Super First Look: Apple Computer iPod nano
What’s the best way to prepare for the holiday shopping season after designing the world’s most popular digital music player? Sony would lower the price and double its advertising. Apple Computer, of course, would discontinue it.
That’s just what Apple did with the iPod mini today, touting the product - for the first time on the day of its discontinuation - as the industry’s top-selling music device. Then, Apple CEO Steve Jobs explained, since everyone was trying to copy the iPod mini, the company replaced it. The result is the brand new iPod nano, available today in two colors and two capacities. White and black 2GB versions are available for a price of $199 each, while identically colored 4GB versions are available for $249.
Except in a few arguably irrelevant ways, the iPod nano is so beautifully executed that it cannot help but be a huge success for Apple. It is the thinnest iPod ever released, yet preserves virtually all of the features of a full-sized, color iPod save storage capacity. Similarly, it scales down the classic, iconic acrylic and chrome enclosure design we have loved since the first days of the iPod, rather than further shrinking the anodized aluminum body of the iPod mini. When you look at it, you see an iPod - not an iPod-minus, like the shuffle, or something different, like the iPod mini. It’s 100% cool, only tiny.
As we said in its review, we thought Griffin had just the right “smaller iPod” idea when it created its iFM accessory for the iPod: shrink the iPod mini into a baby version and call it the iPod micro. Or “nano,” a name first pioneered by an iLounge contest entrant last year. When word leaked out that Apple planned to use this name for its device, people reprinted the concept art with claims it would be the new iPod. Other than the name, they couldn’t have been more wrong. There was no anodized aluminum, new shape, or touch-screen controller.
The real iPod nano is a design hybrid of four different iPods. It has the front acrylic face and polished metal back of early (1G/2G) iPods, with thick clear plastic front edges rather than the softer curves pioneered in 3G iPods. It uses a Click Wheel and color screen like today’s color iPods, only with modifications to both to accommodate the nano’s size. Its second body color - black - comes from the U2 iPod, and looks even better thanks to a dark gray Click Wheel (instead of the U2 iPod’s red one). And because it mixes the guts of an iPod shuffle (tiny battery, memory chips) with color iPod-like processors, it’s tiny. Really tiny.
The pictures tell almost the entire story as to how small the iPod nano is by comparison with all earlier iPods. At .27” thick, it is even thinner than an iPod shuffle (.33”), and though its height and width footprints are a little larger (3.5” x 1.6” versus 3.3 x .98”), it’s still smaller than a business card, and there’s an incredible amount more inside.
How did Apple pull this miniaturization feat off? It dropped the hard drive, which is the most power-hungry and failure-prone component in any iPod. iPod nano now uses tiny, non-removable flash memory chips instead, and can also afford to use a smaller battery pack and enclosure as a consequence, while preserving the key face features (screen and Click Wheel) people love. The weight is now 1.5 ounces, a bit less than twice the iPod shuffle (.78 ounce), or around 1/4 the weight of a 20GB iPod (5.9 ounces). It’s under half the weight (3.6 ounces) of the iPod mini it replaces, and smaller in every other dimension.
Apple also pulled some interesting and unexpected tricks. Nano’s headphone port is now on its bottom alongside a standard Dock Connector port, while its top has only one feature - a tiny Hold switch. And the headphone port isn’t what you might expect - gone is the extended part with four metallic pins. That means iPod nano can’t work with iTrip, iTalk, or any of the other top-connecting accessories that draw power from the iPod. Intentionally or inadvertantly, Apple has segmented the iPod market into three categories: complete iPod accessory compatibility (iPod), half iPod accessory compatibility (iPod nano), and no iPod accessory compatibility (iPod shuffle).
What About the Screen?
Unlike the screen-less iPod shuffle, inside the nano’s chassis is a 1.5” color LCD display that mimics the one found in the full-sized iPod - .5” smaller, but still pretty impressive thanks to a 176x132 pixel display. At first glance, you’ll have every reason to believe it’s virtually identical - it displays six lines of large text plus the top menu bar, has full-color icons, and the same general Mac OS X Aqua-inspired interface.
But if you look carefully, you’ll see that the screen in the full-sized iPod is better. It has more pixels (220x176) and a pure white backlight, which give it a superior ability to clearly display both photographs and thumbnails. Nano’s backlight is described as “blue-white,” which is another way of saying “less expensive.” As with the transition from the 3G iPod’s pure white light to the purplish one on original 4G iPods, there’s a difference, but most people won’t mind. The only real consequences are in how much you can fit on screen, and even that’s not a big issue.
