Video: Hands-On With Motorola’s iPod Nano Challenger, The MOTO ACTV

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This morning, Motorola dropped a bit of a surprise with the MOTO ACTV, an iPod Nano-esque thimble of a device.

Does the world need another tiny, crappy audio player? Probably not. But what about a tiny, Android-powered audio player that focuses on gauging exercise? Still, probably not — but hey, it’ll be fun to hack!

Now, lets be clear: the idea of a device that gauges your athletic ability isn’t a new one — nor was it new when Apple introduced the new iPod Nano with Nike+ integration. As they tend to do, Apple just made things suck less, introducing a somewhat-flashy device that just about anyone could comprehend. Motorola wants to go deeper.

The ACTV is a bit more focused, diving far deeper into the niche that is hardcore athleticism. If the iPod Nano is 90% media and 10% exercise, the ACTV is split 50/50. Whereas the Nano is mostly a tricked-out pedometer, the ACTV has things like GPS, a heart-rate monitor, and a snazzy cloud-based backend for monitoring all of your stats over time — plus fancy tricks like Bluetooth pairing (allowing you to screen calls while gettin’ your run on without having to sweatily paw at your handset.)

I spent some time with the ACTV this morning, albeit in a tiny office rather than out on the track. Read on for my impressions.

First impressions:

  • The design is, to use a positive word, minimalist. It’s… a black square. That’s it. There are a few buttons on each side and a 3.5mm jack on the top, but the design is forgettable.
  • Remarkably light.
  • The screen was considerably smaller than I would have hoped — a massive chunk of the face is dedicated to the bezel and the capacitive back button.
  • The ACTV is built to be switched between a watch band, an arm strap, and a few other accessories that MOTO is working on. The watch band comes in the box, while the rest are optional add-ons
  • When slipped into the watch strap, the thing feels a bit huge on the wrist. With a heart rate monitor built in, though, it’s still considerably less cumbersome than a chest wrap.
  • It’s Android-based! That said, it’s not like any build of Android you’ve seen. They’ve boiled things down to the bare minimums here, ditching the likes of the apps drawer. Don’t expect to find the Android Market here. Its primary interface is essentially just a homescreen, with each page dedicated to one big icon/widget.
  • Once you dive into the built-in apps, it’s a bit more obvious that it’s Android. Menus scroll smoothly, and share most of its design cues with vanilla Android. Compared to most smart watches I’ve tinkered with, it’s pretty dang easy to wrap your head around.
  • One neat trick: based on your pace/heart rate during any given track, the ACTV will learn which songs get you pumped. One tap of the “Fit song” button will start up a track it knows will queue up a song to motivate you.

The key feature here is Motorola’s backend, which the device automatically syncs with (via WiFi) to provide reports on your efforts. Have you gotten faster over time? Is your heart in better shape now than it was a month ago? This is the deal maker/breaker; if its not good enough, it’ll be hard to justify a separate, dedicated $249 device when a $199 iPod Touch (which, in an armband, is hardly more noticeable) has access to apps like Runkeeper. Sadly, this feature seemingly wasn’t ready for a preview just yet.

To step away from the intended use case here for a second: man, do I hope Motorola didn’t go out of their way to lock this thing down. If the trends we’ve seen with iPod Nano are indication, hackers/modders will have an absolute field day with this thing.

What do you think? Any gym/track rats out there already breaking into a sweat over this one?