When I first glimpsed the leaked photos of Apple's skinny, rounded-screen redesign of the iPod Nano, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical. It seemed so unlike Apple to revisit the older designs of its first- and second-generation Nano, and the wing-shaped form seemed a bit odd. Holding the Nano 4G in my hand, however, I'm starting to think that last year's squarish design was just an awkward, forgettable phase in the Nano's development. This year, Apple has set the Nano back on track with the thinnest, lightest design yet, and features that are hard to ignore.
Offered in a wide range of colors (nine total) for both the 8GB ($149) and 16GB ($199) capacities, the latest iPod Nano strikes a great balance of price and features. The iPod Nano 4G uses the same high-resolution 2-inch screen found on last year's model, only now the included screen uses a portrait orientation covered with rounded glass. Video playback requires you to turn the iPod Nano 4G on its side, much like the Flash-based Microsoft Zune MP3 players. Unlike the Zune, however, Apple has included an accelerometer within the 4G Nano that reorients the display based on how the player is held, making it easier to view photos or switch the player into Apple's Cover Flow music mode. The accelerometer also enables a new "shake-to-shuffle" feature that will automatically shuffle music playback when the player is deliberately shaken (a casual shake won't trigger the feature). The shake-to-shuffle feature can be switched off under settings and the button-hold switch at the top of the player will disengage it, as well.
Accelerometers are neat, but the big new feature rolled into the iPod Nano (as well as the new iPod Touch, iPod Classic, and iTunes 8), is a new intelligent playlist feature dubbed "Genius." Using the Genius feature, you can take a single song from your collection and create an instant playlist of 25 songs that share similar musical characteristics. Of course, the performance of the Genius function is proportional to the size of your available music collection--so mileage may vary. It is a novel new feature, however, and it'll be fun to test over time.
Other smaller features on the 4G Nano include the option to create voice recordings using an optional set of headphones that include an inline microphone (much like the headphones included with the Apple iPhone), and increased accessibility features for vision-impaired users (font size adjustment and the ability for menus and media information to be read aloud from a built-in synthetic voice). Previous Nano features such as music, photo, podcast, and video playback are unchanged, and extras like games, alarms, calendars, contacts, stopwatch, and notes are all still there.
The only bummer so far regarding the new iPod Nano is that despite the similarities of screen size and features, Apple is not offering an upgrade path for iPod Nano 3G users to get their hands on features such as on-device Genius playlist creation or increased accessibility features. Otherwise, sound quality seems to be about on a par with previous iPods, and battery life ratings of 24 hours for music and 4 hours are nearly identical to last year's specs, which promised 24 hours of audio and 5 hours of video.
I'll be writing up my full review as soon as possible with more iPod Nano 4G details to share. Stay tuned.