Apple falls victim to 'feature creep' with new iPod nano
Apple seems to deny its typically minimalist nature with its new iPod nano by layering on an FM radio receiver, a pedometer, a speaker and a video camera — none of which makes the iPod nano substantially more compelling to purchase, even with no price increase.
Special to The Seattle Times
The new model of iPod nano tries too hard to please. With a pile of extra features, the device is still best at what it did before Apple installed the kitchen sink.
This is a rare stumble, but it doesn't lessen the device's basic value — or price, which stayed the same. You can buy one and simply not use the new features.
The new nano contains all the options found in previous models of this compact iPod — audio and video playback, a limited set of available-for-fee games, and the vaguely useful Voice Over speech synthesis that tells you artists, song titles and playlist names.
Apple seemed to deny its typically minimalist nature by layering on an FM radio receiver (analog radio only), a pedometer, a speaker and a video camera.
None of the new hardware makes the iPod nano substantially more compelling to purchase, although it remains well-priced at $149 for an 8 GB player and $179 for a 16 GB player. The display screen is slightly larger than the previous model, and just as crisp and lovely.
Apple made the joke that it included video at no extra cost in the new model, and that's a good discount for what's offered. Apple made many comparisons to the Flip video players, which list at $150 to $200 for a variety of models that have 2 GB to 8 GB of storage.
But Apple seems to have ignored the lesson that it taught everyone else: A device should do one thing very well, possibly uniquely, before adding additional tasks that it also performs very well. The Flip cameras are designed to capture video in a compact form; the iPod nano is not.
The iPod nano's video isn't of acceptable enough quality to recommend. The device is so small that there's noticeable jitter in most recordings. The lens is awkwardly located on the back, so that in any of four orientations in which you can shoot — the nano neatly recognizing which direction it's being held — my thumb regularly makes an appearance in my testing.
Indoor lighting and low light both produce grainy, poor-quality video; outdoors, the video tends toward saturated color but the motion is jerky, and the quality is also below par.
Apple throws in 15 video effects, like sepia tone, that can be used for video recording, but those effects have to be activated before shooting and can't later be removed. These effects are pointless, the kind of feature creep that other companies typically engage in to add bullet points to a list. The effects may be an attempt to divert attention from the mediocre video capture. Still pictures cannot be taken.
The iPod nano's recordings compare unfavorably with those made on my iPhone 3GS. While the 3GS's output isn't fantastic either, the lens is in the right place, and the quality is good enough to use on a regular basis, although generally outdoors in sunlight.
The included FM radio isn't much of a prize, either, despite two associated features: pause and iTunes Tagging. Pause is nifty enough, allowing you to record a station's broadcast for up to 15 minutes, and then resume play as well as fast forward through it.
Recording entire programs, however, is off-limits, an omission that could be reasonably attributed to Apple's relationship with music labels. There is no restriction in this country against personal digital recordings from over-the-air broadcasts.
iTunes Tagging has a simple purpose: press a button while listening to a song, and then you can buy it in iTunes on your next sync, finding it listed in a Tagged category in the Store section of the sidebar.
But this feature works only with Clear Channel radio stations, the only ones sending the information to identify songs that can be purchased. Apple has been trying to get other stations and networks on board since introducing the feature two years ago as an adjunct to HD Radio receivers with iPod docks.
HD Radio is the digital AM and FM format that about two dozen Seattle stations broadcast — and about 15 percent of radio stations nationwide. FM stations can broadcast two or more unique signals; KUOW offers three.
With Microsoft having launched the Zune HD with digital FM tuning, it seems strange to have the iPod nano appear with analog FM only. The reason is that the Zune HD has room and juice to handle the current requirements for HD Radio reception, but it makes Apple seems out of date.
And, the company also chose not to think differently even about analog FM. Despite having the potential to preload all the stations by market in the U.S., and scan descriptive information embedded in broadcasts to identify and preset local stations, Apple requires that you tune by hand.
The pedometer is a nice touch, working by itself to let you track steps and set goals. The iPod nano, likes its predecessor, also supports the plug-in receiver and external Nike+ device that can track running and other activities.
There's nothing wrong with this revision to the iPod nano, but there's not much that feels right about it, either. Apple seems to have skipped a beat in this refresh.
Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists
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