Review: Apple iPod nano Fourth-Generation (4GB/8GB/16GB)
Pros: Apple’s highest-capacity mid-range flash player to date, with an outstanding array of nine color options that for the first time are available at a $149 base price rather than as a premium option. Preserves most of the features of last year’s flat A-rated version, adding an accelerometer that adds modestly to photo, game, and audio functionality. Includes font size options and optional voice prompting to aid those who would otherwise have trouble reading the small screen. Streamlines prior features, including Cover Flow music browsing and Nike + iPod, while adding new ones such as Genius playlist creation. Doubles past year’s storage capacity for same price. Best audio quality yet in an iPod nano.
Cons: Battery life for video and game playing has dropped from prior version, though audio playback time is roughly the same. New tapered shape feels like a dull knife in the hand, versus the softer curves of prior iPods and nanos, and requires rotation for playing videos and most games. Audio recording functionality has changed from past version, losing settings control and now outputting in Apple Lossless rather than the more compatible WAV format. Curved glass screen cover is a little more fingerprint- and glare-attractive than the predecessor, though also likely to be more durable. Incompatible with past FireWire charging accessories; will not charge when placed in Bose’s SoundDock, Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi, or certain car kits.
Though the form factor of the new iPod nano has changed from last year’s model, virtually all of its individual components have stayed the same. There’s only one difference save orientation between this year’s and last year’s 320x240, two-inch screens: the new one has a slightly bluer tint than the old one, which was slightly purple. It’s not a huge difference, or especially positive or negative, but it’s noticeable.
The biggest changes between the two devices are interface-related, both in the ways they display content and the ways that their Click Wheels operate. Obviously, the switch to a vertical screen orientation from a horizontal one has forced Apple to completely re-engineer the prior device’s menu system, which used an awkwardly busy “text on the left, moving graphics on the right” interface. Some of the prior elements—miniature album and box art icons during Album or video menus, tiny thumbnails for photos, and so on—have been kept, but they’ve been updated to deal with the new orientation.
The new menus have markedly larger on-screen text than before, yet display up to ten choices on the fourth-generation nano’s vertical screen versus nine on the prior nano. Additionally, the new nano can boost its font to an even larger size that has nine even larger choices; here, the text is as big as on the screen of the iPod classic. It appears that Apple can pick shortened menu words for the larger font size—a typo makes the game “Maze” display as “Mae” when the size is boosted—and there’s also a new voice prompting feature that lets visually disabled users navigate all of the menus, including song choices, with audio-overlapping voice prompting. This feature is activated in iTunes, downloading voice prompts directly to the iPod nano, and taking up space in the process; it works surprisingly well but won’t be desirable for most users, as it’s constantly playing on top of other audio.
Thanks to the aforementioned built-in accelerometer, a feature borrowed from the iPhone and iPod touch, the new nano can sense its orientation and display certain content on a different angle. Photos, videos and games can be displayed in widescreen mode; photos can also be viewed in vertical mode. Extras, such as clocks, calendars, contacts, and notes, display only in vertical mode. We discuss each of these items in later sections of this review, but it suffices to say that while the rotating screen feature is a nice addition to the nano’s bag of tricks, it strikes us generally as unnecessary; again, Apple could have preserved the prior nano’s landscape-oriented screen and avoided the need to keep turning the device around.
The accelerometer enables two additional features that may or may not wind up being used more widely in this model. First, a menu option lets you activate “shake” mode, which lets you shake the nano to turn on shuffled playback mode and navigate away from the current song. We didn’t think much of the feature when it was first demonstrated, and felt weird using it in public, but it’s a nice way to quickly change songs in the car. Second, new iPod nano games could conceivably take advantage of the accelerometer for control; more on that in a subsequent section.
Unfortunately, the new nano’s Click Wheel sensitivity has suffered. The last model responded rapidly to even casual brushes, but the new one is a little less likely to respond quickly to scrolling and volume motions. Apple has fixed issues such as this in the past with firmware updates, but it remains to be seen whether this one is correctible in that way.