Monday, 14 September 2009 11:00

Apple (r)evolutionises the iPod nano, again!

Although the new iPod Touch was touted to come with a camera, Apple surprised us all by including a video-only camera (and a host of other cool features) in its new iPod nano instead, pointing towards yet another very iPod-y Christmas and holiday shopping season for Apple and millions of existing and new customers.

When you’re the market leader, do you sit back on cruise control, or rev up the engines and get an even greater lead on your competitors?

With Apple, revving up the engines always drives the company and its products towards usually excellent improvements, just not always in the direction and timeframe that consumers and pundits expect.

For example, the new iPod Touch 3rd generation is missing the still and video camera that was so heavily rumoured, but as expected, it comes with an even faster processor than the iPhone 3GS, and still has a wealth of third party software that competitors are still far from amassing.

The real surprise of the event, beyond the appearance of Steve Jobs himself, was Apple revving up a host of useful features into the still highly popular iPod nano.

With Apple claiming over 100 million sold, why not sell 100 million more? The following features will undoubtedly help:

- 2.2-inch screen instead of the previous 2-inch screen
- Inbuilt FM radio that can record up to 15 minutes to pause and rewind live radio
- Pedometer that works with the Nike+iPod website (without needing to buy a separate Nike+iPod adapter)
- Video camera that records 640x480 standard def (SD) video and offers a host of “special effects” such as sepia, B&W, mirror, kaleidoscope, cyborg and others
- Mono microphone
- A hidden internal speaker (like on the iPod Touch)
- Freely downloadable spoken voice prompts, called “VoiceOver”, as first seen in last year’s iPod shuffle, that are available in a range of languages.
- The promise of an improved “Genius” feature for better automatic music mixes.

Beyond the video camera itself, the inclusion of a built-in FM radio is possibly the most surprising new feature, given Apple’s previous staunch refusal to offer such a feature as standard, despite years of competitors hoping their built-in FM radios would give them a sales advantage over earlier iPod models.

The fact that the radio’s software also offers a pause and rewind feature is such a simple and clever inclusion, it’s almost amazing that no-one ever thought of offering it before.

Sure, today’s fancy and expensive digital radios can do it, but what would you prefer to spend your money on – a new iPod nano, or a much larger digital radio, which is currently only broadcast in Australia’s capital cities anyway?

Continued on page 2, please read on.

There’s also the radio’s ability to display the station name and more importantly, the track names of songs playing, should the FM stations in question be broadcasting that information, which is the case with a few of the major Sydney FM stations.

Having the name of the song playing broadcast on the screen is certainly handy, if available, helping to answer the perennial question of whose song is currently playing on the radio, but iPod nano owners in the US can take things a step further, holding down the “centre” button to “tag” a song, thus keeping a list of songs you’ve tagged so you can go any buy them from iTunes (or elsewhere) later.

There’s no word on when this “tagging” feature will make it to Australia, but the fact a radio is finally included at all is very welcome.

The other headline feature is the inclusion of a video camera, but not a still photo camera. In an interview with the New York Times’ David Pogue, Steve Jobs explained that an autofocusing still camera would have taken more space, so the smaller video-only camera was included instead.

As has happened in the past with Apple products, it’s always interesting to note what wasn’t included, such as floppy drives in the original iMac and now no photo camera in the iPod nano, despite a video camera being included.

While there have been complaints about this online, having no still photo capability is better than a poor photo capability, and focuses the user instead on taking video clips.

As discussed online, this pits the iPod nano squarely against the Flip series of handheld, flash-based video recorders, which are widely popular in the US but barely known here in Australia.

Video clips can capture audio, movement and context that photos can’t, and given the extreme portability of the iPod nano, along with its copious storage space and long battery life, we’re likely to see a true explosion of user generated video content, all uploadable to YouTube and other video sites – all thanks to what was once just a music player!

Most consumers likely have a much better still photo camera on their mobile phones anyway, with most of those phones often having poor video recording quality, making the iPod nano’s video camera an even cleverer idea.

Recording videos on your phone is always a dicey proposition, anyway – unless you’ve set your phone to “offline”, an incoming call could easily ruin your video recording moment.

Yes, true photo and video recording aficionados have multi-megapixel and HD quality options to play with, but next time life happens and you want to record it – and you own this new iPod nano – you’ll probably be using it.

It offers 640x480 resolution, "standard definition" video at 30 frames per second that looks quite sharp and clear on the iPod nano's 2.2-inch screen. When this is blown up to a larger size, such as full screen on my 22-inch monitor, you can clearly see the softness and a lack of sharp detail inherent from SD resolution and such a small lens, but this won't be an issue for YouTube uploads or for anyone watching the recorded video on the small screen.

Indeed, as noted, it'll be the start of a new portable video recording revolution once users get their hands on the new nano, and given the nano's tiny size, the video quality it produces is quite remarkable!

Other noteable features include the option of a larger screen font make the iPod nano more easily usable by those who prefer or need larger fonts and the ability to record and playback voice notes without needing to plug in Apple’s separately purchasable microphone/headset combo.

Like last year’s models, there are 9 different colours, but the 2009 versions come in slightly different shades and all sport a new glossy finish, with the red and yellow models available from Apple only, while all other colours are available anywhere iPods are sold.

Prices are AUD $199 for the 8GB model and AUD $249 for the 16GB model, which puts this larger model squarely up against the price-reduced 8GB iPod Touch for AUD $269.

It’ll be a tough decision for some, while others will prefer the iPhone 3GS itself, merging the best of the iPod nano and iPod Touch into one unit.

Of course there’s nothing stopping you from owning more than one Apple iDevice, and given the popularity of each new iPod line, and loyal customers who already own several iPods, it’s clear that despite the downpour of the “economic crisis”, global sales of new iPods this Christmas will lead to huge volumes of cash raining down on Apple HQ!


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.



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