TEHCNOLOGY COLUMN | iPod nano sets the bar high with handy, fun features

When it first came out, the original iPod conquered the music industry and became the standard by which any other media player was measured. By today’s standards, however, the original iPod seems quite unwieldy; and now, the iPod nano has become the flagship non-touchscreen iPod in Apple’s lineup, making the iPod classic an afterthought for those who need to carry around 160GB of music.

The newest revision of the iPod nano isn’t a huge upgrade from the last version. It retains the basic form-factor and interface while adding several new features, including video recording, FM radio and a pedometer. The finish has been changed to a glossy anodized aluminum and is available in nine different colors. The screen has been enlarged, from 2.0 to 2.2 inches. (A 0.2 inch increase doesn’t sound like much, but the screen is noticeably larger than the previous generation’s.)

The most touted of these new features is the small video camera added to the back of the device. The video quality is very good, considering the small size of the lens and sensor. In low-light conditions the video camera surpassed my expectations, providing a clear picture in a dimly lit room. Colors were slightly muted but still acceptable. In the end, it’s not going to replace a full-sized video camera, but it’s not really meant to do that anyway.

What the nano’s camera does give you is an alternative to stand-alone web video cameras such as the Flip Mino. At $149 for both, it’s hard to compete against the iPod nano, as the Flip doesn’t include media playing features, and has only 60 minutes of recording capacity — compared to the iPod nano’s eight hours.

I found a few minor issues with the camera. The lens is located directly behind the iPod’s scroll wheel, so it’s easy to accidentally cover with your hand when recording. There is also a strange stretching effect when capturing fast-panning shots while recording horizontally, where the bottom of the image lags behind the top. It’s not too noticeable unless you pan very quickly or shake the camera, so as long as you don’t plan on trying to shoot the next “Cloverfield” with it, you’ll be fine.

Other new features are the FM radio tuner and a pedometer. The FM radio requires headphones to be plugged in, as the headphone cable is used as an antenna. Both reception and audio quality seemed good. One cool thing about the FM tuner is that live radio can be paused and rewound. However, you cannot record songs off the radio and permanently save them for later listening, which seems like it would be a great feature. You can tag songs that you like and buy them later on iTunes, but this feature currently works only on some stations in the United States, and I wasn’t able to find any in the New Haven area that allowed iTunes tagging.

The pedometer allows users to use a light version of the Nike+ system, called Nike+ Active, which tracks your daily steps and measures it in terms of skyscrapers climbed or calories-from-doughnuts burned. It lacks the speed- and distance-tracking ability of the regular Nike+ system, so you’ll still need the kit for tracking more detailed information.

The 5th generation iPod nano, overall, is an excellent update. There isn’t a specific killer feature that will make everyone want to upgrade if they already own a nano, but the new features do come in handy and — considering that the new iPod nano is $149 for 8GB and $199 for 16GB — are essentially added for free.

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