Apple outfits 5G iPod nano with video camera (September 11th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: Apple
Price: $149 - $179
- Video camera
- Larger display
- FM with RDS and rewind
- Mic for voice recording
- Speaker for video playback
- Easy video uploading
- Camera lens smudges easily
- Camera position awkward
- No still pictures
- Weak speaker
- Prone to camera shake
Despite a number of rumors that Apple's "Rock & Roll" media event would feature a camera-equipped iPod touch, the highlight of Steve Jobs' keynote was actually a new iPod nano outfitted with a video camera. The fifth-generation device is in no way a complete redesign, but rather a refinement of its predecessor. Along with the new camera, the Nano also sports a larger display, FM tuner, gloss finish, and more.
At a glance, the new Nano can be difficult to distinguish from the previous version. The biggest change to the front facade is a larger LCD screen, expanding from 240x320 pixels to a slightly longer 240x376 display. Although the change adds just .2 inches corner-to-corner, the screen now appears to dominate the front face.
The elongated screen brings the aspect ratio closer to 16:9 than the previous 4:3 component. Videos available in 16:9 are much more attractive, requiring less side cropping or annoying black bands when converting down to iPod size. For such a tiny player touted for its video playback capabilities, the new display is a welcome change.
Brightness and color representation of the 5G display appears to be on par with the 4G, not breathtaking but effective for most viewing conditions. With the brightness cranked up, the menus are still easy to read even in moderately bright conditions. Toward the lower end of the scale, the display is dim enough to avoid being blinded when driving at night. Getting to the brightness setting, however, requires quite a few jumps through the interface menus.
Form and finish
Unlike the 4G's anodized finish, which is slightly dull, the 5G case is much shinier. The aluminum exhibits a very fine texture similar to a bead blasted finish. Considering the texture is visible but the case is smooth to the touch, the gloss may be the result of a coating over the anodized layer, although the company has not disclosed any details. Steve Jobs presented it as "polished anodized aluminum," which implies that there isn't a coating.
Only time will tell if the new coating process was a good choice. A variety of other products with similar coatings look terrible after the outer layer starts to wear off in places. The gloss layer is likely to protect the metal and color for a period of time, but the worn areas may eventually become glaringly obvious. This might not be an issue for devices that are always kept in cases, or for users that handle their devices with kid gloves.Ultra-shininess might be in line with the fashion side of Apple's design, but matte aluminum arguably gives the 4G a higher-quality appearance.
Apple may have made the right decision to retain the elliptical form-factor of the 4G Nano. Design changes are sometimes welcome, especially after the company stumbled with the stubby 3G model that looks like a shortened Classic. However there is no need to prematurely retire a device that has proven popular and capable of fitting additional features.
The first two Nano generations carried a similar appearance to the current model, although Apple was still experimenting with the concept. The company has evolved certain elements that are recognizable across a variety of products, even though each addresses a unique niche. The current elliptical form-factor can be seen with many newer products such as the MacBook Air, iPod touch and iPhone.
One of the only issues with the 5G Nano design involves the camera placement. Considering the components were already cramped in the 4G, adding a 3mm-thick camera module within a 6-mm thick case probably left few options. Thicker devices can place the camera behind the display, eliminating the need for a fancy hold.
Apple built the camera into the bottom-left corner of the rear panel. When holding the iPod vertically for navigating through menus and using most of the standard functions, the user's fingers rest directly on top of the camera. Consequently, smudges on the lens cover are practically unavoidable without removing finger prints before each use.
When capturing video with the iPod held horizontally, an instinctive grip results in a finger partially blocking the lens. The right hand must pinch the bottom of the housing below the camera, or the index finger needs to rest on the very top ridge. Although it is probably an issue easily adapted too, initial experiences can be frustrating. Tricky placement of the right hand necessitates a solid grip with the left hand, but the smudges simply migrate to the front display.
With such a tiny camera, even a small amount of residue or grime affects picture quality. The Nano lens cover is nearly flush with the case exterior, instead of utilizing a recessed design. This is a double-edged sword, as recessed lenses are less prone to fingerprints but much more difficult to clean. Leaving the glass flush leads to more fingerprints, however users can quickly clear the surface without any problem.
The new Nano, although capable of recording video, lacks the ability to simply take pictures. Reasons for the restricted ability remain unclear, although the camera's 640x480 resolution is better suited for YouTube clips. Even with the current state of technology miniaturization, inexpensive camera components capable of still-quality resolutions are probably too thick to fit in the 6.2mm case. The Nano camera has been crammed into a 4.3mm space near the thin edge. The lack of still capture is still disappointing, especially after seeing several alleged images of a camera-equipped iPod touch prototype.
With a resolution of just 640x480 pixels, the device is clearly not a contender amongst the multitude of small 720p camcorders. The new Nano isn't designed to be a replacement for dedicated video recorders, and buyers shouldn't expect it to be. The recording capability allows users to capture scenes spontaneously, just in case something interesting happens when a standalone camera isn't around.
Considering the limited resolution and small size, the camera actually exceeded initial expectations. Footage shot from inside a moving vehicle, shown in the YouTube video, did not show excessive motion blur when aimed out the side window going 55mph. The camera also performed well capturing the movement of birds and water, without much hesitation from the automatic light adjustment when moving from bright skies to dark areas. Camera shake is difficult to avoid, especially considering the device weighs in at a scant 1.28 oz.
