By Harry McCracken | Friday, September 12, 2008 at 2:57 am
The iPod Nano isn’t just the smallest iPod with a screen–it’s also the one that Apple reinvents on the most aggressive schedule. It debuted as a skinny plastic music player in September 2005; became a skinny aluminum music player a year later; and transmogrified into a short, squat aluminum music and video player a year after that. And earlier this week, the Nano morphed once more: It’s now skinny again, but with the video capability of its third-generation predecessor, and a few new features and refinements.
The visual difference between the new, narrow fourth-generation Nano and the square model it replaces is the most striking industrial-design change for an Apple product since…well, since the square Nano replaced the narrower 2G model. The new Nano may look different, but its features haven’t changed radically; most owners of the previous Nano shouldn’t feel too lustful over its successor. But I ended up liking the new model more than I thought I would at first glance.
That’s in part because I was instinctively fond of the square Nano’s childlike proportions–to me, it ranks with the “desklamp” iMac as one of Apple’s most appealing, anthropomorphic designs. The taller design of the new one doesn’t speak to me in the same way, and requires you to rotate the device around on its side to watch video, thereby putting the control buttons on the click wheel in unintuitive locations. (For what it’s worth, though, opinion in my T-Poll on the two designs was running almost 3-to-1 for the new Nano when I just checked–if you haven’t voted, please do so.)
Apple’s yearly refresh of the Nano introduces no radical new features, but better use of the display for music navigation, Genius playlists, and a sleeker design add up to an appealing package–and one that comes in more colors than ever.
Price: $149 (8GB) and $199 (16GB)
But a quick comparison of the user interfaces of the two Nanos shows that when it comes to music, the new one’s portrait-mode screen makes a lot more sense than the old one’s landscape display. (The two screens are the same size and resolution, and if there’s a difference in quality, I can’t see it–they both look good.) The third-generation Nano’s main menus were in a tiny font and used only half the screen; Apple filled the rest of the display with floating images from your cover art that did, indeed, feel like space-fillers. The new Nano’s menus are in a larger, more readable size, and more music information fits onto the screen in each mode–ten songs at a time versus nine, for instance, and six albums versus four. The improvement isn’t earthshaking, but it’s undeniable.
As a music player, the new Nano also benefits from an on-the-go version of the Genius auto-playlist feature introduced in iTunes 8. Once you’ve set up Genius in iTunes, you can bring it up on the Nano when you’re listening to a song by pressing and holding the Click Wheel’s center button. Genius will then build a playlist based on that song, trying to come up with a pleasing and complimentary list of songs. It worked extremely very well for me, when it worked at all. (It didn’t for songs that the feature couldn’t identify as being in the iTunes Store, such as anything by the Beatles.) Apple hasn’t said anything about updating older Nanos to support Genius; the closest you can come is to create a Genius playlist in iTunes, then download it to the player.
(Side note: If you’re into particularly into music recommendation features, check out this post on the new features in Microsoft’s upcoming Zune software upgrade over at Wired.com.)
Flick the Nano onto its side while browing music, and the new accelerometer inside comes into play: The Nano puts itself into Cover Flow mode and lets you view your songs via cover art. Shake the Nano while listening to a song–I found I had to do it pretty vigorously–and it’ll shuffle to another song randomly, in a way that reminds me of Sandisk’s otherwise quite different Shaker. Pretty clever. There’s also a new Maze game (joining the existing Klondike and Vortex) that lets you jiggle the Nano to move a ball through a labyrinth.
The accelerometer also helps when you pivot the Nano into landscape mode to watch video, determining whether you’re holding the player with your left hand or right hand, and adjusting the screen so that the video is right-side up. In this mode, the click wheel’s controls are oriented oddly and inelegantly–the backwards control is either on the top or bottom of the wheel, depending on which way you’re holding the Nano. On the plus side, though, your thumb is less likely to get in the way of the screen than with the old Nano, even though the click wheel is a skosh larger on the new model.
Apple touts the 4G Nano as the thinnest iPod ever (.24″ vs. .26″ for the 3G), and it does indeed look and feel noticably sleeker. But as with the MacBook Air, some of its thinness comes from extreme tapering: The whole player has a bowed shape, including the screen. Compare it with the 3G model by examining their edges, and the new one does indeed look much thinner. But when I placed them side by side, the tops of the two Nanos formed a nearly level surface. Bottom line: Either model fits great into nearly any pocket. (Matter of fact, I have both of them in my shirtpocket right now, with plenty of room to spare.)
The svelte case may have necessitated a slightly smaller battery: Apple quotes 24 hours of music and four hours of video, compared to 24 music hours and five video hours for the old model. I’ll look forward to battery tests from my pals at Macworld, but I’m not too worried about the video reduction: I plug my iPod into a computer for synching and USB charging enough that I rarely run the battery down to anywhere near zero, even when watching movies.
The new Nano does have its predecessor beat when it comes to colors: There are now nine of ’em, meaning that there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to buy an iPod that’s the same color as your car. (I did, anyhow.) And its color-on-both sides design is probably more aesthetically appealing that the 3G Nano’s classic iPod silver back, leading you to wonder why the 3G model brought the silver back when its predecessor had two-sided color. (Keeping track of all the Nano variants and the changes reflected in them ain’t simple.)
Two other new features: You can now record voice notes on the Nano if you plug in a microphone, such as the one included in Apple’s new $29 headphone/microphone combo. And the player can now download spoken menus from iTunes, a valuable option for users with vision problems and an intriguing one for anyone who wants to use the Nano without looking at the screen.
Finally, there’s a new feature that you assume each new Nano will have, but which might be the most important one for some folks: Apple has doubled the memory in each version, selling an 8GB model for $149 and a 16GB one for $199. The 16GB Nano holds up to 4000 songs or 16 hours of video; some people who would have opted for an iPod Classic or iPod Touch in the past will likely be perfectly happy with the cheaper, much smaller Nano.
As with previous Nanos–heck, as with Apple products in general–the fourth-generation model emphasizes sleekness and simplicity over sheer number of features. Some music fans will grouse that it still doesn’t have an FM radio like Microsoft’s Zune or Sandisk’s Sansa. (Seven years into the history of iPods, I’ve come to the conclusion that Steve Jobs just doesn’t like FM.) Nor does it have Wi-Fi like Microsoft’s chunkier Zune flash player, which matches the 8GB and 16GB Nano’s pricing.
I’d recommend that anyone who’s shopping for a flash music player check out the Nano’s competition before plunking down their money. But I’m positive that the new Nano’s two most important features–Its slim, super-refined industrial design and the fact that it connects to the iTunes Store–will make it the best-selling music player on the market. Just like its Nano predecessors. And even though I’m still partial to the stubby little guy that was the third-generation Nano.