Now in its third generation, Apple's iPod Nano gets a substantial redesign to accommodate games and video playback. Despite its changes--and Apple made many--the iPod Nano is still one of the smallest, thinnest, and most exquisitely designed MP3 players on the market. It's also one of the most affordable, with a 4GB (silver) model offered for $149, and an 8GB (silver, black, red, green, or blue) model for $199. While the updated iPod Classic and the new iPod Touch are equally intriguing, the revamped Nano delivers the most bang for the buck.
The redesign of the iPod Nano has drawn plenty of criticism. Its detractors call it chubby, squat, and awkward looking. We certainly had our reservations, but in the hand, the latest Nano makes the second-generation Nano look like a skyscraper.
The Nano measures a petite 2.75 inches long, 2 inches wide, and 0.25 inch thick--a significant shift from its once long and skinny shape, though it is essentially the same thickness. Matte, anodized aluminum graces the faceplate, as with the previous generation of Nanos and now the iPod Classic as well. The back and sides of the Nano, however, mimic the Video iPod's rounded, glossy, smudge-prone chrome enclosure. On the bottom edge of the Nano, you'll find the iPod's proprietary USB port, along with the headphone jack and the hold switch, which prevents you from accidentally triggering the player's buttons. Nano keeps Apple's ubiquitous Click Wheel design, although the Nano's new Click Wheel is smaller in diameter--it's only 1 inch--than the previous Nano's 1.25 inches. The much skinnier touch strip may frustrate users accustomed to the 1.5-inch wheel of the Video iPod and the iPod Classic.
The Nano's most dramatic design change is, of course, its larger, brighter screen. The 2-inch color screen packs a dense, crisp 320x240 video resolution that looks richer and brighter than that of any iPod to date. It's not often that we deem a screen smaller than 2.5 inches worthy of video playback, but with a tightly packed 204 pixels per inch, the Nano looks incredibly sharp. Unlike the Apple iPhone or the iPod Touch, however, the Nano's screen is covered with a scratch-prone plastic that will quickly show wear.
The Nano's second-most impressive design improvement is its dramatically overhauled menu system. One of the most striking changes is a split-screen main menu that displays the menu on the right half of the screen and a picture related to the selection on the left. For example, highlight the Music selection on the main menu, and the right half of the screen displays a random, drifting closeup of cover artwork from your music library. This same effect accompanies menu items such as movies, podcasts, and photos. Some might write this split-screen effect off as pure novelty, but the end result is quite beautiful. The Cover Flow system, for browsing your music collection with an emphasis on album artwork, finally makes its Nano debut, although Cover Flow does lose some appeal when not on a touch screen device such as the iPhone. We also found a noticeable amount of lag when using Cover Flow. Users with large music collections to sort through will prefer browsing with the list mode or the search function. That said, Cover Flow makes for a scenic and engaging, if slow, way to browse your music.
The third-generation Nano's piece de resistance is its support for video playback. Like the Video iPod (now iPod Classic), the iPod Nano supports H.264 or MPEG4 video in either MOV, MP4, or M4V file formats, with a maximum resolution of 640x480 at as much as 30 frames per second. You can buy videos through the iTunes online store or import them into iTunes and convert them for playback. (Many third-party software video converters also do a great job converting videos for the iPod.) Despite its size, the Nano supports video features we seldom find on portable video players twice its size. For instance, the Nano can recognize and skip between the DVD-like chapter markers embedded in QuickTime movie files. It also does a dependable job automatically resuming video playback at the point that you last left off. As a bonus, the new iPod Nano and iPod Classic now properly launch video podcasts ("vodcasts") as videos, instead of mistaking them for audio podcasts when launched from within the Music menu.
The iPod Nano's second major new feature is support for iTunes video games. While the selection of iPod video games has grown slowly, three tried-and-true standards come bundled with the Nano right out of the box: a congenial game of Solitaire, a trivia game called iQuiz, and the brick-pummeling Vortex (think Breakout on steroids). While the games are a handy way to pass some time, don't expect the Nano to compete with the Sony PSP anytime soon.
