It’s all too easy, quite frankly, to hop on the Apple bandwagon – especially these days. For the last 5 years or so, it seems the company can do no wrong. The ongoing success of its iPod family, which now includes the iPod Touch and iPhone, has done more for the Apple brand than any of its desktops or laptops ever have. Which is not to say those machines aren’t doing well – they are. Quite well in fact, with Apple enjoying one of the largest market shares in its history.
And perhaps it’s this run away success and the corresponding reviewer enthusiasm for Apple’s products that makes me want to take a much more critical look when I try out their latest offerings.
Naturally when I got my hands on the latest iPod Nano, I immediately began looking for the flaws. Trouble is, I found myself having a ridiculous amount of fun while I looked, so what began as skeptical review of just another portable media player, has now evolved into a hearty recommendation.
Everything you know is the same
If you own the 4thgeneration of Nano, the 5thwill barely look like a new device when you’re holding it in your hand. In fact, there are only two physical changes to the device, which I’ll get to later. Absolutely every feature that was present in the previous model appears in this unit. That is one of the great hallmarks of Apple’s approach to the iPod: evolution instead of revolution.
But this is nothing like previous Nanos
Brand new in this generation is:
– An FM Radio with pause and rewind functionality
– Integrated pedometer with iPod Nike + compatibility
– A voice recorder
– An internal speaker
– A larger display
– A VGA camcorder
It’s these extras that put the new Nano in a class of its own. Media players that can handle audio, video and photo playback litter the landscape – it’s practically table stakes these days. Most of these devices also pack and FM radio and there are even a few that do voice recording or recording from the FM tuner. But you won’t find a device at any price that merges these functions into one unit and then throws in video clip recording, games and a pedometer function as well.
A deeper look
It’s been a complaint of iPod owners for years: why isn’t there an FM radio on this thing? It’s a question that Apple has seemed intent on dodging for nearly a decade. Instead of addressing it head-on they’ve left it up to 3rdparty accessory companies such as Griffin, Belkin and others to satisfy the market demand for radio. Trouble is, as good as these add-ons may have been, they were still add-ons and as such they were at best a consolation prize – a way to get FM on an iPod, but not a very satisfying way to do it.
So finally the iPod has an FM tuner and in true Apple fashion, they’ve included a few tricks that make it much more than just a way to listen to FM. Firstly, they’ve tied the radio to the Nano’s internal memory which means you get a one-hour15 minute buffer of recording time while listening. You can use the Nano’sforward and reverse controls on the click-wheel to go back in time and re-listen to earlier portions of the broadcast. Similarly, you can pause the radio for up to an hour 15 minutes and resume “playback” whenever you wish. Anyone with a PVR will be familiar with this feature and are probably wondering why no one thought of this for radio before.
Here’s a tip for people who like to tune-in to their gym’s TV broadcasts: you need to turn the record function off when listening to the radio, because it adds a 1-2 second delay as it buffers the audio, throwing off the sync between what you’re seeing on the TV and what you’re hearing on the iPod.
Secondly, the FM radio is compatible with a feature known as iTunes tagging. Some radio stations – though unfortunately none in Canada at the moment – support this function which broadcasts the meta-data associated with each song that they play. The Nano can interpret this data and offer the listener the option of adding the current song a “buy later” list. When you next sync your iPod with your PC, this list of tagged songs will appear in a separate list, so that you can instantly order them from the iTunes store. It’s a nifty little feature that the Microsoft Zune has had for some time, though its version of this feature has also been handicapped in Canada due to the lack of a Zune Marketplace in this country. Ever get the feeling we live in a 3rd world country, technologically speaking?
There’s not much to say about this feature other than to acknowledge how handy it is to haveit on board a device that can go anywhere. Recording quality is good, but not great, however the mic is more than sensitive enough that if you placed the Nano on a table while you had a conversation with someone (say for an interview), you could easily listen to the recording later on and understand every word – though beware noisy environments!
One look at the incredibly thin profile of the Nano and you are stunned that Apple was able to fit a speaker of any kind inside. But somehow they managed it. But before you get your hopes up about being able to share your eclectic taste in music with friends without handing them the headphones, it’s only natural that a speaker wedged into a device this small isn’t going to be delivering much punch. Think of it more as a monitor – a way to check that your recorded what you thought you recorded – either with the voice recorder or the video camera, without needing to jam an earbud in your ear. The sound quality is predictably tinny.
The addition of the ability to record video to the Nano was the big surprise when Apple announced the 5th generation earlier this year. Long a standard feature on cellphones, it has not found its way into many other portable devices. If you want to credit one company with demonstrating the value of having a small, basic camcorder that you can take anywhere that credit goes to the folks at Flip Video. Their introduction of the Flip camera a few years ago proved that people are okay with giving up some of the standard features associated with a video camera if they can have one that fits in their pockets and syncs seamlessly to their PC for easy editing and sharing.
