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.
While the iPod Nano is a top-tier product, we long for some additional features, including the ability to use the headphone jack as a composite-video output, allowing photos and videos to be played to your television set without a third-party interface. While we can understand removing the little-used AV output feature to save on construction costs, we're even more surprised that Apple has rendered all current iPods incompatible with a number of third-party fifth-generation video accessories as well. If you're hoping to use a new Nano or Classic with an existing video dock, be sure to check that the product explicitly states it is compatible with third-generation iPod Nanos. Apple's own Universal iPod Dock ($50) and Component AV Cable ($50) are guaranteed to work, of course.
Plus, there's our standard list of long-neglected iPod features: FM radio; line-input recording; SD memory expansion; custom equalizer; and native support for WMA and subscription music services. We're not holding our breath.
Despite the major interface overhaul, the iPod Nano's sound quality still sounds just middle-of-the-road. Although middling sound quality doesn't seem to affect iPod sales, you'd think Apple would eventually address this chink in the iPod's armor, if only out of pride. Users do get more than 20 equalization presets to choose from, ranging from subtle enhancement to dramatic bass boosting. Compared to products such as the Creative Zen V Plus, the Cowon iAudio 7, or the Toshiba Gigabeat U, however, the iPod's sound quality still leaves room for improvement. That said, after listening with our Ultrasone HFI-700 headphones as well as a set of Shure SE310 earphones, we can say with confidence that the Nano's fidelity will certainly satisfy most users.
Much to our surprise, the Nano's video performance stole the show. We were highly skeptical that we'd enjoy watching video on a 2-inch screen, yet the Nano's superfine 204ppi screen looked refreshingly sharp and bright. We still prefer the video experience of a larger player such as the affordable Archos 405, but it's not far-fetched to imagine watching a full-length movie on the Nano.
Battery life was a big bragging right for the second-generation Nano, and the third-generation carries on this tradition. Apple rated the battery life for their third-generation Nano at 24 hours for audio playback and 5 hours for video. Our official CNET labs testing squeezed out an impressive 29 hours of audio playback and 6.7 hours of video.
Is it worth upgrading?
Considering that the iPod Classic and the iPod Nano are now nearly identical aside from storage capacity and screen size, the Nano is less a product unto itself and much more like a "light" version of the iPod Classic.
Existing Nano owners drawn to the previous Nano's less-is-more appeal enjoyed not worrying about the tiny screen getting scratched if it took a tumble onto the floor and may be turned off by the need treat the device more carefully. We also found that the new Nano's wider form is less comfortable in the fist than the previous generation, making it awkward for jogging without an armband or a pocket.
We expect that this Nano will appeal more to existing iPod users looking to replace their decaying third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation hard-drive iPods with something smaller, cheaper, and leaner. Of course, the Nano would be more appealing all the way around if Apple would just make a 16GB version.
The iTunes factor
No iPod review would be complete without mentioning Apple's iTunes music software. For better or worse, the integration between an iPod and Apple's iTunes music software is nearly airtight. If this is going to be your first iPod, it's worthwhile to download iTunes ahead of time to see if it works well on your computer and is intuitive for you to use. You should also be aware that most of the music and movies available for purchase on the iTunes online store will play only in iTunes or on an authorized iPod and cannot be transferred to a non-Apple MP3 player.
Apple's new iPod Nano seems to be drawing equal amounts of ire and admiration. Although we miss the slender form of the second-generation Nano, we feel the latest edition has more going for it than against it. At less than $200, the Nano offers one of the richest user experiences we've seen on an MP3 player.