Apple is branching out of its iPod formula in a small, but not insignificant way by gracing the back of the Nano with its own video camera. If you've ever considered buying an iPod Nano, the fifth-generation model is the best one yet.
In 2008, Apple broke away from the traditionally flat, rectangular iPod design and surprised customers with a curved, wing-shaped iPod Nano. It's safe to assume that Apple is still pleased with that design, since the fifth-generation model is nearly identical to its predecessor, measuring 3.5 inches tall by 1.6 inches wide by 0.25 inch thick at its center.
To distinguish itself from previous models, the latest Nano includes a slightly larger 2.2-inch screen (up from 2 inches) and a glossy, polished aluminum finish that one CNET editor described as looking like a Christmas tree ornament. However, the easiest way to tell that you're holding a fifth-generation iPod Nano is to flip it over. Unlike its fourth-generation sibling, the latest Nano has a bead-size camera lens on its lower left backside. The lens runs flush with the Nano's aluminum body, but if the worn-and-scratched back of our fourth-generation Nano is any indication, we advise investing in a protective case to keep the camera in good working order.
The user interface of the 5G Nano remains almost entirely unchanged with the exception of a few new menu items for the video camera, FM radio, and fitness features. The larger 2.2-inch screen can now display up to 12 lines of menu text (up from 10) and the Now Playing screen lists artist, album, and title information in three bolder, more readable lines at the top of the screen.
The majority of the Nano's hardware design elements remain the same as well. Apple's iconic Click Wheel navigation can still be found on the front of the device, just below the curved glass screen. The Nano's wheel measures just an inch wide, but its operation is no less intuitive and responsive than the larger wheels on other iPods. A durable hold switch still graces the top of the Nano's, and an off-center dock connection and headphone jack are found on its bottom. Be aware, though, that Apple reversed the location of the dock and headphone ports, which may create some compatibility issues with third-party accessories and docks, or possibly cause an awkward fit. As usual, Apple includes a white, molded plastic universal dock fitting for the new Nano, which could help in adapting any docking iPod accessories you already own.
All of the features from last year's Nano have migrated to the fifth-generation model, including music, video, and podcast playback, as well as extras such as photos, calendar, games, alarms, stopwatch, contacts, notes, and clocks. If that weren't enough, Apple has upped the ante with an integrated pedometer, Genius Mix support, voice recording, a built-in speaker, video camera, and an FM radio that we've been asking for since 2001.
Even with the Nano's ever-growing stable of features, music playback is still the beating heart of this iPod. As a portable extension of Apple's popular iTunes computer software, the Nano offers an impressive number of options for playing music, audiobooks, and podcasts. The Nano supports all audio formats such as MP3, AAC, AIFF, and Apple Lossless, and it's a breeze to transfer media using Apple's iTunes software (a required install). For those of you with collections of WMA audio files, iTunes will handle converting your unprotected files (DRM-protected WMA files are a not convertible) into an iPod-compatible format. Niche formats, such FLAC and OGG, will also need to be converted; however, you'll need to use third-party software to get the job done.
The iPod Nano's ties with iTunes also brings fantastic media features, including standard, smart, and Genius playlists; the latter creates instantaneous 25 song playlists based around the characteristics of any of your favorite tunes. Aside from turning playlist creation into a simple, one-click affair, Genius playlists can be created directly on the iPod Nano, eliminating the hassle of creating and syncing playlists through iTunes.
Taking the Genius playlist experience one-step further, Apple has introduced a new feature called Genius Mixes, offering extended playlists of music grouped around a common genre. You can think of Genius Playlists as a more evolved take on shuffling your music library, with selections constrained by genre and ordered according to Apple's secret Genius mojo. Unlike Genius playlists, Mixes require no effort to create--they simply appear on your iPod as part of the automatic syncing process of iTunes. Understand, however, that if you set up iTunes to manage your iPod manually or prefer not to activate the Genius feature in iTunes, Genius Mixes will not appear on your Nano.
Another advantage of the iPod/iTunes relationship is the capability to download and transfer movies, TV shows, music videos, video podcasts, and other video content with minimal fuss. The Nano also handles iTunes-rented movies, many priced as low as $0.99, but typically costing about $3. Other welcome features on the Nano's video player include support for chapter markers, playback auto-resume, video podcasts, and subtitles. If you're wondering what video looks like on a device that's hardly larger than a pack of chewing gum--well, you'd be surprised. The extra twentieth of an inch added to the Nano's pixel-dense 240x376 resolution screen is a fairly significant bump over the previous model's 2-inch screen--especially when it comes to viewing videos formatted with a wide-screen aspect ratio. With its significantly larger screen, the iPod Touch is still the better choice if you plan to watch TV shows and movies frequently. However, for casually viewing short-form videos and podcasts, or showing off videos shot with the Nano's video camera, the quality and size of the screen makes is more than adequate.
The Nano's video camera
Of all the bells and whistles Apple added to the fifth-generation iPod Nano, the video camera is the most notable. Placed on the back of the Nano in the lower right corner (or lower left, if you're looking at the back), the small, bead-size lens brings yet another convenient and useful feature to an already impressive product. We're not thrilled with the camera's video quality, the location of the lens behind your hand, or the inability to take still photos, but it's difficult to criticize when you consider the Nano's relatively low price. A comparable, VGA-resolution video camera such as the Flip Mino has a street price of $130 and includes only a fraction of the features found on the Nano.
There are plenty of nice things to say about the Nano's video camera. First, the Nano's camera is easy to use, letting you to jump right into recording after only two clicks from the main menu. Its 640x480-pixel resolution and MP4/H.264 video recording format (bit rates range between 2,500Kbps and 2,800Kbps) works natively in iTunes and most video playback software as well as video streaming Web sites including YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook. With up to 8GB of storage, the Nano can store an impressive 16 hours of recorded video, and as far as convenience goes, you'll have a difficult time finding a smaller, lighter video camera than the iPod Nano.
In spite of its features, many factors prevent us from recommending the Nano as a camcorder when other options are available. Without a case, it's impossible to use the Nano without repeatedly smudging and abusing the lens on its back. Holding the Nano sideways and gripping its 0.25 inch-thick edges takes practice and patience. Its indoor video quality is poor, and without even basic controls for brightness and contrast, there's nothing you can do to compensate for bad lighting. The iPod's proprietary USB cable and one-computer allegiance makes it difficult to transfer videos to computers other than your own. Its videos are often shaky because of the Nano's exceptionally lightweight design. The Nano's internal tilt-sensor mistakenly recorded some of our videos sideways, requiring intervening software (such as iPhoto) to correct the orientation. There's no easy way to display your recordings on a television without purchasing a video dock or third-party video output accessory. Finally, audio from the Nano's pinhole microphone is easily distorted by wind noise. If you're serious about recording video on a sub-$200 budget, we prefer the image quality of the Flip Ultra HD (here's an image quality comparison).