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Hands-on with the new iPod nano, part 1


While people were still reeling from the fact that the iPod nano, and not the iPod touch, gained a video camera, my trusty 5.5G 30 GB iPod video decided to die a slow, painful death. Over the past few weeks, I'd been hearing the hard drive click of doom, having the iPod randomly reboot while listening to an audiobook, and then had the entire system lock up on me and not unfreeze until the battery had worn completely down. When the last symptom occurred a second time yesterday during the iPod event, I decided it was time for a new iPod and ordered my first nano.

For years, the nano seemed like a good idea, but it wasn't something that fit my needs. My music collection clocks in at a respectable 8GB, and it is growing. I have another 6GB of audiobooks, also growing, and at the time I purchased my iPod video I had another 8GB of TV shows and movies ripped from my DVDs. In the days before the iPhone and iPod touch, the iPod video was just a more practical device for those of us who weren't quite so new to the whole idea of a portable music player. Apple initially targeted the noobs with the iPod mini, and then followed with the iPod nano.

Now that's changed. If you really want to play video on a portable device, the iPhone or the iPod touch is the way to go. If you primarily want to listen to music, the nano is an excellent choice for an everyday iPod. 16GB is more than enough to cover many music collections, and if you need more capacity there is still the iPod classic or the larger iPod touch models. The current nano can fit my entire library of music and audiobooks, and leave some room for videos if I choose -- except I really don't want to squint at subtitles on a nano.

Meanwhile, Apple is also realizing that they need to change their marketing strategy for the nano. With more than 220 million iPods sold to date and a 73.8% marketshare, the general public is fully aware of the brand and most likely has an iPod. So, Apple is changing tactics and has decided to take on the Flip, a popular and inexpensive handheld video camera that is roughly the size, although thicker, of a nano. New ads promote the "fun" factor of the nano, but overall it's just a solid iPod.

We're splitting our look at the new nano into two parts. Today, we're taking a look at the device itself and a vast chunk of the new features. Tomorrow, we take an in-depth look at the iPod nano's flagship feature -- the video camera -- and see how well it holds up to both a Flip and an iPhone 3GS.
Look and feel

The iPod nano comes in the now-standard nano packaging consisting of a small, plastic case with the accessories tucked behind the device. Included with the nano is a set of stock Apple earbuds, a dock adapter, a USB cable, and an instruction book. There's no power supply here; you're expected to charge while you have it hooked up to your computer.
The new iPod is slightly longer than the previous generation, in order to compensate for the slightly larger screen. The width of the screen, when in landscape form, now matches that of the 5.5G iPod video, and the length is almost the same. The headphone jack is tucked next to the dock connector on the bottom, and there is a hold switch on top. The camera, now added to the back with a small microphone/speaker next to it, is flush with the device, but placed in an odd location. As seen in the image above, the camera on an iPhone is located in the upper-left side of the device. With the nano, the camera is right behind the click wheel. My normal tendency is to wrap my hand around the device over the wheel, so I'll have to be careful while using the camera as to not accidentally cover the lens.

Syncing, Audio and Video

For those familiar with the nano, or any iPod for that matter, the vast majority of the features on the device are pretty much standard. VoiceOver, Voice Memos and Genius Mixes have all made their way onto the nano. 14.98GB out of a total of 16GB are available for use, and I quickly synced a selection of music, audiobooks, along with a couple of videos and podcast episodes, for testing.

For those who choose to sync over manually managing their iPods, iTunes 9's vastly improved syncing features makes this a far-easier chore than it was in the past. The one main area here that could use tweaking is the syncing of audiobooks. There's no way to select an individual audiobook for syncing unless you create its own playlist. I wish that iTunes would include a way to sync individual audiobook titles rather than the entire genre, all the author's works, or a playlist. The ability to sync by album would be nice as well. I like the option to automatically fill free space with songs, but it's not something I'm taking advantage of yet.

Edit (7:35 a.m. PDT): A prior version of this article mentioned issues with syncing and manually managing the nano. When I got home this morning and plugged in my iPod, I was prompted to update to software version 1.0.1. After this, I had no issues manually managing the iPod.

Audio using the new built-in speaker is okay, but nowhere near as robust as on an iPhone. It would also make true audiophiles cringe. If you want to pipe sound externally from a nano, you should still reach for those 3rd party speakers. Video is crystal clear and sharp, and I had few problems reading the subtitles on an anime episode I tried out. I still don't see this device as a solution for long-term video use, however.

Pedometer

While it won't substitute for RunKeeper during my walks yet, the built-in pedometer is a very nice addition to the nano. I turned it on, plugged in my weight, then kept it going while I walked out and back to check my mailbox. You need to be careful not to press the center button on the click wheel, or else the pedometer will reset. When the iPod is in pedometer mode, you can back out to the main menu and do other tasks. A pedometer listing on the main menu, only available while it's active, shows you how many steps you've taken. The pedometer is not easily manipulated, as I've stood and swung the iPod around and it wouldn't jog the steps.

When you hook the nano back up to iTunes for the first time after using the pedometer, you will get an option to send your fitness data to a Nike+ account. A Nike + iPod tab is added to iTunes at this point and stores data in the case you decide to get a Nike+ account in the future. A history of your pedometer use is also kept on the nano itself.

Radio

I have to say that the built-in radio tuner is my favorite new feature on the nano. To get the radio to work, you must plug in a pair of headphones -- but it does not have to be the stock Apple buds that come with the nano. I used my Bose earphones and got pretty good reception.

You have the option to switch among different radio regions, but it doesn't mean that you'll suddenly tune into Tokyo radio stations from Arizona. It means that if you happen to travel frequently to different radio regions, you'll be able to set favorite radio station while visiting France without overwriting your favorite local station. For the most part, the available radio broadcast bands are the same worldwide except for Japan, which 70-90 MHz.

You can pause your radio programs for up to 15 minutes, and also rewind during that same time span. This is useful if you want to listen to a song again, or replay a missed news or traffic bulletin -- a feature enjoyed for many years by cable and satellite television subscribers with access to DVR features. When you're tuned into a station, the title of the song you're listening to will pop up on screen. Like it? Press and hold the center button to either tag the song or add the station to your list of favorites. The next time you sync your iPod nano, a "Tagged" playlist will be added to the iTunes Store, and the songs you have on that list will be available for purchase if they are available in the iTunes Store.

In the second half of the review, we'll dive into new video camera and see how it holds up to some competition.

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