Apple iPod Nano fourth generation review: Apple iPod Nano fourth generation

Apple makes it easier to make voice recordings on the fourth-generation iPod Nano by allowing microphone input through its headphone jack. You'll have to shell out for an Apple-approved headset, however, because not all headsets are compatible with the feature and the earbuds included with the Nano do not include a microphone. In theory, most iPhone-compatible microphone headsets should also work with the Nano's voice memo function, but it's worth confirming compatibility with the manufacturer.

The earbuds bundled with the fourth-generation iPod Nano are unchanged from previous models and do not include an inline microphone, either. Apple plans to begin sell compatible $29 and $79 headphones with in-line controls and voice recording microphones in October of this year.

An unprecedented feature found only on the fourth-generation Nano is the capability for vision-impaired users to hear menu, selection, and playback information read to them in a synthesized voice. You can enable this feature through iTunes, which generates the synthesized voice information and transfers it to your iPod Nano.

The fourth-generation iPod Nano's speed and usability is better than ever, but its sound quality and rated battery life haven't budged. Apple rates the battery of the fourth-generation iPod Nano at 24 hours of audio playback and 4 hours of video. Our CNET Labs team achieved an average of 23 hours of audio playback and 5.7 hours of video from the fourth-generation iPod Nano. The test results aren't bad, but the numbers are down slightly from the 29 hours of audio and 6.7 hours of video our same tests pulled from the third-generation iPod Nano.

Apple doesn't seem motivated to meddle with the sound quality of the iPod or introduce any new sound-enhancement settings beyond its traditional slew of EQ presets. While the iPod Nano doesn't offer the sonic richness and advanced EQ settings of a Sony or Cowon MP3 player, it does sound balanced and should please most listeners. Like all iPods, the fourth-generation Nano supports playback for MP3, AAC (including protected files), Audible, WAV, AIFF, and Apple Lossless. The Nano still doesn't support WMA music files, but you can always convert your WMA tracks to MP3 within Apple's iTunes software.

Video playback on the fourth-generation iPod Nano looks about as good as it gets on a relatively small 2-inch screen, although holding your iPod sideways takes some mental adjustment. A maximum resolution of 320x240 packed into a crisp 204ppi display makes taking in a full-length movie on your iPod Nano a legitimate (but silly) possibility. Compared with the flat screen of the third-generation iPod Nano, the fourth-generation's rounded glass screen makes it difficult to eliminate glare, but images still look remarkably bright and clear.

Like most portable video players, the iPod has specific file requirements for video playback, so you may have to spend some time converting video on your computer before transferring it. Fortunately, the iPod Nano's video formats are widely known by purveyors of Internet video, which often arrives preformatted for the iPod. Movies, TV shows, and video podcasts downloaded directly from Apple's iTunes store will always cooperate with your fourth-generation iPod Nano as well as videos formatted as H.264 or MPEG4 video in either MOV, MP4, or M4V file formats with a maximum resolution of 640x480.

The Nano's scroll wheel is snappy and responsive, however, the controls become a little confusing after turning the iPod sideways to watch video.

The iTunes factor
Before you run off to buy a Nano for everyone on your holiday wish list, consider this caveat: whoever uses the Nano (or any iPod) will be required to install and use iTunes. No other piece of software has equaled iTunes in both praise and scorn from CNET's users. Some argue that iTunes is a top-notch media library tool and online music store, while others become infuriated by the software's insatiable demand for system resources and frequent updates.

Whatever side of the iTunes debate you take, know that iTunes 8 is a mandatory install for the fourth-generation iPod Nano. If you haven't used iTunes before or haven't upgraded the software in a while, we strongly recommend giving the new software a spin before committing to a new iPod.

Is it worth upgrading?
If you passed on last year's iPod Nano and are still holding on to a first- or second-generation Nano (or possibly an iPod Mini), there's no better time to bite the bullet and get an upgrade. Given its competitive price, attractive range of colors, and improved user interface, Apple's fourth-generation of the iPod Nano is its best yet.

If you own one of last year's iPod Nanos, however, there's little reason to make the jump to the fourth generation. The iPod Nano 4G's Genius playlists, shake-to-shuffle, and improved voice recording compatibility are fun features to have, but they're not worth $150-$200. That said, if you've filled up your 4GB third-generation Nano and want some extra room or if you need the additional accessibility features such as enlarged screen font and text-to-speech, the fourth-generation iPod Nano is an ideal choice.

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