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.
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The single biggest audio change to the iPod nano isn’t one that’s glaringly apparent, or even touted by Apple, but it’s there: the sound chip has changed. Months ago, long-time iPod audio chip supplier Wolfson Micro made clear—with minimal discretion—that its chips were not going to be included in either the upcoming iPod nano or iPod touch refreshes, which were then unknown. Lo and behold, the new devices arrived, and they sound like the 2007 iPod classic—they’re cleaner, with a nearly non-existent static noise floor that’s as well-suited to audiophile-grade earphones as free pack-ins. That’s really good news for those who hope to use their nanos with better headphones; the fourth-generation model is definitely the best-sounding iPod nano yet.
There are other changes to the nano’s audio functionality, as well. Using the accelerometer, Cover Flow mode is now activated automatically when you’re in any music menu and the device is on its side, and it’s a little faster and more fluid now. It looks as if Apple has achieved the extra speed by decreasing the sharpness of the covers slightly, a change that’s acceptable given the tiny screen size.
In addition to a much-improved Now Playing screen, which occupies the nano’s entire display width with album art a la the iPhone and iPod touch, Apple has added an optional Audio Crossfade feature to blend songs smoothly into one another, another little thing that hasn’t been added to the new iPod classic. While crossfading has been on our list of nano wants for a long time, the manner in which it operates—not when you manually select a new song, and without any control over the length of the fade, as found in iTunes—isn’t great. We’re hoping to see the feature gain a little manual control in a firmware update.
Apple has focused a lot on a new iPod nano feature called Genius, which lets you select any song from the device’s collection and automatically create a playlist of similar songs to listen to. Unfortunately, in addition to requiring you to provide information about your iTunes library to Apple—anonymously, the company says, though it requires an iTunes account login to set the service up—the Genius feature requires an initial synchronization of the iPod nano with iTunes in order to operate on the device, and depends upon iTunes to have identified your tracks in order to be able to create these lists. We found that it did an OK job of creating related playlists, but shuffling songs within a given genre would have produced similar results.
Apart from the small screen coloration difference noted earlier in this review—a slight blue tint to video, versus purple on the prior nano—video playback on the new nano is fundamentally identical to how it was on the third-generation model. You still have brightness, chapter, and volume controls accessible at a push of the center button, the same choices between owned and rented videos, video playlists, and settings.
Unfortunately, Apple’s worst decision of 2007 lives on in the new nano: video-out is still locked, requiring an overpriced authentication chip-based video cable, or a similarly expensive docking device to function. This unpublicized change to the iPods, which broke accessories and infuriated users, was never explained by Apple; it continues to render these nanos incompatible with many popular video accessories released prior to September 2007.
Despite the fact that Apple has taken some steps to make the new nano more power efficient, eliminating the on-screen clock that appeared on the non-backlit screen of the prior model while music is playing, run time has overall changed for the worse in this model. The good news is that music fans won’t see a huge difference: Apple promised 24 hours of music run time for both the third- and fourth-generation nanos, actually delivering 30 hours and 21 minutes on the third, and 30 hours and 57 minutes on the fourth. Both were set on 50% volume with minimal device interaction.
Where the new nano struggles more is in the video department. Apple lowered their promised run time to four hours of video from five hours in the prior nano, and though both numbers proved conservative in our testing, the new nano ran for roughly an hour less than its predecessor. We played a test loop of The Incredibles and Star Trek II on the third-generation model for 5 hours and 47 minutes on 50% brightness and 50% volume, but two fourth-generation models ran for only 4 hours and 45 minutes or 4 hours and 59 minutes on the same settings. It’s worth noting that game playing, which has become increasingly important in iPods over the past year, consumes roughly as much power as video playback, so a drop in battery life for video also means a drop in game-playing capability.
Note that the fourth-generation iPod nano has a comparable audio run time to the iPhone 3G, and a video run time that’s 50 minutes shy of the second-generation iPod touch, though the touch offers nearly nine hours more audio play time. If you really need substantially better audio and video battery life, the 120GB iPod classic runs for much longer, and as noted in its review, transfers files even faster.
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