Review: Apple iPod nano (Seventh-Generation)
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.
Despite Apple’s early attempt to prevent customers from rating Apple-branded products in its online store—“all Apple products have a rating of ‘5 Apples’ because we think they’re great”—the company’s new releases aren’t always home runs: while new iPhones and iPads continue to drop jaws, Apple’s iPods have spent the last two years in free fall. Sales have steadily dropped, though apparently slower than Apple itself forecasted, and the once-thriving product line has become a place where old technologies shrink to get sold at lower prices. Apple still sells millions of iPods every quarter, but there’s nothing exciting about iPods any more, unless you consider gradual miniaturization to be exciting.
Announced last month and shipped this week, Apple’s seventh-generation iPod nano ($149/16GB) is an attempt to reverse a confusing devolution of what was once the company’s most popular media player into a different, less capable form. In 2010, Apple discontinued the fifth-generation nano—a small, richly-colored device with a video camera, video playback capabilities, games, and an integrated microphone—in favor of an even smaller version that discarded all of those features in favor of a tiny square touchscreen. Built with an iPod shuffle-style rear clip and offered in a variety of dull colors, the sixth-generation model landed with a thud, only seeing its fortunes improve when accessory makers (and a late 2011 Apple software update) repositioned it as a bulky but interesting wristwatch. Few people thought that the sixth iPod nano was fantastic as it was, but it had fans, and there was some enthusiasm that Apple would introduce a redesigned version with Bluetooth headphones and an even smaller, watch-sized body, a package that would have made a lot of sense in a marketplace filled with iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches.
Instead, the new iPod nano turns out to be something different: this time, it resembles a shrunken iPod touch, even sharing six of the same color schemes with the iOS device, then adding two more for good measure. Almost exactly twice the height and the same width as the sixth-generation nano, it returns to the tall design favored by its most well-regarded predecessors, with literally just enough thickness to match the diameters of Apple’s latest, smallest headphone plugs. It’s lighter than before, with a new 2.5” 432 by 240-pixel screen that approximates a 16:9 aspect ratio, and it adds back two features that its predecessor lost: video playback functionality and proper photo playback capabilities. It even takes a step beyond its predecessors by adding Bluetooth 4 wireless support and the ability to serve as a proper Nike + iPod wireless receiver.
These changes make the nano better, right? Well, sort of. While the seventh iPod nano improves upon its immediate predecessor, it’s hard to see as great. Despite obvious interface and design similarities, it doesn’t run iOS, and yet it’s also no longer small enough to be used as a watch; instead, it’s akin to the long-gone fifth-generation nano, with fewer features and less appealing color options. It’s also a major step down from the $199 fourth-generation iPod touch, which offers the same storage capacity, yet with apps and considerably better hardware does thousands of things the nano can’t do, at a very small premium.
While our review of the seventh-generation iPod nano remains objective throughout, and compares the new device quite factually to its last two predecessors, there’s no question that none of our editors could get excited about the new design. It’s certainly not as perplexing as the buttonless third-generation shuffle, but like its square older brother, it doesn’t feel considerably better than the model Apple released three years ago, and there are elements of the design—the unevenly lit screen, weak color choices, and limited features—that will make it extremely easy for all but the most Apple-obsessed users to pass on. In short, it’s a good little iPod, but apart from its new Bluetooth functionality, it doesn’t move the family forward or continue to justify a $149 asking price. Regardless of whether you agree with that conclusion, we hope you enjoy our review, and learn some interesting details along the way.
Updated September 13, 2013: This week, Apple replaced the prior “Slate” color with “Gray”—also known as “Space Gray”—as the only iPod family change in a year that saw two new iPhone models introduced. Gray is somewhere between the prior silver and slate versions, depending on the light that hits it, and has color-matched backgrounds that are nearly identical to the silver model’s.