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One Week With the Svelte New iPod Nano

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Sep 23, 2008 4:00 AM PT

I've been using Apple products for years, so I'm not surprised by cool industrial design, "nanochromatic" colors, or connectivity that just works with other Apple ecosystem products. In fact, I expect all Apple products to look and feel better than most any other electronic device out there, yet when I first held the new fourth-generation iPod nano in my hand I was pleasantly surprised.

One Week With the Svelte New iPod Nano

It's thin, feels even thinner, and yet somehow it manages to feel solid at the same time.

As the thinnest iPod yet, its sturdy oval and rectangular aluminum shell helps give it enough heft to enjoy using. Apple ditched the previous generation's square shape but kept the screen size the same. The overall dimensions are 3.6 inches tall by 1.5 inches wide and 0.24 inches thick. The new nano is reminiscent of the first iPod nano, but the screen is taller -- or longer, depending on how you orient the device, which also happens to have an accelerometer that knows when you move it around.

Orient the nano upright, and the screen length is much improved for scrolling through playlists and menu items. Turn it sideways, and the wider screen is great for watching videos.

Small Screen Big on Detail

The nano screen packs 320 by 240 pixels into a 2-inch liquid crystal display with a blue-white LED backlight, and wow, is it sharp. Apple's Cover Flow navigation feature, which lets you browse albums by their cover art, looks mesmerizingly smooth as you flip between albums. Better yet, TV shows and movies are astoundingly watchable. For a fleeting moment, an episode of "CSI" gave me the impression I was watching something in high-definition before my brain kicked in. But seriously, the screen is surprisingly easy on the eyes.

In addition to videos, the nano also is handy for showing off photos. The built-in photo album lets you sync your photos via iTunes, and viewing them is easy -- one at a time or slideshow mode. Either way, turn the nano 90 degrees and the little thing is smart enough to reorient the photo or slideshow. This is not a surprising feature in the bigger iPhone or iPod touch, but this functionality is now packed into a device that weighs only 1.3 ounces.

Lots of Colors and More Bang for Buck

The new nano comes in nine different colors -- more than ever before -- and you get twice the storage for the same price. An 8 GB model capable of holding about 2,000 songs in Apple's 128-Kbps AAC format sells for US$149, while the 16 GB model goes for $199. The models will store up to 8 or 16 hours of video or up to 7,000 or 14,000 iPod-viewable photos. Of course, most users will mix and match the media -- some songs, some video, some photos -- and the iPod nano will show you how much of each file type you're storing. Playback time is the same as the previous third-generation iPod nano at 24 hours, but video playback inexplicably dropped from 5 hours to 4 hours.

Aside from the new form factor, colors and pricing, the bulk of the nano remains the same -- with a handful of minor changes.

Remember the accelerometer? Well, if you give the nano a little shake, it'll change the song you're listening to and enter shuffle mode. It's almost a gimmick, but still, it's kind of handy when an irritating song shows up in your headphones. You can turn it off if you're a particularly wild exerciser prone to freakishly quick starts and stops.

Because of the new orientation of the screen, Apple has made some tweaks to menu items and navigation -- and navigation, by the way, is based on Apple's touch-sensitive click wheel, which has pretty much been shoved out of the spotlight after a year or so of iPhone touchscreen hoopla. In any event, the wheel lets you scroll up and down lists by moving your thumb or a finger around the diameter of the circle, which has four positions that provide a click-button response for things like menu items, skipping forward or backward through songs, or playing/pausing content. A center button is the catch-all selection button.

The touch-sensitive click wheel is surprisingly intuitive, but I've got to admit, I've been using my iPhone for well over a year for most all of my music listening activity, and I found myself touching and swiping at the nano's little screen as if it were an iPod touch or iPhone -- to no effect whatsoever. I just smudged up the screen with fingerprints. You can chalk it up to similar interfaces and graphics ... or just the overall effectiveness of the iPhone touchscreen itself. Still, my brain rewired itself quickly enough; now the wheel is second nature.

Apple also changed the nano's audio recording setup. The nano lets you record voice memos, but you'll need a microphone add-on. The built-in mic in the iPhone's headphones work for mono recording -- though with a stereo mic, you can record stereo notes. Apple says it will ship two new sets of headphones with mic recording capability and built-in listening controls in October. The recording format also changed from WAV to Apple Lossless format, which means the recordings will take up less space but might need to be converted for portability to other devices or sharing with friends.

For those who may be visually impaired, Apple lets you increase the font size for menus, and even better yet, offers an iTunes downloadable "spoken menus" feature that speaks the names of menus, song titles, and artists without needing to view the screen. Most people won't ever bother to install it, which is possibly Apple's rationale for leaving it off the base configuration, but for drivers who insist on changing songs while driving, it might be worth a go.

Apple also introduced a new crossfade feature that fades the end of one song into the beginning of another -- nice. It's one of those tiny minor features that you don't realize you really enjoy until it shows up one day. Users will have to turn it on, however -- it's off by default.

While not on par with the iPod touch or iPhone for games, the iPod nano comes with three games installed and a handful of games available in the iTunes store. A new "Maze" game, controlled by tipping the nano to guide a virtual marble through a maze, puts the accelerometer to good use. The nano also includes "Klondike" and "Vortex."

The Big Genius in the Little Nano

It's nearly impossible to review the device and not the software that goes along with it -- namely, iTunes. Along with the new nano, Apple also introduced iTunes 8, which has a handy feature called "Genius" that generates playlists of songs that go well with other songs. How does it work? Select a song, select Genius, and boom, you've got a 25-song playlist. For those of us who are too busy to create new playlists or are otherwise playlist impaired, this is a game-changing feature. I was on a road trip the other day and had been listening to rock ... and hit a couple of annoying songs in a row. As music lovers know, a great song one day can make your blood boil the next -- or is this just me? In any event, I quickly found a country song and had Genius build a playlist for me. The sun was shining, the sky was deep blue, and damn, the music fit the moment. Such is the power of Apple's Genius.

There's more to Genius in iTunes 8. If you want to use the feature, you have to opt into because it sends data about your iTunes playlist to Apple so the company can throw it against its smart algorithms to figure out what songs complement one another. Apple says the data is anonymously stored and is aimed at making Genius smarter.

What's Missing?

The iPod nano doesn't have a touchscreen, though I wouldn't be surprised to one day see a touchscreen taking up an entire side of the device. For now, though, the click wheel is functional enough. The real challenge for such a device is creating a touchscreen that would be usable with one hand, and for now, the nano's touch sensitive wheel works well.

What about WiFi? If it were even possible to build WiFi into such a small device, the sturdy aluminum casing that makes the nano durable would likely inhibit wireless communication anyway. And would you really need it? Watching video on the nano's small screen works surprisingly well, but e-mail? Web browsing? Nah. The nano is a special-purpose device designed for music first ... and the rest is just cool frosting.

Overall, it's hard to go wrong with the new iPod nano. Someday the world might see an MP3 player as thin as a business card, but I'm not sure I'd enjoy holding it. The nano is small enough to work out with yet big enough to use in the car or attached to an external speaker system. Unlike the tinier iPod shuffle, the screen and menu system let you create playlists on the fly, and when you're stuck in line or in a waiting room, you can play games or watch a video. The only reason not to buy the new iPod nano is if you must have a bigger screen (check out the iPod touch) or if you want to store 30,000 songs (look into the iPod classic). For the music-loving masses, however, the iPod nano is clearly the world's most compelling device yet.


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