Review: Apple iPod Nano With Video

Every year (health permitting), Steve Jobs marches before a crowd of geeks, nerds and other assorted fanboys and bestows upon the world a new iPod. Sometimes that iPod has new colors, other times it has new features. The fifth-generation iPod Nano has both new hues plus a flurry of new specs — including an integrated camcorder that aims to torpedo devices like the Flip Mino right out of the water.

Hardware-wise, little has changed between the fourth- and fifth-gen Nanos. The footprint is still the same, at 3.6 x 1.5 x 0.24 inches. However, the screen size has gotten a slight boost, from 2 to 2.2 inches, making it a little easier to watch videos. Unfortunately for widescreen buffs, there’s no playback in 16:9 aspect ratio.

The paint job is also a tad different with a more metallic sheen. It’s a tad more flashy than previous Nanos and, well, we dig it. New on the inside is a pedometer, a voice recorder, speaker and FM radio.

The real change though, is the Nano’s much-touted video capabilities. It’s not bad quality either, recording fairly solid VGA-resolution movies at a passable 30 frames per second. Video playback on the Nano’s screen is bright and clear with good color reproduction. When uploaded onto a PC though, the footage becomes a little grainy with jarring light transitions. And a lack of optical zoom or autofocus is especially pronounced — when shooting close-up subjects, the Nano struggles like Kanye West trying to make an apology.

Audio playback is sparkling but only when played over an external source, like headphones. The integrated speaker? It stinks with tinny, muddled fidelity. The voice recorder picks up sounds accurately but not with much detail. It’s no Olympus LS-11 but it works well in a pinch.

Oh, and a word on the lens placement — it’s awkward. Stuck in the lower right-hand corner of the device, it’s incredibly easy to cover up the lens with a haphazardly placed finger. Apple should have placed the camera’s lens squarely in the middle of the device, right where the logo is. It would allow you to hold the Nano vertically while filming, lending the same feeling you get when filming with a Flip. Of course this would have probably made the Nano thicker in its midsection and that’s a step Apple definitely didn’t want to take.

Speaking of steps, the new Nano also has a fairly decent pedometer built into it. (It accurately counted the 87 steps between my desk and the get-gadget kitchen.) You can also use it to track calories burned and other exercise-oriented data. It’s no Nike+ killer, but for casual fitness, it’s not bad. Bold prediction: Expect features like these to trickle into new versions of the iPhone next year.

To our surprise, we actually kind of like the FM radio. The only time we really listen to FM is during our morning commute (hello, NPR) but the inclusion on the Nano provides a welcome respite from its slightly limited 16-GB music library. There’s no HD radio like in the latest version of the Zune, but a new Nano can be had for a hundred bucks less than the Zune too.

Ultimately what the iPod Nano suffers from is the very thing that Apple has sought so long to avoid: clutter. The camera has a bit of a rushed, tacked-on feeling. If Jobs wanted to really compete with camcorders like the Flip, he should have created a device that just records video. Period. But try telling him that.

Our advice? If you’re considering a cheap, pocket camcorder, go with the Kodak Zi6 or Zi8. But if you’re an Nano-phile who hasn’t upgraded players recently (third-gen and lower) the newest Nano is a smart choice. That is, until next year when the new versions come out.

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