Apple provides a wide variety of built-in special effects, although many of them are novelties unlikely to be used in any practical application. Along with the common filters such as sepia or black-and-white, users can also apply psychedelic distortions that mimic a kaleidoscope, mirror, old film or x-ray images.
All of the videos are recorded in H.264 format at 30 frames per second. Mac users can automatically upload the clips into iPhoto or iMovie for easy editing before saving projects or sending the clips off to portals such as YouTube. The demo video is a compilation of multiple clips pieced together with transitions in iMovie. The whole process is extremely quick and easy, eliminating the need for configuring devices or import settings.
An integrated microphone marks another new feature for the Nano, with a port located directly beside the camera lens. The demo video was captured in an area with a steady breeze approximately 5-7mph, although the noise only became objectionable when the mic port was pointing directly into the wind. Voice from the short narration was recorded clearly, while people feeding fish are also audible from across a bridge.
A new speaker allows users to show videos directly from the device, although the small driver is tucked away behind the metal case. Not surprisingly, sound quality is poor but sufficient for listening to voices and most noise from the recordings. The speaker enhances calendar and alarm functionality, with audible alerts even without headphones.
Apple also uses the mic for a voice recorder function. The app allows users to insert chapter points and organize memos. Recording personal notes works great, however the mic does not perform as well when attempting to record several people in a large room.
New software features
The Nano now supports VoiceOver, the text-to-speech feature introduced with the Shuffle. Users can easily look at the screen to find track info in most situations, but VoiceOver offers an attractive option for runners or skiers using earphones with remote control instead of diving into pockets. The function works as expected, although, like automated voices on GPS systems, mispronunciations are common.
The accelerometer is now used as a pedometer to track the number of steps throughout a walk or run. The feature is not exactly the same as the Nike+iPod system, as it takes data from the iPod accelerometer instead of a remote sensor in a shoe. The pedometer counted steps properly when in a pocket or held upright, although some slipped through while it was held horizontally. Users can then view daily stats or set fitness goals, although the pedometer is geared mostly for walkers instead of runners.
Runners, however, can take advantage of the new Nike+iPod support, without an iPod attachment, after purchasing special shoes or a standalone sensor. The shoe-based sensor is used to calculate additional metrics such as distance, pace and calories burned. The system works okay for users with relatively consistent pace or stride. Accuracy of distance measurements deteriorates for runners that adjust their stride length while keeping the same pace.
Apple finally folded to demands for an FM tuner, which integrates with the company's other services. The radio requires headphones, used as an antenna, while the interface displays RDS data for track names and station info. If a great song starts to play, users can tag it and download the content via iTunes.
The RDS features and song tagging sound great and probably work in most areas, but the data is not available everywhere. Even where it is available, the data sometimes lists incorrect track info. Users can rewind as far back as 15 minutes into the feed, however, and potentially listen for the song name from a radio DJ. Live Pause also works well for talk radio, enabling users to take a short phone call and rewind back to where they left off. As the next commercial break arrives, the feed can be sent back forward to catch up with the live broadcast.
Apple has taken the updated Genius feature from iTunes and integrated it directly with the device software. The function works well, especially for users with eclectic music collections that like to listen by genre or artist. The system is not revolutionary, but it is a step forward from random shuffling. The only problem involves tracks with incomplete or inaccurate tag information, although the vast majority of iTunes-purchased content is organized correctly.
With all of the new features, basic music playback is easily pushed to the back burner. It comes as no surprise that the included headphones are terrible, at least for the discerning listener. The headphone amplifier, however, is capable of driving most headphones and earphones built for portable devices. Sound quality is wonderful with a high-end pair of headphones, such as Etymotic's ER4P.
Despite its smaller size, the 5G Nano drives headphones with the same force as the iPod touch. The circuitry doesn't muddy the sound with excessive bass, nor does it struggle to deliver the low-end when the volume approaches the upper range of comfortable sound-pressure levels.
Users can expect similar battery endurance to the 4G Nano, with a claimed life of 24 hours for audio and an increase to 5 hours for video. Both Apple estimates are optimistic, especially if the brightness is set high when watching videos. Is the new Nano worth buying? Naturally, it depends on what the buyer intends to do with the device. Steve Jobs contends that Apple is essentially adding an entire camera for free.
With all of the new features, Apple has kept a competitive pricing structure that fetches $149 for the 8GB model or $179 for the 16GB variant. Compared to the Flip Ultra, also retailing for $149, the iPod captures the same video resolution but adds a slew of extra features in a compact size.
If buyers have no interest in uploading videos to YouTube or stashing 640x480 clips for other reasons, the 5G Nano might not be a first choice, although the iPod still represents Apple's smallest device with a display for navigating through content. Even aside from the rumors and leaked pics, it is still likely that Apple is preparing to add a camera to the Touch. If such a device is in the pipeline, it might be capable of higher quality video or still captures.
Overall, the latest Nano shows Apple's commitment to refining its product line with new features and functionality. While not all users have a need for a video camera or FM radio, the fifth-generation device builds upon the features of its predecessor without taking steps backward in quality or value. Integration of the camera can still be improved, however, with better placement and support for still pictures.