Part of the playback control dilemma could have been solved if Apple had included earbuds with an inline remote control, instead of the basic earbuds that come bundled. You can buy a pair of these earbuds separately for around $29, which also enable a hidden Voice Memo feature to the player. Sadly, even after laying out an extra $30, the earbuds with remote and mic are sonically identical to the basic earbuds.
The Nano's most impressive feature is its size. Apple shrank the Nano's design by nearly 50 percent while maintaining a 24-hour battery life, generous capacity options, and existing features such as music playback, an FM radio you can pause, Genius Mixes, podcasts, audio books, photo gallery, clock, stopwatch, pedometer, and support for the Nike+ fitness system. Apple has also added an integrated clip, which saves you from having to fork over money for an armband.
But as laudable as the Nano is from a design and engineering perspective, there are actually fewer total features being offered than any time over the past three years. Some of the features that didn't make it to the new design aren't worth crying over, such as contacts, calendar, and notes. But Apple also gutted features like the alarm clock, which we've found handy on a few occasions. A countdown timer is included, which can be set to put the iPod to sleep or to sound an alarm through headphones or connected speakers. But with the previous model, you could set alarms at specific times, set them to repeat daily or weekly, associate the alarm to a playlist of music, and have any alarm or song play through the internal speaker. Support for games is also gone. Again, this isn't a huge deal for most users, but it was a fun, well-executed feature that Apple had polished over the years. It was also one more small way to keep kids entertained on a road trip.
But the most surprising omission from the sixth-generation iPod Nano is the lack of video playback or camcorder features. Video had been the focus and area of growth for the Nano for many years. The screen kept getting larger, movie rental capabilities came onboard, and the 2009 model was even graced with a useful little camcorder. All of those features have been tossed aside now. To be fair, watching video on a postage-stamp-size screen would be ridiculous. The larger question, though, is why Apple felt that going smaller with the design was a paramount concern over maintaining features it had taken years to develop.
Looking beyond our sentiment and confusion over the features that didn't make it into the new design, the Nano still has plenty to brag about. Thanks to some help from Apple's iTunes software, advanced playlist capabilities such as smart playlists, Genius playlists, and Genius Mixes take a lot of the legwork out of creating a great soundtrack for your morning jog. Compatibility with iTunes also brings along one of the best and most convenient ways to download and manage podcasts and audio books.
The FM radio player, which was only added to the Nano in 2009, is one of the best you'll find on a portable device. With it you can pause and rewind up to 15 minutes of any live broadcast, as well as store your favorite stations as presets and tag songs from compatible stations, making it easy to purchase those songs when you sync back up to your computer.
We also have to admit, for all our gripes with the touch-screen navigation, the new interface does allow you to better customize the layout of the main menu. Like the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, you can rearrange the Nano's icons by holding them down and dragging them to a new location. If you're an audio-book or podcast fanatic who couldn't care less about Genius Mixes, you can make those features the only two icons on your main menu screen, placing other features out of the way.
The square touch screen also allows you to reorient the menu in any direction, which can be helpful if you have the Nano clipped sideways on your shirt sleeve or upside down on a backpack strap. But again, the downside to such a flexible screen orientation is that it can be difficult to remember or predict how the controls are laid out without glancing directly at the screen. If you need to be able to pause or skip songs without taking your eyes of what you're doing, you can customize the behavior of the wake button, or better yet, invest in some type of headphone remote control (or a different device).
Finally, there's the integrated pedometer, which can be used to track your activity and manage fitness goals using Nike's free Nike+ online fitness system. When you first activate the pedometer, it asks for your weight and allows you to set a "daily step goal." When the pedometer is switched on, it does an accurate job recording how many steps you take throughout your day and saves your totals in a history view, which you can sync to a Nike+ online account by way of iTunes. It's a useful feature, and it's free.
For better or worse, the Nano now has fewer features for us to evaluate in terms of performance. As we mentioned earlier, the Nano's touch screen is technically dazzling in terms of its responsiveness and crisp resolution. Unfortunately, on a practical note, it performs no better than the click wheel when it comes to navigating through features or diving into your music library. Because the controls are dynamic and not fixed like the click wheel design, even the most basic operations, such as pausing or skipping music, require more attention than before.
Sonically, the Nano holds up to the higher standards we've heard from Apple in recent years. Provided you're quick to upgrade from the basic earbuds Apple bundles with the player, the fundamental sound quality of the Nano is hard to complain about. Background hiss introduced by the internal headphone amplifier is impossible to detect on modern digital recordings. Listening back on a pair of Klipsch Custom 2 earphones we were able to pick up everything from the nuance of a string pluck, to the saturated low-frequency boom of a Black Eyed Peas kick drum.
Apple rates the Nano's battery life at 24 hours of continuous audio playback. Our CNET Labs' testing achieved an average of 34 hours of audio playback from the Nano, blowing past Apple's estimates. Bear in mind, though, that our Labs test for continuous audio playback, with a minimum of interaction with the device's touch screen and no interference with the Nano's default screen backlight timeout. Like any touch-screen device, the more you fiddle with it, the faster you can expect the battery to drain.