Today, I played around with Apple's latest sixth-gen iPod Nano. Maybe I need some time to let it grow on me, but at first blush, I don't think I'm in love.
True to its name the sixth-generation Nano is Apple's smallest yet, measuring an inch and a half square, and 0.35 inch thick. There's a clip on the back (borrowed from the iPod Shuffle), a variety of seven colors (silver, gray, blue, orange, pink, green, and red), and two capacities, 8GB ($149) and 16GB ($179). Battery life is rated at 24 hours of music playback, which is remarkable for its size.
The big news, of course, is that the Nano has ditched its time-tested scroll wheel navigation for a miniscule touch screen, measuring a smidge over 1-inch square (1.5 inches diagonally). The Nano includes iPhone-like icons for music playback, photos, settings, Nike+, clock, radio, and Genius Mixes, as well as more specific shortcuts for audiobook playback, artists, genres, playlists, and podcasts. The icons are arranged in sets of four, spread out across multiple home screens, similar to iOS devices, such as the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.
Once you get beyond the gee-whiz factor of the postage stamp-size touch screen, though, you begin to realize that the new Nano design makes some sacrifices. The video camera that Apple included on last year's Nano has been discarded. The video playback and video rental capabilities of the past three generation of Nano has also gone away. Remember click-wheel games (Vortex, Maze, Klondike), notes, contacts, calendars, stopwatch, and alarms? Well, they're gone too.
Some of the relatively recent features have stayed on, such as VoiceOver support for announcing track information, FM radio with live pausing, shake-to-shuffle, fitness pedometer, and Genius Mixes. You even get access to voice recording, although you'll need to supply your own mic-equipped headphones since the bundled pair are just plain ol' earbuds.
But my real hesitation to get behind the new Nano simply comes down to usability. By relegating itself to music and photo playback, the Nano is stepping back three years in terms of functionality. Using the kind of touch-screen technology designed for the iPhone to navigate features we saw on iPods in 2007 makes no practical sense. With a click wheel, you could pick up a Nano and immediately know how to play, pause, and skip content without even looking at the device. Granted, by plugging in a headphone remote, you could replicate the older Nano's tactile control, but it's still not as elegant a solution. So far, it seems to me that the Nano's touch-screen navigation is a case where form got the better of function.