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.
There’s largely good news on the iPod nano’s other features, namely Photos, Games, Nike + iPod, and Extras. Photos still synchronizes images of your choice using iTunes, then displays them on the nano’s screen either individually or in slideshows. Games starts with three built-in titles and lets you add more by downloading from iTunes at a cost of $5 per title. Both of these features work almost identically to the past iPod nano’s, but with small differences.
Photo thumbnails are displayed only vertically, and now are in a 4x5 grid of 20 images rather than a 5x3 grid of 15. Thanks to the accelerometer, photos can now be viewed horizontally or vertically, rotating automatically as you turn the device. While this isn’t a huge change, those accustomed to taking portrait-orientation photos will obviously see benefits in their display on the new nano. A less conspicuous change is in the transitions: the prior five (Cross Fade, Fade to Black, Zoom Out, Wipe Across, Wipe Center) have been replaced with Dissolve, Slide, Push, Fade Through Black, and Zoom. The new Zoom is smoother than the old one, Fade Through Black is more gentle and deliberate than Fade to Black, Cross Fade and Dissolve are virtually identical, and Slide and Push replace the Star Wars-style wipe effects. These little changes are a mixed bag; it would be great to see more effects options, as they used to exist in earlier iPods.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about the fourth-generation iPod nano is that it actually plays the same Click Wheel iPod Games that Apple started to released last year with the 2007 iPods. This shouldn’t be a surprise, but last year Apple forced customers to re-purchase all of the games they’d bought for earlier iPods, so the continued compatibility is a major plus in our view. Since these games display in the nano’s widescreen video format, a new screen comes up to explain that their buttons have been remapped to correspond to the vertical orientation of the device, which may be a little confusing for some people. Of course, this screen is entirely preferable to losing compatibility altogether.
Two of the third-generation iPod nano’s built-in games, the Breakout-alike title Vortex and the solitaire game Klondike, have returned to the fourth-generation version, the former with the ability to switch between horizontal and vertical modes, and the latter with a mostly horizontal design that can display menus on either axis. Pleasantly, Apple has replaced the trivia game iQuiz with a new title called Maze, which lets you use the built-in accelerometer to move a ball around mazes, and the Click Wheel for other functions such as movement of items in the mazes, and sending out GPS-like rings to show you where the ball is against a noisy background.
Maze is a legitimately good game with a nice audio track, and offers a bunch of levels to keep players busy. We’re pleased to see a really good use of the accelerometer and Click Wheel together, and equally pleased that Apple is actually making quality games for its devices.
With the exception of the Nike + iPod Sport Kit, other features of the iPod nano—clumped into a menu called Extras—remain basically the same. When you plug in a Sport Kit Receiver, sold as part of a $29 kit from Apple and Nike, the new nano displays a shortened list of three options versus the prior model’s six. Apple has compacted the original choices “Basic, Time, Distance, and Calorie” into a “New Workout” menu, offering “Settings” and “History” below. Pick a workout and the nano will save it, then add it to the main menu so that you can repeat it automatically next time with the same settings. History and Settings are substantially the same, except for two changes.
The Nike + iPod Settings menu now displays an option called Remote, used with the Nike Amp+ watch-slash-remote control for the Sport Kit, by default rather than hiding it away. There’s also a new screen orientation setting that lets you display the current workout information in either vertical or widescreen format, with an on-screen display that is slightly updated from the third-generation version in either case, using larger numbers for your current pace.
Other Extras—Alarms, Calendars, Clocks, Contacts, Games, Notes, Screen Lock, and Stopwatch—are all unchanged from the third-generation nano except for slight cosmetic differences. In list mode, Contacts now display the same thumbnail images of your contacts that were previously seen only in individual entries. Calendars now has space at the bottom of the screen for entry data. Notes is essentially unchanged, as are Alarms, Screen Lock and Stopwatch, varying only in the orientation of screen elements.