Review: Apple iPod nano (Seventh-Generation)
Company: Apple Computer
Price: $149 (16GB)
Pros: A return to the tall and thin form factor that was most popular in past iPod nanos, including eight different color options, the first 2.5” screen on an iPod nano, and a touchscreen interface. The first nano to include Bluetooth, with excellent wireless range, audio and limited non-audio accessory compatibility, and support for new Bluetooth 4 devices. Once again capable of playing videos and usefully rendering photos on its display, with small audio and radio improvements, plus newly packed-in EarPod earphones. Includes Nike+ Sensor support without the need for a dongle. Improved audio playback time versus predecessor.
Cons: Despite small resolution improvements, screen quality is mediocre by comparison with other screened iPods and iPhones, and multi-touch functionality is extremely limited. Apart from Bluetooth support, most features were executed just as well if not better in 2009 fifth-generation model; battery life for video playback is now markedly lower. Loses prior watch-ready size and shape that were popular with some users, as well as many clock faces, while omitting a number of features found on the fifth-generation nano, apparently including TV-out functionality. Use of Lightning connector breaks compatibility with some past accessories, and nano sits unusually on Apple’s Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter, which isn’t included.
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The prior collection of apps represented the seventh-generation iPod nano’s core features, but there are a handful of other capabilities, all carried over from the sixth-generation model. Most are similar if not better, but some have seen old features removed or reduced, as well.
Photos: The sixth-generation iPod nano’s Photos mode was nearly a joke, thanks to the tiny square screen and truly horrible quality TV output of the images. Apple has fixed these issues in two ways: by returning the screen to a more natural shape, and by removing the nano’s ability to output photos to a television. Photographs more naturally fit the new screen, automatically rotate based on the device’s orientation, and can be pinch- or tap-zoomed at least a little. They look reasonable given the small screen, but not great, and nowhere near as impressive as on any iPod touch.
It’s worth noting that iTunes has to process photos before they reach the nano, which radically reduces their file sizes while preserving enough fidelity to make the images viewable without complaints on the smaller screen. Lists leading to 3x5 grids of images let you choose from whatever you’ve synchronized, preserving the event or folder organization from your favorite image library program. Currently available iTunes 10.7 becomes extremely sluggish when processing photos for the nano, dragging out simple synchronizations even when no new images are being added to the device; hopefully Apple will improve the speed in a forthcoming iTunes update.
As with prior iPod nanos, there’s a very limited slideshow mode to automatically display pictures in sequence on the screen. Apple now provides zero control over transitions—images just fade in, overlapping whatever was last on the screen; you can only change the duration of the images. This is a step backwards from the fifth-generation iPod nano, and again, there’s no TV output for slideshows, another step back, though the number of people displaying iPod nano photos on TVs has likely dropped considerably over the past few years. Regardless of these changes, the device’s improved screen makes for a better overall photo viewing experience.
Radio: As has been the case with earlier FM radio-equipped iPod nanos, Apple requires you to connect any pair of wired earphones to this model in order to tune in stations. The earphones are actually used as the nano’s antenna, creating much greater surface area for picking up radio signals than any internal FM antenna it could have squeezed inside. Without wired earphones attached, the nano’s Radio app will be inactive and light gray; notably, current Bluetooth headphones are not capable of serving as an antenna.
The new Radio interface is nearly identical to the fifth-generation nano’s. Large numbers in the center of the screen tell you the current station, with RDS text appearing above them when available. You can now scroll through channels with a tuner, or use seek buttons to change stations. Additional buttons can be called up to activate TiVo-like time-shifting effects, including a pause button, a scrubber bar to move through temporarily recorded radio audio, and buttons to skip forward or back in the audio.
A settings button brings up options to automatically locate local stations, create favorites, tag songs that interest you for later purchase on iTunes, and look at lists of recently played songs. These features are now accessible via a couple of taps on the screen rather than holding down a Click Wheel button—not hugely different. Apple appears to have quietly improved the radio tuner in the new nano, however, as stations tend to have a little less static than on the prior model, and a crisper overall presentation, even when using the exact same pair of earphones on both devices. If you’re still a fan of radio, the new nano is a better performer than before: a little easier to use, with better sound.
Clock: One area in which the iPod nano has taken a marked step down is in clock functionality. Initially mentioned at an Apple special event with a wink from Steve Jobs, the idea of using the prior square iPod nano as a wristwatch quickly took off with some people, and wristbands quickly became the primary accessory for the new device. Apple supported the idea by stocking wristbands, and then adding additional clock features in a 2011 software update, creating a total of 18 different alternative watch faces that could appear as the first thing seen when the nano woke up from a power-saving mode.
The new nano doesn’t work as a watch, so Apple has unceremoniously dumped almost all of its prior clock designs. Now, there are six, all but one color-matched to whichever metal skin you’ve chosen for your nano. They’re all solely for portrait orientation use, without the ability to rotate into widescreen mode. Three look to have been hastily cobbled together, while the other three are very similar to one another, including a three-face world clock—in the Settings menu, you can choose two additional cities besides your own to display on the screen. Apple also includes Stopwatch and Timer features from the prior iPod nano, each only modestly reformatted to fit the new display.
Overall, the new Clock application feels like a step back from the last version, and while this isn’t surprising given the changes to the new nano’s form factor, it would have been great to see Apple find some way to advance a new feature that people enjoyed last time around.
Settings: Apple has slightly streamlined this menu, while carrying over a long-awaited iOS change to the nano: a menu for Bluetooth is up at the top, and easy to access, with General, Music, Video, Radio, and Photos options below.
Continuing what it started with the sixth-generation nano, Apple has pared down options in the seventh-generation model, eliminating the ability to change the length of time the screen remains bright while inactive, amongst a number of other features. While music and radio settings are the same as before, video options have been removed relative to the fifth-generation nano, including the absence of TV-out functionality, though Apple preserves toggles for alternate audio, captions, and subtitles, plus the ability to start videos from the beginning or last played point. Similarly, photo choices have been cut down, including the elimination of transitions and TV-out functionality.
Voice Memos: Hidden unless you plug in an accessory with a microphone—such as the standard version of EarPods—this application does away with the handsome classical microphone image found on the fifth-generation iPod nano, and the more functional VU meter found on the sixth-generation model, in favor of a boring screen with a prominent numeric timer, a simple green audio level meter, and two buttons: one to start and stop recording, the other to let you access a timestamped list of your prior recordings.
Memos can be heard on the nano immediately after they’ve been recorded, and are automatically transferred to your iTunes library during synchronization. Just like the prior-generation model, they’re encoded as 44.1kHz AAC files at 128kbps, in stereo despite the fact that the audio is actually monaural, and requiring roughly 1MB per minute of recording time. The nano remains just fine as a voice recorder, though the absence of a built-in or included microphone practically limits the utility of this feature relative to the fifth-generation model, and the lack of Lightning microphone accessories doesn’t help, either. Two different Blue Mikeys we tested with a Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter failed to even bring up the Voice Memos icon; one raised a persistent “unsupported accessory” dialogue box, and the other did nothing at all.
While that wraps up the built-in apps, it’s worth a brief mention that a variety of other software features from the fifth-generation nano that disappeared in the last model remain absent here. Alarms, Cover Flow, games, calendars, contacts, and notes are all missing from the nano, and though none of these features is critically important, some users will notice their absence.
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