Once you've loaded up some media on the iPod Nano, poking through the touch-screen interface is pretty straightforward. The whole thing is like a lobotomized version of iOS. You get big icons for all features, which you can tap and hold to rearrange to your liking. If you ever find yourself deep in a menu, you can always return to the home screen with a press of the home button, or drill back through menus with a swipe to the right (like paging backward through a book).
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 the Nano back up with your computer.
Another feature of the Nano worth pointing out is the amount of menu customization it affords you. As on 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 audiobook and podcast fanatic who couldn't care less about Genius Mixes, for example, you can make those features the only two icons on your main menu screen, placing other features out of the way.
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 lets you set a "daily step goal." When the pedometer is switched on, it does an accurate job of recording how many steps you take throughout your day and saves your totals in a history view, which you can sync with a Nike+ online account by way of iTunes. It's a useful feature, and it's free.
But for all of the Nano's wonderful assortment of features, let's not forget that for an extra $50 you could buy a fourth-generation iPod Touch with infinitely more capabilities. The iPod Touch is a full-fledged iOS device with games, AirPlay, Wi-Fi, e-mail, cameras, maps, YouTube, and thousands upon thousands of apps. If you're looking for a workout companion, the Touch can do much more than just count your steps -- it will find the gym, count the calories in your lunch, and take a photo of your buff new body to post on Facebook. I know times are tough, but an upgrade to the iPod Touch is $50 well spent.
For a device that's hardly larger than a credit card, the iPod Nano is a marvel of engineering that can play video, track your fitness, and play hours of music. Apple promises 30 hours of audio-only playback and up to 3.5 hours of video playback, which is a near-miracle given how small this product is. We'll update this review with battery results from CNET Labs once testing is complete.
But if there's one disappointment to brace yourself for, it's the screen quality. After dazzling us with a Retina Display on the iPhone and then a larger Retina Display for the third-generation iPad, Apple has raised our expectations when it comes to screen quality. The Nano's screen packs a decent 240x432-pixel resolution, but the viewing angles aren't great and it's pretty easy to pick out the grid of pixels if you're looking for it.
Audio performance is a thumbs-up, overall. Assuming most users are just going to listen to the iPod using the headphones that come in the box, the slight sound quality improvement offered by Apple's EarPod design is something you'll notice. If you plan on using the iPod Nano with a pair of Bluetooth headphones or a wireless speaker, you'll be getting the same level of Bluetooth 4.0 audio quality you'd receive from an iPhone.
Now with all that said, I found that the iPod Nano's audio quality was just slightly less dazzling than the fourth-generation iPod Touch's when put under a microscope. In this particular case, the microscope was a pair of Shure SE425 in-ear headphones. I don't imagine that many of you will be using $300 headphones with a $150 MP3 player, but if you do you may notice that the Nano doesn't offer quite as much volume or stereo definition as the iPod Touch. It's a close call, though, and ultimately it's just my subjective opinion. As I said above, I expect most people are just going to be happy with the improved headphones that come in the box.
The seventh-generation iPod Nano is a fine product, but I'm not entirely sure who it's for. It comes across like a breeding experiment between an iPod Shuffle and iPod Touch. The kid is cute, but I think most people will be better served by its parents.
For fitness types, the physical controls, simplicity, and clip-on design, and $49 price of the iPod Shuffle make it seem like the better deal.