iPod Nano 5th Generation (16GB) Audio Player
At a Glance
Apple 8GB iPod nano (5G, late 2009)
The ultrathin iPod Nano now has a video camera, a radio, and a pedometer.
The fifth-gen iPod Nano is almost impossibly slim, but somehow the wizards at Apple managed to pack in a video camera. Though you'll find a few other new features in the fifth-generation Nano ($150 for the 8GB version, $180 for the 16GB model; prices as of 9/23/09), the video camera is the marquee addition. Considering how much space your home-video clips might take up, it's unfortunate that Apple didn't boost the Nano's storage capacity this generation.
The brand-new Nano has the same measurements as its predecessor (3.6 by 1.5 by 0.24 inches, 1.3 ounces) but offers a larger, 2.2-inch display (up from 2 inches). It comes in a rainbow of colors, encased in slick-looking, polished anodized aluminum. The new finish is attractive, but it is definitely a magnet for smudges and fingerprints. And while I didn't perform any torture tests on the Nano, I can tell that it is susceptible to scratches, like most iPod models. That factor, combined with the positioning of the video camera lens on the back of the device, means you'll definitely want to invest in a case.
Among the Nano's new features are an FM radio tuner (at last!), VoiceOver (which announces song information in a somewhat creepy synthetic voice), and a pedometer. The FM radio is simple to use and has impressive audio quality. It supports Radio Data System (RDS) information, which means you can view song details and tag tracks for purchase in the iTunes store. You can also pause a station for up to 15 minutes and then play it back--the feature is sort of like a DVR for radio, which is handy. Though the FM radio isn't particularly innovative (we saw this feature on the first-gen Zune), the ability to pause and play radio is cool, and it works well.
Thanks to its integration with iTunes, the fifth-gen Nano has unbeatable audio and video features. Genius Mixes, one new feature in iTunes 9, generate directly on the Nano when you sync from iTunes. The Genius Mixes group your music according to a common characteristic, such as genre, style, or similar artist. In my hands-on use, Genius did a pretty good job of matching up similar songs. (I'll stick to my own mixes, however.) Audio sounded clean through the included earbuds, but you'll likely want to upgrade to a higher-quality pair; like the previous model's earbuds, this set produced somewhat tinny sound. In the PC World Test Center's audio-quality tests, the fifth-gen iPod Nano scored similarly to its predecessor and received a rating of Superior.
The new Nano's solid performance as a multimedia player is no surprise--but how well does it work as a pocket camcorder? Its video performance is a mixed bag, but the video camera is a positive addition. While the video quality might not be as good as that of pocketable video cameras on the market, the Nano gets the job done for casual, short clips shot in bright light. The lens placement, however, is a bit awkward, so filming takes some getting used to. You can record only video, too; the device gives you no option to shoot still images.
To shoot video, you simply select 'Video Recording' from the main menu, and you're ready. You can view your recorded videos by pressing the menu button on the navigation wheel. Recorded videos live in a subfolder of your video collection.
When I tried shooting video, the Nano's sheer slimness was a detriment. Holding the sliver-thin Nano by its edges is difficult: It kept turning and slipping in my hand as I was trying to shoot. Gripping it from the bottom doesn't work either, as the lens is situated at the bottom of the device when you hold it vertically. The location of the lens wasn't intuitive for me--I'm used to the lens being on the top, as the camera on the iPhone 3GS is.
Macworld Editorial Director Jason Snell noted that it's easier to shoot video in portrait mode if you flip the Nano upside-down so that the lens is on the bottom. The speedy accelerometer automatically adjusts the image to portrait mode, so you can shoot without your fingers ruining your videos. This scenario feels the least aesthetically awkward, for sure.
Even so, my videos came out a bit shaky (like most pocket camcorders, the Nano's camera has no image stabilization). With more practice, I'll likely learn to shoot with a steady hand, but the Nano just felt too small and lightweight.
Video that I shot outside looked great, with bright colors and sharp details. The clips I shot indoors, however, were a different story--because the Nano offers no controls for contrast or brightness, my clips came out fuzzy, dark, and grainy. The microphone picked up sound adequately, with ample volume and no distortion. Beware while shooting in a windy outdoor setting, though: Any other sound in your video will be completely wiped out. The 640-by-480-pixel VGA footage is compatible with streaming-video Web sites such as YouTube or Facebook, and it works natively in iTunes.
Watching video on the Nano itself is surprisingly enjoyable, thanks to the expanded screen. I did a casual side-by-side test with the fourth-gen model, and I found that the added 0.2 inch actually makes a big difference; in particular, videos formatted with a wide-screen aspect ratio improved on the fifth-gen player. Still, watching videos on a device this small takes some getting used to, and the rounded screen attracts quite a bit of glare.
Overall, the new Nano is bound to give stand-alone pocket camcorders a run for the money. Sure, it doesn't shoot HD video, and it might not have the same video quality or extra features that dedicated pocket camcorders have, but I don't think that will deter the YouTube generation. If you bought last year's Nano, you probably won't want to upgrade to the fifth-gen version; the specs are almost identical. If you have an older iPod, you should consider it--but primarily if you plan to shoot more videos than you watch. Frequent video watchers should look at the 8GB iPod Touch instead, which is now available for $200.