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.
But as laudable as the Nano is from a design and engineering perspective, there are actually fewer total features being offered than any time over the past three years. Some of the features that didn't make it to the new design aren't worth crying over, such as contacts, calendar, and notes. But Apple also gutted features like the alarm clock, which we've found handy on a few occasions. A countdown timer is included, which can be set to put the iPod to sleep or to sound an alarm through headphones or connected speakers. But with the previous model, you could set alarms at specific times, set them to repeat daily or weekly, associate the alarm to a playlist of music, and have any alarm or song play through the internal speaker. Support for games is also gone. Again, this isn't a huge deal for most users, but it was a fun, well-executed feature that Apple had polished over the years. It was also one more small way to keep kids entertained on a road trip.
But the most surprising omission from the sixth-generation iPod Nano is the lack of video playback or camcorder features. Video had been the focus and area of growth for the Nano for many years. The screen kept getting larger, movie rental capabilities came onboard, and the 2009 model was even graced with a useful little camcorder. All of those features have been tossed aside now. To be fair, watching video on a postage-stamp-size screen would be ridiculous. The larger question, though, is why Apple felt that going smaller with the design was a paramount concern over maintaining features it had taken years to develop.
Looking beyond our sentiment and confusion over the features that didn't make it into the new design, the Nano still has plenty to brag about. Thanks to some help from Apple's iTunes software, advanced playlist capabilities such as smart playlists, Genius playlists, and Genius Mixes take a lot of the legwork out of creating a great soundtrack for your morning jog. Compatibility with iTunes also brings along one of the best and most convenient ways to download and manage podcasts and audio books.
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 back up to your computer.
We also have to admit, for all our gripes with the touch-screen navigation, the new interface does allow you to better customize the layout of the main menu. Like 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 audio-book or podcast fanatic who couldn't care less about Genius Mixes, you can make those features the only two icons on your main menu screen, placing other features out of the way.
The square touch screen also allows you to reorient the menu in any direction, which can be helpful if you have the Nano clipped sideways on your shirt sleeve or upside down on a backpack strap. But again, the downside to such a flexible screen orientation is that it can be difficult to remember or predict how the controls are laid out without glancing directly at the screen. If you need to be able to pause or skip songs without taking your eyes of what you're doing, you can customize the behavior of the wake button, or better yet, invest in some type of headphone remote control (or a different device).
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 allows you to set a "daily step goal." When the pedometer is switched on, it does an accurate job recording how many steps you take throughout your day and saves your totals in a history view, which you can sync to a Nike+ online account by way of iTunes. It's a useful feature, and it's free.
For better or worse, the Nano now has fewer features for us to evaluate in terms of performance. As we mentioned earlier, the Nano's touch screen is technically dazzling in terms of its responsiveness and crisp resolution. Unfortunately, on a practical note, it performs no better than the click wheel when it comes to navigating through features or diving into your music library. Because the controls are dynamic and not fixed like the click wheel design, even the most basic operations, such as pausing or skipping music, require more attention than before.
Sonically, the Nano holds up to the higher standards we've heard from Apple in recent years. Provided you're quick to upgrade from the basic earbuds Apple bundles with the player, the fundamental sound quality of the Nano is hard to complain about. Background hiss introduced by the internal headphone amplifier is impossible to detect on modern digital recordings. Listening back on a pair of Klipsch Custom 2 earphones we were able to pick up everything from the nuance of a string pluck, to the saturated low-frequency boom of a Black Eyed Peas kick drum.
Apple rates the Nano's battery life at 24 hours of continuous audio playback. Our CNET Labs' testing achieved an average of 34 hours of audio playback from the Nano, blowing past Apple's estimates. Bear in mind, though, that our Labs test for continuous audio playback, with a minimum of interaction with the device's touch screen and no interference with the Nano's default screen backlight timeout. Like any touch-screen device, the more you fiddle with it, the faster you can expect the battery to drain.