Apple iPod (third generation)
Now in its third generation, Apple's iPod Nano gets a substantial redesign to accommodate games and video playback. Despite its changes--and Apple made many--the iPod Nano is still one of the smallest, thinnest, and most exquisitely designed MP3 players on the market. It's also one of the most affordable, with a 4GB (silver) model offered for $149, and an 8GB (silver, black, red, green, or blue) model for $199. While the updated iPod Classic and the new iPod Touch are equally intriguing, the revamped Nano delivers the most bang for the buck.
The redesign of the iPod Nano has drawn plenty of criticism. Its detractors call it chubby, squat, and awkward looking. We certainly had our reservations, but in the hand, the latest Nano makes the second-generation Nano look like a skyscraper.
The Nano measures a petite 2.75 inches long, 2 inches wide, and 0.25 inch thick--a significant shift from its once long and skinny shape, though it is essentially the same thickness. Matte, anodized aluminum graces the faceplate, as with the previous generation of Nanos and now the iPod Classic as well. The back and sides of the Nano, however, mimic the Video iPod's rounded, glossy, smudge-prone chrome enclosure. On the bottom edge of the Nano, you'll find the iPod's proprietary USB port, along with the headphone jack and the hold switch, which prevents you from accidentally triggering the player's buttons. Nano keeps Apple's ubiquitous Click Wheel design, although the Nano's new Click Wheel is smaller in diameter--it's only 1 inch--than the previous Nano's 1.25 inches. The much skinnier touch strip may frustrate users accustomed to the 1.5-inch wheel of the Video iPod and the iPod Classic.
The Nano's most dramatic design change is, of course, its larger, brighter screen. The 2-inch color screen packs a dense, crisp 320x240 video resolution that looks richer and brighter than that of any iPod to date. It's not often that we deem a screen smaller than 2.5 inches worthy of video playback, but with a tightly packed 204 pixels per inch, the Nano looks incredibly sharp. Unlike the Apple iPhone or the iPod Touch, however, the Nano's screen is covered with a scratch-prone plastic that will quickly show wear.
The Nano's second-most impressive design improvement is its dramatically overhauled menu system. One of the most striking changes is a split-screen main menu that displays the menu on the right half of the screen and a picture related to the selection on the left. For example, highlight the Music selection on the main menu, and the right half of the screen displays a random, drifting closeup of cover artwork from your music library. This same effect accompanies menu items such as movies, podcasts, and photos. Some might write this split-screen effect off as pure novelty, but the end result is quite beautiful. The Cover Flow system, for browsing your music collection with an emphasis on album artwork, finally makes its Nano debut, although Cover Flow does lose some appeal when not on a touch screen device such as the iPhone. We also found a noticeable amount of lag when using Cover Flow. Users with large music collections to sort through will prefer browsing with the list mode or the search function. That said, Cover Flow makes for a scenic and engaging, if slow, way to browse your music.
The third-generation Nano's piece de resistance is its support for video playback. Like the Video iPod (now iPod Classic), the iPod Nano supports H.264 or MPEG4 video in either MOV, MP4, or M4V file formats, with a maximum resolution of 640x480 at as much as 30 frames per second. You can buy videos through the iTunes online store or import them into iTunes and convert them for playback. (Many third-party software video converters also do a great job converting videos for the iPod.) Despite its size, the Nano supports video features we seldom find on portable video players twice its size. For instance, the Nano can recognize and skip between the DVD-like chapter markers embedded in QuickTime movie files. It also does a dependable job automatically resuming video playback at the point that you last left off. As a bonus, the new iPod Nano and iPod Classic now properly launch video podcasts ("vodcasts") as videos, instead of mistaking them for audio podcasts when launched from within the Music menu.
The iPod Nano's second major new feature is support for iTunes video games. While the selection of iPod video games has grown slowly, three tried-and-true standards come bundled with the Nano right out of the box: a congenial game of Solitaire, a trivia game called iQuiz, and the brick-pummeling Vortex (think Breakout on steroids). While the games are a handy way to pass some time, don't expect the Nano to compete with the Sony PSP anytime soon.
Looking past the obvious big-ticket improvements, the new Nano includes some small touches that are easy to miss. Apple's music shuffle function, for instance, has made a subtle evolution, now letting you easily engage and disengage the shuffle function on the fly with just a few presses on the Click Wheel's center button. By placing the shuffle setting options (Shuffle Song, Shuffle Album, or Shuffle Off) in a song's Now Playing window, Apple is effectively giving you the ability to randomize songs until you find an artist you like--a lazy listener's dream come true.
Apple hasn't changed its audio file format support. Copy-protected AAC files purchased through iTunes are supported, of course, as well as MP3, Apple lossless, AIFF, WAV, and Audible files. We're happy to see that, despite the iPhone's unique file-management requirements, the iPod Nano allows for the manual addition and deletion of music and video files without the hassles of playlist syncing. The Nano can also double as a USB flash drive in a pinch.