Instead of 25 thumbnails per page, you now get 12 that are easy to identify, even with the smaller screen. Landscape-orientation (wide) photos still display in full-screen mode, while portrait-orientation (tall) photos appear with significant black bars on their sides. The only semi-bummer is that iPod nano isn’t designed to display any of this on a television screen - there’s no TV Out feature.
Any Other Drawbacks?
iPod nano’s battery is rated for 14 hours, down from the iPod mini’s promised 18 (which delivered 26 in our testing). We’ll let you know the results of our own battery tests when they’re done, but the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg has reported that nano delivers only a hint over 14 hours of continuous play time. It’s unclear whether Apple is becoming less conservative with its estimates, or whether successive tests will yield different results, but it’s clear that iPod nano is not the better-than-color iPod music performer that its predecessor was.
In our initial and admittedly limited testing of the iPod nano using high-end Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pro earphones, it did not appear that Apple had made significant improvements to the bass response of the new iPod over that of the color-screened iPod. Stated differently, this iPod is not likely to represent an improvement over its predecessors from an audio standpoint. However, we’re going to want to spend more time testing before we render any final opinions on this issue.
What’s in the Box?
There’s only one big surprise in the box. As with iPod minis, the iPod nano includes a standard set of white earbuds, a USB-to-iPod cable, an iPod, an iTunes (PC/Mac) software disc, and the manuals you’d expect. But Apple’s also included a new addition: the Universal Dock Adapter (UDA), a plastic plate that fits the iPod nano and has no utility directly out of the box.
UDA is a gift to both iPod accessory manufacturers and consumers - a deliberate attempt to guarantee iPod nano docking compatibility with any future dockable iPod accessory, without forcing you (or companies) to wait for a new iPod plastic adapter to be manufactured and available. Nearly 20 companies are already planning products around the UDA design, which is similar to any one of the plastic plates included with speaker accessories from Altec Lansing, Bose, iHome and JBL.
Any New Features?
iPod nano’s new features are all nice, but none is earthshattering. First up is the new and improved Clock, which has “world clock” functionality and an analog display capability.
The first thing you’ll notice is a clock pre-set to Cupertino, California time. You can bring up a menu by clicking on it that lets you choose an alarm clock, your preferred city, whether daylight saving time is on or off, and whether you’d like a sleep timer. You can also add more than one clock to the display by choosing “New Clock” from the main Clock screen, then selecting a city from many around the world.
Once that’s done, you’ll have two (or more) clocks at once running on the iPod, and can scroll through them with ease. Note also that the Pause icon in the upper left of the screen has been updated with a slightly flashier, non-black graphic.
Then there’s Stopwatch. With a iTunes brushed metal-inspired interface, Stopwatch gives you the ability to keep time for your runs, and easily access a lap timer as well.
Also built around a metallic interface, Screen Lock lets you prevent your iPod’s contents from being accessed by anyone but you - or the person who guesses the 4-digit code. You use the Click Wheel to enter the code, make sure you haven’t forgotten it, and then lock your iPod. But let’s say you do forget it - what then? Just dock the nano with your computer, and it’s unlocked. Smart thought. All iPods need Screen Lock. Except the shuffle.
Familiar Old Friends?
Amazingly, virtually all of the full-sized iPod’s applications have made their way onto the iPod nano’s smaller screen. Calendar, Contacts, and Notes are all represented - viewable, with a little less free space on each screen, of course. Apple has finally added instant iTunes synchronization for PC users of Calendar and Contacts into version 5.0 of the software, so Microsoft Outlook users no longer need to use other software (or manually sync) for these iPod features.
And, of course, the iPod nano has color versions of the (ahem, increasingly boring) four games found on all of the recent full-sized iPods, namely Solitaire, Music Quiz, Brick and Parachute. They look essentially just like their full-sized iPod versions.
Which applications are missing? Voice Memos/Record is now gone. Apple says that iPod nano will not support microphone attachments, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that none of the ones previously designed are even physically capable of connecting to the nano because of its different headphone port. You also cannot use Photo Import on nano: the iPod Camera Connector won’t work, a deliberate limitation on Apple’s part given the nano’s smaller storage capacity.
