Editors' note, August 18, 2009
: Rumors strongly suggest that a new line of iPods will be unveiled early in September of this year. For those considering the purchase of an iPod, we recommend holding off until these new models become available. Check out CNET's iPod Central for all iPod news updates.
Apple's fourth-generation iPod Nano returns to the original long, light, and slender formula that put the series on the map. Offered in an attractive range of nine colors for both the 8GB iPod Nano ($149) and 16GB iPod Nano ($199) models, Apple has yet again raised the MP3 player bar.
The Nano 4G feels impossibly light and thin, with a seamless metal construction that prevents it from snapping like a twig. A slightly curved design gives the Nano 4G the essence of an airplane wing, repeating the rounded design themes of Apple's iPhone 3G and second-generation iPod Touch. Compared with the short, squarish design of last year's Nano, the long, tapered body of the fourth-generation Nano is more comfortable to grasp.
Curved glass now covers the iPod Nano's screen, giving it better resilience against scratches--in theory. The curve of the glass screen lies flush with the slight curve of the Nano's body, and although the glass is inherently glossy and reflective, we didn't notice a diminished viewing quality compared with last year's Nano.
The shape may have softened, but the dimensions of the fourth-generation Nano are nearly identical to the second-generation version, measuring 3.5 inches tall by 1.6 inches wide by 0.25 inch thick at its center--the thinnest iPod yet. The Nano's 2-inch screen size remains unchanged from the previous model, as well as its 1-inch wide scroll wheel control. Headphone and dock connections are located on the bottom of the 4G Nano, and a sliding hold switch makes a reappearance on top of the player (another throwback to the second-generation design).
Because Apple has flipped the Nano's screen on its side, menus and user interface get a dramatic overhaul from last year's model. Menu text size has increased slightly and album cover art takes up less real estate on the main menu. In a bid to increase the accessibility of the Nano for people with impaired vision, Apple has included a font size setting on the fourth-generation Nano that makes its menus more legible--a nice feature even if you have 20/20 vision. The Nano's music playback screen now presents full-screen album art by default, and Cover Flow view is zippier than before, offering alphabetization letters below the covers when you quickly flip through your collection.
All of the features from last year's Nano have migrated to the fourth-generation model, including music, video, and podcast playback, as well as extras such as photos, calendar, games, alarms, stopwatch, contacts, notes, and clocks. Apple also added a few features that make the 4G Nano more compelling than its predecessors.
A new Genius feature lets you create an instant 25-song playlists based around the musical characteristics of a single song. The Genius feature is easy to use, and the results are fun, provided your music collection holds enough songs to make interesting connections. To create a Genius playlist, find a song you like and hold the Nano's center button until you see a Start Genius menu option. You can save Genius playlists directly onto your Nano, and with automatic syncing enabled in iTunes you can also transfer them back to your computer. Oddly, the Nano's Genius feature won't work if haven't enabled Genius on your computer's iTunes software. If you find iTunes' Genius feature too demanding on your computer's resources or too invasive of your privacy (the feature reports your listening habits to Apple), then you'll need to live without the feature on your iPod as well.
The fourth-generation iPod Nano also adds the same tilt-sensor found in the iPhone and iPod Touch, which allows for some interesting control tricks. Giving the iPod Nano a vigorous shake, for instance, puts the music player into shuffle mode. Causal shaking caused by running or exercising isn't enough to trigger the Nano's shuffle mode, and you can always deactivate the shake-to-shuffle feature under the iPod's setting menu or by engaging the hold switch.
The Nano's new tilt-sensor is also useful for activating the iPod's Cover Flow music view when turning the device on its side (a feature cribbed from the iPhone). The iPod Nano also flips the orientation of video playback depending on which direction you prefer to turn the screen. Lefties rejoice! Unfortunately, we found it a little confusing to use the iPod's scroll wheel controls while holding the player sideways for video playback. You get accustomed to it, but it seems like an inelegant design solution coming from a interface-savvy company like Apple.