Reviewed September 21, 2009 by Jacob Spindel, Chief iPod Correspondent
Imagine a company coming out with a first-generation product, then a second generation product a year later, and then staying with the second-gen model for another five years after that. Some people would be quick to accuse the company of being out of money or out of ideas, but others will probably ask, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” After all, change just for change’s sake may result in a product that is no better than its predecessor (maybe even not as good). Apple is the kind of company that generally does release a new generation of its products at least once per year, every year, and the fourth-gen iPod nano was indeed a pretty modest improvement over the third-gen nano. Apple has now released the new fifth-generation nano, and they are well aware that the nano line needed a major new feature in order to avoid being brushed off as a minor update, and Apple has answered that need by making the fifth-gen the first nano to include a video camera. Although many of the limitations of previous nanos are still present, Apple has paid enough attention to the details to make this a worthy successor and a major update to the nano line.
Take Five Measuring 3.6 x 1.5 x 0.24 inches and 1.28 ounces, the fifth-generation nano is just barely larger then the previous generation (3.5 x 1.5 x 0.24 inches), but Apple has managed to increase the screen size to 2.2 inches diagonally from 2.0 inches by making the click-wheel a little smaller and leaving less empty space. That’s not just an enlarged version of the same old image either; the resolution has increased to 376 x 240 pixels (from 320 x 240). Nine colors are available, including Product Red, and many of the colors are deeper and shinier hues than on the previous generation. Like the iPod shuffle, the new nano supports VoiceOver, which means that it can read to you in synthesized voice the titles and artists of songs. This may not be as important on the nano since it has a screen, but it still comes in handy for times when looking at the screen would be inconvenient as well as for people with certain types of disabilities.
The fifth-generation is the first nano with a full-fledged built-in speaker. If you’re used to the basic clicks and chirps that previous nanos could play out loud, you might guess that any speaker that fits in a tiny iPod nano couldn’t possibly be good enough to use, but thankfully, the built-in speaker is actually pretty impressive. It’s not quite as loud as an iPod touch, and bass tones aren’t especially strong, but the speaker provides high-fidelity output with good enough volume for it to be a viable option for playing movies, TV shows, and music without headphones. There’s no Bluetooth, although it is compatible with the iPod Bluetooth adaptors available from several vendors.
Another new feature is the inclusion of an FM radio, which uses the earphones as the antenna. The radio can display the song currently playing and optionally tag it for you to buy on iTunes later, and you can even pause live radio for up to 15 minutes. However, even though the iPod records radio temporarily to use as a pause buffer, it cannot make any radio recordings for you to keep, and unlike the Zune HD, it doesn’t support HD radio.
The biggest new feature, of course, is the built-in video camera on the back of the nano, which records video with audio at 640 x 480 resolution and 30 frames per second. (A voice recorder option is also available if you’re only interested in capturing audio.) It doesn’t shoot still images, since Apple says a high-resolution lens and related equipment couldn’t fit in any nano-sized device. The video quality is impressive and fairly similar to that of the iPhone 3GS. You can shoot video in either portrait or landscape orientations, and iTunes can sync the videos back to your computer as well as to online services including YouTube and MobileMe. The video camera also includes 15 “fun effects” like motion blur, sepia tone, and film grain – but it doesn’t include any “useful effects” like zoom, flash, or image stabilizer. Considering the nano has a built-in accelerometer, you’d think it wouldn’t be that hard to include at least some form of image stabilization, but apparently Apple expects you to handle that in iMovie or other desktop software.
Here's a sample video taken with the 5G nano:
So what hasn’t changed? There’s still no portrait orientation for synced videos (even though the camera can film and play back in both portrait and landscape modes), and the headphone jack is still on the bottom, although it’s now to the left of the Dock Connector instead of the right. It’s still available in 8 GB and 16 GB versions; alas, there’s still no 32 GB model yet. Eight GB can hold approximately 2,000 songs, 7,000 photos, or 8 hours of video; 16 GB is enough for 4,000 songs, 14,000 photos, or 16 hours of video. Music videos are still in a separate section of the click-wheel interface rather than being integrated into the main music area. The nano still supports AAC, MP3, AIFF, WAV, and Audible audio formats in addition to MP4 videos and GIF and JPEG images. As you would expect, the iPod nano still syncs via USB over the standard iPod Dock Connector.
To The Fifth Power
The camera is a cool addition to the iPod nano, but it is first and foremost a media player. The speaker and FM radio enhance its abilities in this category, but whether or not the fifth-gen nano is truly a better media player than its predecessors pretty much comes down to one thing: the battery.
The battery life of the third and fourth generations of iPod nano was just not good enough. Apple rated the third- and fourth- gen batteries at five and four hours of video playback, respectively, but you could easily start getting low battery warnings after two hours or less. Apple rates the fifth-gen’s battery at five hours of video playback or 24 hours of audio playback. Our tests found that these estimates were a bit optimistic, but we were able to get 2-3 hours of video playback on a charge without difficulty, which is still a marked improvement over previous generations.
The nano line has always been as slim and sleek as Apple can possibly make them, and the reality is that a huge battery simply won’t fit in a tiny device – so it’s not surprising that battery life has often been an issue with the nano line. Apple has finally made a significant improvement to battery life with the fifth generation, but they are still up against some tough design limitations, and if you need extra-long battery life, you will probably still need to use an external backup battery or other charger.
The fifth-generation iPod nano adds a camera that is good enough for basic tasks, although it doesn’t provide much in the way of advanced features. It also maintains the classic iPod formula for a slick and easy to use personal media player, although the user interface is starting to seem a little overdue for a makeover. The FM radio and speaker are handy additions, and together with a camera and a modest improvement to battery life, they make the latest generation of iPod nano more than just change for change’s sake.
Pro: Camera; FM radio; improved battery life; supports VoiceOver; surprisingly good built-in speaker; larger, higher-resolution screen; and (as always) sleek and slim design.
Con: Storage capacity not increased from fourth-gen; music videos still separated from music in the user interface.