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iPod Nano review: Being small isn't enough

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The seventh-generation Apple iPod Nano is a fun, cute, capable MP3 player. With it, you can take virtually all of your iTunes media on the go -- your music, videos, audiobooks, podcasts, and even photos.

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iPod Nano

The Good

The <b>iPod Nano's</b> new home button and longer screen offer a familiar smartphone-style interface, and the added Bluetooth compatibility opens the device up to a number of wireless audio accessories.

The Bad

The screen resolution is mediocre, there's no integrated headphone remote, and it still lacks the camcorder, microphone, speaker, games, calendar, contacts, notes, and alarm clock that Apple cut from the Nano last year. And let's not forget that Lightning port, which breaks compatibility with your existing iPod speakers and accessories.

The Bottom Line

The seventh-generation iPod Nano is an incredibly compact portable media player with gym-friendly features, but it's overshadowed by the superior value of Apple's iPod Shuffle and fourth-generation iPod Touch.

Priced at $149 and outfitted with 16GB of storage, the iPod Nano offers most of the amenities we've come to expect from an iPod, and strikes an interesting balance between the simplicity of the iPod Shuffle and the smartphonelike operation of the iPod Touch. Unfortunately, there's nothing balanced about the iPod Nano's price. With the 16GB iPod Touch out there for $199, and the iPod Shuffle available for just $49, the Nano's compromise between the two isn't very compelling.

A closer look at Apple's new iPod Nano (pictures)

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Design
The Nano has seen some radical design changes over the years. This time around, Apple has fashioned it to look and behave like a tiny iPod Touch. It has a 2.5-inch touch screen, complete with a small home button beneath it and a volume rocker switch on the left edge. A sleep/wake button is located on the top edge, while a headphone jack and Lightning port are found on the bottom edge. The back of the Nano is a single piece of colored aluminum (eight colors are available) that gives way to a glass panel on the front.

The whole thing measures 3 inches tall, 1.5 inches wide, and an impossibly skinny 0.21 inch thick. It looks comically small in an adult hand -- like an iPhone made for a teddy bear. But to my surprise, the touch-screen controls are just large enough to work well with full-size fingers. Apple was smart enough not to squeeze in any features that would require an onscreen keyboard or small buttons or menus.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The most significant success in the Nano's design is a unique volume rocker design on the side that includes a center button that works as a Play/Pause and also functions for VoiceOver navigation, similar to the iPod Shuffle. With some practice, you can use this button to browse your music collection without even setting eyes on the screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

That said, one of the frustrating missed opportunities with the iPod Nano is that Apple neglected to bundle headphones with an integrated remote, which would have made it possible to quickly play, pause, and browse music right from the headphone cable. It's one of those extras Apple tosses in with the iPhone, but omits with iPods even though they are all compatible with headphone remotes. It's a disappointing omission, but I guess it saves Apple a few nickels.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The included headphones are Apple's latest EarPod design, which I personally prefer to the older earbud-style headphones, though not by much. The all-plastic design of the EarPods hurts my ears during extended listening and the sound quality is still humble, though improved.

Features
The iPod Nano retains all of the software capabilities of last year's clip-on model, including dedicated menus for music, Podcasts, Clock, Radio, Audiobooks, iTunes U, Photos, Fitness, and Settings. The big new features of the seventh-generation Nano are the reintroduction of video playback, and the addition of wireless Bluetooth audio.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Pairing the iPod Nano with a Bluetooth speaker or headset couldn't be much easier. After tapping on the Settings icon, you'll see an option for Bluetooth prominently shown at the top of the list. After I switched it on and chose a Bluetooth speaker from the listing of nearby devices, the Nano simply connected within seconds.

