Apple’s latest iPod nano continues to loom over the heads of its competitors despite players with better sound and more features from companies like Sony and Microsoft. The redesigned body almost seems like a brush of nostalgia, though it definitely improves on the previous generation and keeps the device current. We’re more impressed with the new firmware, which provides the best level of polish yet on Apple’s non-touchscreen devices, and the on-board accelerometer adds some pizzaz to a player some consider to be getting stale.
Features and Design
Even with the capacity bump, the 4th-gen nano still lags behind players like Creative’s Zen line and SanDisk’s Sansa View in the flash memory department — both of those max out at 32GB. But the blade-thin nano, which is now available in a rainbow of nine metallic colors in both 8GB and 16GB flavors, slides into your pocket like no other device out there.
Measuring 3.6 x 1.5 x .24 inches and weighing 1.3 ounces, the player has dropped the 3rd-gen’s “fatboy” look and returned to the first two generations’ long and tall design. Its aluminum body is contoured at the sides, making the player feel stunningly small in our hand.
The click wheel is farther from the bottom this time around, making for better ergonomics and easier thumbing for those with large hands. The dock connector on bottom is once again offset to the left next to the headphone jack, and the hold switch is now located on top for easier access. The 2-inch screen is made of curved glass, following the curve of the body, and it’s oriented in portrait (240 x 320 pixels), which is better for looking at long lists.
The interface has been redesigned as well, taking better advantage of the screen’s size and shape. Replacing the split-screen main menu is a more sensible banner along the bottom that shows previews of whatever you’ve highlighted. For music and photos, that means a steady stream of thumbnails going by, which is much less distracting than the Ken Burns-style previews of the previous nano.
The ability to make the menu fonts bigger is a great new addition, which would have been tough on the old split screen. And the new interface supports spoken menus for the visually impaired — or for those too lazy to take the player out of their pocket. Another nice touch: Turn the player sideways when you’re browsing music to activate CoverFlow, so you can browse by flipping through album covers. In list-browsing mode, when you drill down to Albums, you now get thumbnail previews next to each album name.
One handy new aspect of the revamped interface is the contextual pop-up menu that appears when you hold the center button. In Music mode, this is how you access the new Genius feature, which analyzes songs and generates playlists of tunes that supposedly go well together. You can also enable Genius by pressing the center button twice from the Now Playing screen, which brings up a Genius slider that you move with the click wheel.
Image Courtesy of Apple
In our testing, Genius did surprisingly well at finding songs that go together, though we did get the occasional head-scratcher–a solo cello track got picked up on a playlist generated from a 50 Cent song. In many cases, Genius couldn’t find enough similar songs to create a 25-song playlist, though Apple claims that as more people use the feature, it will get smarter.
Video file support still excludes AVI and MPG, but H.264 and MPEG-4 (M4V, MP4, and MOV) should satisfy most users. Video output works via the dock connector instead of the headphone jack, though you’ll need a video-compatible dock or an optional $49 AV cable from Apple. Photo support is broad, encompassing JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, PSD, and PNG, all of which get optimized for the 2-inch screen when you sync them in iTunes. Audio support hasn’t changed from previous versions. Codecs include AAC (including protected files from iTunes), MP3, WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless, and Audible audiobooks, leaving FLAC, OGG, and WMA out in the cold once again.
We watched an episode of Chappelle’s Show on the nano’s QVGA screen, and the picture automatically reoriented itself to landscape mode. It also flips depending on whether you’re holding the player with the the screen on the left or on the right, suiting righties and lefties alike. Video is sharp, clear, and smooth, with good if slightly cool color, though watching longer movies is still tough on a 2-inch screen. And although the nano supports alternate audio tracks, captions and subtitles are simply unreadable on the tiny screen.
Photos look very good on the nano, but we’re disappointed in the continuing lack of zooming or panning. Mitigating this slightly, photos now automatically re-orient in any direction depending on how you hold the nano, so photos will always fill the screen.
We listened to songs by Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, Kruder & Dorfmeister, Radiohead, and Wynton Marsalis, and everything from the bass on up through the top end of the treble sounded spot-on to our ears. Rock tracks came off a bit flat-sounding during more complex passages, but R&B, electronica, and reggae had plenty of depth and thump. Acoustic jazz also retained its sparkle nicely.
The white stock earbuds aren’t the greatest, but they’re good enough for everyday listening. We recommend upgrading, though, since the player is actually capable of very good sound when you play back Apple Lossless files or high-bit-rate MP3s. Oddly, Apple still refuses to include a custom equalizer, relying instead on the same old set of marginally effective presets like Rock, Jazz, Bass Booster, Treble Booster, and so on.
One interesting addition for workout nuts: You can put the player in Shuffle All mode by giving it a good shake. Skip to the next random track by shaking it again. The feature is smartly disabled when the hold switch is on or the screen goes dark to prevent inadvertent track skips.
Arguably the biggest advantage of the nano’s accelerometer is that it enables tilt-based control of games like Spore Origins ($9.99 at the iTunes store) and Maze (free, preloaded on the device). You don’t get the lightning-quick responsiveness of the iPod Touch, but it does make it more fun to move your Spore organism around its environment by tilting the player in any direction.
Image Courtesy of Apple
Sadly, Apple didn’t do anything in the area of battery life, leaving audio playback time at 24 hours and video at 4 hours. Although those are the same times as Microsoft claims for its flash-based Zune, we don’t think it’s too much to ask for longer life, especially for a device that doesn’t have any wireless features to suck up juice.
Overall, we’re pretty satisfied with the new nano, even though it’s nowhere near as sexy as the newly revamped iPod touch. And on a small, dedicated audio player that’s focused on slim design and pocketability, we don’t feel too slighted that the nano lacks wireless features like the Zune, especially given the excellent integration between the hardware and iTunes software. But despite the inclusion of an accelerometer, we’re giving Apple fair warning that the competition is really starting to pull far ahead on features, and a true “iPod killer” (at least for the nano) is becoming ever more feasible.
• Accelerometer enhances interface and games
• Extremely thin design and lots of color choices
• Very good AV quality
• Useful new features like Genius, adjustable font size, and spoken menus
• No wireless features
• No custom EQ
• Mediocre battery life