Editors' note: The version of the iPod Nano introduced in October 2011 is physically indistinguishable from the version launched in 2010. A handful of new features have been introduced through a software update, including improved Nike Plus fitness tracking software, new clock faces, and an improved home screen navigation. This review has been updated to reflect these changes.
The iPod Nano is an institution that rivals the iPod Classic in terms of legacy, and arguably exceeds it in popularity. It's a technological Goldilocks that has endured by holding to the middle ground, always sitting right in the middle of Apple's other iPod offerings in terms of price, convenience, features, and performance.
In 2010, Apple went back to the drawing board for the sixth-generation Nano. The result, for better or worse, threw out many of the features we've come to expect from the Nano over the years, in exchange for a significantly smaller, clip-on design, available in seven anodized aluminum hues (silver, gray, blue, green, orange, red, and pink).
In 2011, Apple updated this same design with new software (available as a free update to existing users) and a lower price. The 8GB iPod Nano sells for $129 (down from $149), while the 16GB version sells for $149 (down from $179).
We have to admit that we didn't think it was possible for Apple to make the Nano any smaller than what we saw in 2009. Boy, were we wrong. The Nano now measures approximately 1.5 inches square, and 0.35 inch deep, including the spring-loaded metal clip borrowed from the iPod Shuffle. It's ridiculously small. It's "where the heck did I leave the iPod?" small. On a really bad day, it can also be "oh man, I hope I didn't run it through the washing machine" small.
Two circular buttons on the top edge of the Nano provide intuitive tactile control over volume adjustment; a larger oval-shaped button nearby acts as a sleep/wake control for the touch screen. Yes, you heard right: the smallest iPod Nano ever produced uses the smallest touch-screen LCD we've ever seen, measuring about an inch square. On the bottom edge of the Nano you'll find Apple's standard 30-pin dock connection and a headphone jack compatible with standard headphones (included), as well as headsets with microphone and remote control capabilities (sold separately).
We have our criticisms of the new Nano design, but let's start out on a positive note. We have good things to say about the player's screen. The glass-covered LCD is bright and colorful, with a crisp 240x240-pixel resolution that packs 220 pixels per inch. The touch screen is frighteningly responsive and fluid, rivaling the performance of the iPhone 4. The iOS-like icons used throughout the four scrollable home screens make sense, and they launch into their intended functions with lightning speed.
And though everyone I showed the Nano to had little problem locating and playing music, each of them regarded me with a look of confused betrayal when I asked them to return to the home screen. I may as well have handed them a toy finger trap. We've become so accustomed to having a home button on touch-screen devices, people leap into menus and features without considering how to get back. The iPod Nano borrows many of the touch-screen interface metaphors of the iPhone and iPod Touch, but does not include a home button or basic onscreen breadcrumb buttons to show users the way out.
Of course, like the finger trap metaphor, the solution is easier than it seems. You simply need to swipe left or hold your finger on the screen to return to the main menu. Once you learn the trick, it becomes second nature. Still, for a company that has set the bar for touch-screen interface design and usability standards with its iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch devices, the oversight of something as fundamental as a menu button seems out of step. Maybe it's not as big a deal as we're making it out to be, but we expect that Apple Store employees will be clocking in a lot of face-palm hours when customers ask how to get back to the Nano's main menu.
The touch screen presents users with a bigger, long-term issue, though: it requires concentration. Unlike the click wheel navigation used on all previous designs--which was literally shaped like a target for your fingers--the new Nano's touch screen requires your eyes to interpret the onscreen navigation. Granted, the same can be said of the iPhone and iPod Touch, but the Nano's audio-specific features and intended use as a fitness accessory put it in a different context. With any of the previous designs, you could quickly start or stop music playback purely by feel, without taking your eyes from your activity. With the square touch-screen design, you need to glance at the screen to perform just about any operation, with the exception of adjusting volume, shuffling songs with a shake, skipping tracks with a double-tap of the wake button, or simply yanking out the headphones to stop music playback.
Part of the playback control dilemma could have been solved if Apple had included earbuds with an inline remote control, instead of the basic earbuds that come bundled. You can buy a pair of these earbuds separately for around $29, which also enable a hidden Voice Memo feature to the player. Sadly, even after laying out an extra $30, the earbuds with remote and mic are sonically identical to the basic earbuds.
The Nano's most impressive feature is its size. Apple shrank the Nano's design by nearly 50 percent while maintaining a 24-hour battery life, generous capacity options, and existing features such as music playback, an FM radio you can pause, Genius Mixes, podcasts, audio books, photo gallery, clock, stopwatch, pedometer, and support for the Nike+ fitness system. Apple has also added an integrated clip, which saves you from having to fork over money for an armband.