This was clearly Apple’s inspiration for adding a video camera to the Nano. In doing so, they created a video camera that is even smaller and more pocketable than Flip’s standard definition cam.
Apple’s Flip-ization of the Nano is both brilliant and flawed. On the one hand, Apple had the vision to see that the inclusion of 15 video effect filters would dramatically increase the creative possibilities. Budding directors can play with Sepia, Black and White, X-Ray, Film Grain, Thermal, Security Cam, Cyborg, Bulge, Kaleido, Motion Blur, Mirror, Light Tunnel, Dent, Stretch, and Twirl filters. My favourites are Security Cam and Cyborg, the latter of which includes a picture-in-picture, voice-analysis graph and a type of targeting array that makes for a convincing Terminator-style look to the footage you shoot.
This ability to tweak the video you’re shooting definitely one-ups Flip Video in the fun department. However, things get decidedly worse when you go to transfer your footage from the Nano to your PC.
One of the strengths of the Flip is that it carries its syncing and editing software on-board so that you can use it on any PC to which you connect the camera. It includes basic editing features, and the option to upload your videos to YouTube or Flip’s own video-sharing service.
Apple on the other hand, leaves you out in the cold when it comes to doing anything with your clips. Though this may differ depending on whether you use a PC or a Mac. On Apple’s website, they say:
Connect iPod nano to your Mac, and iPhoto opens and syncs all the video you shot on iPod nano to your computer. It’s just as easy on a PC when you use your favourite photo software. On a Mac, you can browse and edit your videos in iPhoto, too. The video file sizes are perfect for sharing on YouTube or emailing to friends.
Though Apple claims it’s just as easy on a PC, my experience was that absolutely nothing happened when I connected the iPod. If I wanted to do anything with the video clips, I had to open the iPod as a drive letter on my PC and go through the file structure to find the clips, copy them manually to my hard drive and then, well, frankly I got stuck. The Nano shoots H.264 video and saves them as .mov files. These can be opened easily in QuickTime, which installs when you put iTunes on your PC, but as for editing or converting them to a format that is friendly to YouTube (FLV, MPEG-2, and MPEG-4) you’re out of luck.
I was a bit surprised by this lack of support on the PC side of the equation as Apple has always gone to great lengths to make the iPod a dual-platform device. But for now, it seems, the new Nano is better on a Mac.
Video quality is surprisingly good given the tiny size of the lens. It’s only VGA resolution which means standard-definition as opposed to high-definition, but given that it’s not intended as a full-blown camcorder, the trade-off is worth it. Audio is quite good too, and is even recorded in stereo which is odd given the single microphone opening on the case beside the lens. By comparison, Flip Video’s Mino HD’s audio is recorded in mono.
The new Apple iPod Nano starts at $169 for the 8GB model and goes up to $199 for the 16GB edition. This is more expensive than the closest model from Sony – the S Series Walkman, which at $159 for the 16GB model offers nearly everything that the Nano does except for video recording, games and pedometer functions. The Walkman also sounds much better than any of the iPod family, in my opinion. But Apple has evolved the Nano into so much more than a media player, it becomes nearly impossible to compare to any other portable media player, at any price.
If you’re looking for the biggest entertainment bang for your buck this holiday season, look no further than the latest Nano. It’s a blast.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it was a brilliant move on Apple’s part to take on the wildly popular Flip video line of super-small camcorders today, by instantly turning every new iPod Nano into a portable video studio.
But I was much more impressed by the addition of an FM tuner. Why? Well for one thing, this feature has been missing from every single iPod since they launched the product back in 2000. That’s nearly 10 years of everyone (give or take a few Apple fanboys) telling them that they should add radio capability.
So either Steve Jobs has proven that he can listen to his customers, or he’s realized that the quarter of the media-player market that Apple doesn’t control is dominated by devices that can play FM radio – including the Microsoft Zune.
Speaking of the Zune, the new Nano borrows a trick from Redmond’s baby: While listening to your favourite FM radio station, you can “tag” the songs you like for future lookup and purchase in iTunes. It’s a killer feature, but it requires that the station you’re listening to supports iTunes tagging, which not all of them do.
I’ve tried to find a definitive list of Canadian stations that have this, but have so far come up empty. Drop a comment below if you know of a good resource for this.
But Apple has not only met the Zune in the radio department, they’ve also upped the ante. The Nano’s FM radio behaves more like a satellite radio receiver than a typical FM receiver: as soon as you tune-in to a station, the iPod starts buffering the audio to memory, allowing you to pause or even scroll back and forth along the recorded timeline. PVR users will identify with this right away as it’s the same thing you get when watching live TV with a PVR.
Nice work Apple, now tell us again why we had to wait a decade?
Update: Apple’s Canadian spokesperson, Simon Atkins, tells me that there are no radio stations in Canada that currently support iTunes tagging. Bummer.