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iPod nano Morphs into Video Camera, Pedometer, Radio

The inexpensive handheld camcorder market just underwent a major shift with Apple’s debut of a major revision to the iPod nano. The new version adds video and audio recording, a pedometer that syncs with Nike+, and an FM tuner. The 8 GB price remains unchanged at $149; a 16 GB version costs $179. Both models are available immediately.

Apple’s entry into this market isn’t strange, given the engineering work it did to add video to the iPhone 3GS, but it’s another example of the company’s hard-to-anticipate strategies: instead of introducing a new product or adding it to the iPod touch (which seemed more obvious), Apple grafted video onto an existing model line. CEO Steve Jobs said that the iPod nano is one-fifth the thickness and one-tenth the volume of a Flip camcorder, and the 8 GB iPod nano has twice the memory of a $149 Flip model.

Flip pioneered small but easy-to-use video recorders with decent quality, capturing a double-digit percentage of camcorder sales, and spurring Kodak and other firms to jump in. The Flip cameras also contributed to the growing prevalence of solid-state memory for capturing video. Recording directly to memory enabled the devices to shrink dramatically in size, making the Flip and successive devices truly pocketable. Cisco acquired Flip for $590 million in March 2009.

The iPod nano’s camera records video in H.264 VGA resolution – 640 by 480 pixels – and at rates up to 30 frames per second; audio uses the AAC format. These are the same specs offered by the iPhone 3GS, which produces acceptable, but not stellar, video output. The iPod nano will let you apply 15 real-time effects, such as sepia or motion blur – but you need to specify the effect before you record, making it a permanent addition to your footage.

Video recorded on an iPod nano can be synced to iPhoto on a Mac, or to a Windows video folder. Apple advertises the notion that the video is just the right size for Facebook, MobileMe, and YouTube, but of those, iPhoto can upload movies only to MobileMe at this time (we expect more video support in the next version of iPhoto, but then again, we’ve been anticipating that for years). The iPod nano also includes a voice-recording feature, and somehow manages to shoehorn in a speaker for playback.

Oh, yes: it’s still an iPod, too.

The inclusion of a pedometer is an extension of Apple’s existing efforts to tie in the Nike+ system, but adding an FM tuner at this point in the game seems slightly bizarre. Apple has never included FM tuning in any of its iPods, and has sometimes ridiculed the very notion. More recently, Microsoft replaced its Zune models with the Zune HD, which offers FM tuning for analog FM radio signals and the HD Radio (which doesn’t stand for “high definition”) digital format used by about 15 percent of radio stations in the United States as a supplement to their main broadcasts.

The iPod nano’s FM radio function acts a bit like a TiVo for radio, storing up to 15 minutes of broadcasts and allowing rewind and pause, although you can’t save stored audio for later listening. The iPod nano can read and display information embedded in analog broadcasts by radio stations that reveal artist and song details.

Apple uses this data with iTunes Tagging, a system it designed to work with HD Radio receivers. When you tag a song on an iPod nano (just as you can with supported radio receivers), that song’s information is retrieved when you sync the iPod via iTunes. iTunes then displays a Tagged category in the iTunes Store list in the sidebar that shows the song, if it’s recognized. (See “Tag Radio Songs for Later Purchase While You Drive,” 2009-06-19, for more about iTunes Tagging.)

Apple offers the new iPod nano in nine colors, including black and silver. The company touted a number of environmentally sensitive features, such as the device’s highly recyclable nature, and the absence of BFRs, PVC, and mercury, as well as the inclusion of arsenic-free glass.

Apple also released a minor software update for the VoiceOver feature that enables users to control playback on the iPod nano by speaking artist names and songs. The VoiceOver Kit for iPod 1.2 fixes bugs, adds variable playback rates for spoken word media, and includes support for this new iPod nano, the fifth generation.

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