Looking past the obvious big-ticket improvements, the new Nano includes some small touches that are easy to miss. Apple's music shuffle function, for instance, has made a subtle evolution, now letting you easily engage and disengage the shuffle function on the fly with just a few presses on the Click Wheel's center button. By placing the shuffle setting options (Shuffle Song, Shuffle Album, or Shuffle Off) in a song's Now Playing window, Apple is effectively giving you the ability to randomize songs until you find an artist you like--a lazy listener's dream come true.
Apple hasn't changed its audio file format support. Copy-protected AAC files purchased through iTunes are supported, of course, as well as MP3, Apple lossless, AIFF, WAV, and Audible files. We're happy to see that, despite the iPhone's unique file-management requirements, the iPod Nano allows for the manual addition and deletion of music and video files without the hassles of playlist syncing. The Nano can also double as a USB flash drive in a pinch.
While the iPod Nano is a top-tier product, we long for some additional features, including the ability to use the headphone jack as a composite-video output, allowing photos and videos to be played to your television set without a third-party interface. While we can understand removing the little-used AV output feature to save on construction costs, we're even more surprised that Apple has rendered all current iPods incompatible with a number of third-party fifth-generation video accessories as well. If you're hoping to use a new Nano or Classic with an existing video dock, be sure to check that the product explicitly states it is compatible with third-generation iPod Nanos. Apple's own Universal iPod Dock ($50) and Component AV Cable ($50) are guaranteed to work, of course.
Plus, there's our standard list of long-neglected iPod features: FM radio; line-input recording; SD memory expansion; custom equalizer; and native support for WMA and subscription music services. We're not holding our breath.
Despite the major interface overhaul, the iPod Nano's sound quality still sounds just middle-of-the-road. Although middling sound quality doesn't seem to affect iPod sales, you'd think Apple would eventually address this chink in the iPod's armor, if only out of pride. Users do get more than 20 equalization presets to choose from, ranging from subtle enhancement to dramatic bass boosting. Compared to products such as the Creative Zen V Plus, the Cowon iAudio 7, or the Toshiba Gigabeat U, however, the iPod's sound quality still leaves room for improvement. That said, after listening with our Ultrasone HFI-700 headphones as well as a set of Shure SE310 earphones, we can say with confidence that the Nano's fidelity will certainly satisfy most users.
Much to our surprise, the Nano's video performance stole the show. We were highly skeptical that we'd enjoy watching video on a 2-inch screen, yet the Nano's superfine 204ppi screen looked refreshingly sharp and bright. We still prefer the video experience of a larger player such as the affordable Archos 405, but it's not far-fetched to imagine watching a full-length movie on the Nano.
Battery life was a big bragging right for the second-generation Nano, and the third-generation carries on this tradition. Apple rated the battery life for their third-generation Nano at 24 hours for audio playback and 5 hours for video. Our official CNET labs testing squeezed out an impressive 29 hours of audio playback and 6.7 hours of video.
Is it worth upgrading?
Considering that the iPod Classic and the iPod Nano are now nearly identical aside from storage capacity and screen size, the Nano is less a product unto itself and much more like a "light" version of the iPod Classic.
Existing Nano owners drawn to the previous Nano's less-is-more appeal enjoyed not worrying about the tiny screen getting scratched if it took a tumble onto the floor and may be turned off by the need treat the device more carefully. We also found that the new Nano's wider form is less comfortable in the fist than the previous generation, making it awkward for jogging without an armband or a pocket.
We expect that this Nano will appeal more to existing iPod users looking to replace their decaying third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation hard-drive iPods with something smaller, cheaper, and leaner. Of course, the Nano would be more appealing all the way around if Apple would just make a 16GB version.
The iTunes factor
No iPod review would be complete without mentioning Apple's iTunes music software. For better or worse, the integration between an iPod and Apple's iTunes music software is nearly airtight. If this is going to be your first iPod, it's worthwhile to download iTunes ahead of time to see if it works well on your computer and is intuitive for you to use. You should also be aware that most of the music and movies available for purchase on the iTunes online store will play only in iTunes or on an authorized iPod and cannot be transferred to a non-Apple MP3 player.
Apple's new iPod Nano seems to be drawing equal amounts of ire and admiration. Although we miss the slender form of the second-generation Nano, we feel the latest edition has more going for it than against it. At less than $200, the Nano offers one of the richest user experiences we've seen on an MP3 player.