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Monday, September 15, 2008, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Review: Apple's fourth-generation iPod nano


Recording software and mics

Another change across the new iPod models is audio recording. Along with the new 4G iPod nano, the classic and 2G touch (but not the original touch) also gain audio recording, although this requires a mic, which is not included with any of the models. Apple plans to release two sets of headphones with an integrated mic and volume controls next month: a standard $29 earbud pair and a premium dual driver in ear set for $79.

Until then, if you want to play with audio recording you'll have to settle for iPhone headphones, which correctly function both as an audio input, headphones, and as a pause button (single click) or a skip button (double click). Three clicks start the song from the beginning, or if you are really fast, go back to the previous song, although timing rapid triple clicks requires some snappy finger action.

This explains why Apple's forthcoming mic-equipped headphones are not listed as compatible with the iPhone; the iPhone wasn't designed to respond to triple clicking. The new headphones will handle this for you by sending a triple click to navigate. All this clicking is communicated over the mic conductor, which adds another wire between the iPod and the headphones.

Rather than offering a lot of complex options for audio recording, the new iPods automatically record in mono when you use a mono mic (like the integrated one on the iPhone headphones), and use stereo when you use a stereo mic (as with a third party dock connector mic). They also only record in Apple Lossless, so if you want to work with the audio later, you might need to transcode it into another format, which is simple to do from QuickTime. The new recording app will also let you mark chapters in your audio recording file for easily referencing portions of the audio capture.

Audio In Killed the Video Cable

In order to use audio input without a dock connector dongle, you'll need an iPod with a four conductor headphone jack. As we explained last year, iPods used to use the fourth conductor for video (the first three are used for audio: right, left, and ground). Apple changed this with the iPhone, reassigning the fourth conductor to audio input to allow for an integrated mic. All of the subsequent iPods began relying on the dock connector to export video rather than the headphone jack; now, new models (those just released, not the 2007 models) use the fourth conductor exclusively for audio input.

This rearrangement of video output and audio input has the net effect of forcing modern iPods and the iPhone to use a dock connector for video, but enables the iPods to now handle audio input from the headphone jack, a significant enhancement over requiring a dock connector dongle to provide audio input. After all, far more users are going to want an audio recording feature on the go than a mobile video output system.

Given that video output is more likely to run the battery down than audio input, it also makes sense to bond video out and power into a single clumsy cable. The writing was on the wall that this was going to happen, leaving us to feel comfortable in criticizing conspiracy theorists who demanded that Apple was making the change solely to hurt users and take away their cheap or even do it yourself video cables.

At the same time, it has since been proven that during the audio/video headphone jack move, Apple introduced a video output security system that prevents third parties from making dock connector video output cables and devices without joining the Made for iPod program and paying fees. in addition to "monetizing" its iPod ecosystem and taxing the Chinese cable duplicators, it also appears that this video output DRM is related to movie rentals, as only last year's or newer iPods (including the iPhone, the classic, 3G nano, and touch) can play back video rentals. None of those models support headphone composite video output. This was a move to appease the studios.

iPod nano


Photos, Nike+, Radio Remote, and iPod Games

This years nano supports all of the mini apps and photo features that were introduced last year, including TV-out photo slideshows when used with a dock connector video cable. The photo viewer now takes advantage of the accelerometer to automatically shift the view from tall to wide as you reposition the unit while stepping through each photo. Photos look excellent on the screen and display is extremely fast, making the new 4G nano a really nice way to show off your photos.

The new nano remains compatible with the existing Nike+ receiver that plugs into its dock connector; unlike the new 2G touch, the nano doesn't bundle a transmitter into the device itself, likely because it is an entirely metal case with no existing wireless features. The new nano provides subtly enhanced Nike+ software when using the separately sold transmitter.

The new nano doesn't power over FireWire anymore, just as the latest iPhone 3G. It also relies on the external Radio Remote for users who want to listen to FM radio or pick up broadcast TV audio at the gym. It and the classic are the only modern iPods that support the Radio Remote. The new nano also now supports a radio tagging feature for selecting a song that is playing and using that information to buy it later from iTunes, although it seems unlikely that an iPod user would be listening to the radio to shop for song purchases.

While iPod games have played a silent second fiddle to the iPhone Apps Store, there's now a respectable selection of three dozen different titles for the iPod nanos and classics, all of which remain compatible with the new 4G nano. Note that "iPod G5" games purchased prior to a year ago will not play on the nano, and Apple didn't offer an up upgrade to buyers after revising the games to make them compatible. The nano ships with three games: the previously mentioned, accelerometer controlled Maze, along with the Klondike and Vortex games that Apple bundled with the previous 3G nano.

What ships in the box

The new nano comes in the same 'glass coffin' plexiglass case with the standard stickers, guide book, Universal Dock adapter, standard earbud headphones (no mic), and a USB to dock connector cable. There's no power adapter or dock or, in a nod to Apple's increasing environmental efforts, any other superfluous packaging. The new nano is also advertised as having a recycle-friendly aluminum design that uses arsenic-free glass, and no Brominated Flame Retardants, mercury, or PVC plastics.

The 8GB model will retail for $149, while the 16GB model is $199. Both models come in a spectrum of 9 different colors: silver, purple, blue, green, orange, yellow, pink, (PRODUCT) RED and black. All have a white click wheel apart from the black and silver models, which sport a black click wheel. The 16GB model holds up to 4,000 songs, 14,000 photos, and 16 hours of video, and the 8GB model holds up to 2,000 songs, 7,000 photos and eight hours of video.

iPod nano


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