As with any of Apple's iPods, you'll need to load your media using Apple's iTunes software on your PC or Mac. Fortunately, iTunes is widely regarded as the best program around for organizing and syncing your media. It's the powerhouse behind the iPhone, the iPad, and every iPod ever sold. For the uninitiated, iTunes can be a beast of a program to navigate, but once you learn your way around, routinely syncing your iPod Nano is a mostly automatic process. Compatibility with iTunes also brings along one of the best and most convenient ways to download and manage podcasts and audiobooks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Once you've loaded up some media on the iPod Nano, poking through the touch-screen interface is pretty straightforward. The whole thing is like a lobotomized version of iOS. You get big icons for all features, which you can tap and hold to rearrange to your liking. If you ever find yourself deep in a menu, you can always return to the home screen with a press of the home button, or drill back through menus with a swipe to the right (like paging backward through a book).

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 the Nano back up with your computer.

Another feature of the Nano worth pointing out is the amount of menu customization it affords you. As on 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 audiobook and podcast fanatic who couldn't care less about Genius Mixes, for example, you can make those features the only two icons on your main menu screen, placing other features out of the way.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 lets you set a "daily step goal." When the pedometer is switched on, it does an accurate job of recording how many steps you take throughout your day and saves your totals in a history view, which you can sync with a Nike+ online account by way of iTunes. It's a useful feature, and it's free.

But for all of the Nano's wonderful assortment of features, let's not forget that for an extra $50 you could buy a fourth-generation iPod Touch with infinitely more capabilities. The iPod Touch is a full-fledged iOS device with games, AirPlay, Wi-Fi, e-mail, cameras, maps, YouTube, and thousands upon thousands of apps. If you're looking for a workout companion, the Touch can do much more than just count your steps -- it will find the gym, count the calories in your lunch, and take a photo of your buff new body to post on Facebook. I know times are tough, but an upgrade to the iPod Touch is $50 well spent.

Performance
For a device that's hardly larger than a credit card, the iPod Nano is a marvel of engineering that can play video, track your fitness, and play hours of music. Apple promises 30 hours of audio-only playback and up to 3.5 hours of video playback, which is a near-miracle given how small this product is. We'll update this review with battery results from CNET Labs once testing is complete.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But if there's one disappointment to brace yourself for, it's the screen quality. After dazzling us with a Retina Display on the iPhone and then a larger Retina Display for the third-generation iPad, Apple has raised our expectations when it comes to screen quality. The Nano's screen packs a decent 240x432-pixel resolution, but the viewing angles aren't great and it's pretty easy to pick out the grid of pixels if you're looking for it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Audio performance is a thumbs-up, overall. Assuming most users are just going to listen to the iPod using the headphones that come in the box, the slight sound quality improvement offered by Apple's EarPod design is something you'll notice. If you plan on using the iPod Nano with a pair of Bluetooth headphones or a wireless speaker, you'll be getting the same level of Bluetooth 4.0 audio quality you'd receive from an iPhone.

Now with all that said, I found that the iPod Nano's audio quality was just slightly less dazzling than the fourth-generation iPod Touch's when put under a microscope. In this particular case, the microscope was a pair of Shure SE425 in-ear headphones. I don't imagine that many of you will be using $300 headphones with a $150 MP3 player, but if you do you may notice that the Nano doesn't offer quite as much volume or stereo definition as the iPod Touch. It's a close call, though, and ultimately it's just my subjective opinion. As I said above, I expect most people are just going to be happy with the improved headphones that come in the box.


Final thoughts

The seventh-generation iPod Nano is a fine product, but I'm not entirely sure who it's for. It comes across like a breeding experiment between an iPod Shuffle and iPod Touch. The kid is cute, but I think most people will be better served by its parents.

For fitness types, the physical controls, simplicity, and clip-on design, and $49 price of the iPod Shuffle make it seem like the better deal.

And for those enticed by the Nano's wireless Bluetooth audio, video playback, and integrated fitness tracking, the 16GB base model of the iPod Touch is out there for $199, just $50 more than the iPod Nano. The Nano is smaller, and far more adorable, but the Touch is in another league when it comes to features.

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iPod Nano

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7