It wouldn’t be a new iPod without all-new accessories, and Apple has continued its recent trend of attempting to pre-empt a few categories with pre-designed accessories. Here are all of the new ones.
nano Tubes are five-packs of silicone rubber cases, available in clear, blue, purple, green, and pink for $29. They protect the nano’s entire body save its screen and bottom ports, even covering the Click Wheel and Hold switch with thin, easy to use rubber. They’re not flashy, but for the price, they’ll work. And they’re a hell of a lot better than Socks.
nano Dock is a $29 official Apple Dock that’s smaller than the one for the iPod mini or full-sized iPod. You can charge with FireWire or USB 2.0, but only sync with USB 2.0. Quite a change from older iPods (except, of course, the iPod shuffle). So’s the “variable line-out” on the Dock, which for the first time on an Apple product uses line attenuation to let you dampen the iPod’s natural line-out volume level when you’re using the iPod’s volume control. This feature appeared, with success, in Kensington’s Stereo Dock for full-sized iPods.
nano Armband is a $29 perforated neoprene nano holster that can be strapped on your arm. Five colors (pink, green, red, blue and gray) are available, and as with earlier Apple armbands, we were not totally blown away by the design - this time, for different reasons. As before, they protect too little of the iPod, but now, they look like big bandaids. Every time Apple releases one of these, it’s the Speck full employment act all over again.
nano Lanyard Headphones is a $39 combination necklace and lanyard. We never, ever thought we’d see Apple create one of these accessories, and we never, ever thought we’d want to actually wear one in public. We’ll have to play with them more once they’ve been released, but other than the classy mirrored nano-attachment base, which features a Dock Connector-grabber and a headphone port blug, our initial reactions were not too positive. The $39 price point isn’t too much to our liking either.
Compatible and Incompatible Accessories
If you’re in a rush to accessorize, we’d caution you to wait - iPod nano-specific accessories are not yet available, and won’t be for some time. But here are some of the ones you can use while you’re awaiting new designs.
All headphones we’ve reviewed except for Headbanger Audio’s iPod-specific Earsubs and Mophies iPod shuffle Song Sling, any speaker system with an aux/audio-in port or a male headphone plug, Belkin TuneCast II FM Transmitter, BlueTake i-Phono BT420EX Bluetooth Wireless Headphones, Logitech Wireless Headphones, C. Crane FM Transmitter, Macally BlueWave Bluetooth Stereo and Streaming Headset (with physical modification), Macally PodDuo, Macally PodWave, Monster iCarPlay Cassette Adapter, Monster iSplitter, Mythix iChant, Newer Technology RoadTrip! 87.9FM, Upbeat Audio Boosteroo Revolution, and XtremeMac iPod Headphone Splitter (if physically modified).
More than a handful of older iPod and iPod mini accessories are incompatible with the iPod nano. Here’s a partial list.
ABT iJet, Apple iPod Camera Connector, Belkin Digital Camera Link, Belkin Media Reader, Belkin TuneTalk, Belkin Universal Microphone Adapter, Belkin Voice Recorder, BTI The iPod TuneStir, dvForge JamPod, DLO iDirect, DLO VoiceNote, Engineered Audio RemoteRemote 2, Griffin AirClick/AirClick mini, Griffin iBeam, Griffin iFM, Griffin iTalk, Griffin iTrip (all versions), Macally BlueWave (unless modified), Nyko iTop Button Relocator, PodGear PocketParty (unless physically modified), Targus RemoteTunes, TEN Technology naviPod/naviPro EX, XtremeMac AirPlay, and XtremeMac iPod Headphone Splitter (unless physically modified).
More to Come
Other than the shock of its beautiful design, the iPod nano isn’t too different from what you’d expect: it’s just another color iPod, only smaller, lighter, and lower in both price and capacity. We’ll have more to say in our full review, coming soon.
Links to More iLounge Information on iPod nano, iTunes 5.0, and Related Stories
iLounge’s San Francisco Apple Event Photo Gallery has over 300 photographs from today’s Special Event, including a live performance by Kanye West, pictures from Apple’s new iPod nano commercial, and the Motorola ROKR phone.
The Complete Guide to iTunes 5.0’s New Features shows you all of the big new features found in the latest version of Apple’s free, excellent iTunes Jukebox software.
Backstage at iLounge: What worked, and didn’t, at the Apple event provides an insider’s look at the goings-on at the Apple Special Event where iPod nano was released.
Our Original News Story provides initial details on the iPod nano, and an extensive comments thread.
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