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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Virtually every new iPod nano design has altered the screen enough to require user interface changes, and the seventh-generation iPod nano follows this pattern: Apple actually went through two different touchscreen interfaces for its square-faced predecessor, so this version is its third stab, and overall its best yet—but it’s not without issues.
Each new iPod nano awakens with an Apple logo screen that’s color-matched to its metal shell; you need to press the Sleep/Wake Button when the nano’s in deep power-saving mode to bring up this display. Rather than including a wide collection of different wallpaper textures, Apple continues the simple color-matching scheme by including only five options—the same flat colored background used behind the Apple logo, three same-colored geometric patterns, and a flat gray background. They’re boring, but just backdrops for the new model’s redesigned Home Screen icons.
Mixing the original UI it designed for the last iPod nano with the Home Screen interfaces of iPhones and iPod touches, the new interface presents users with six circular icons at a time, swipable across separate pages, with the ability to rearrange but not not delete icons. Each icon is just large enough to be tapped without error by a large fingertip—a little larger than iPod touch and iPhone icons, but smaller than the huge ones introduced in the 2011 iPod nano software update. Once you’ve tapped on an icon, you’re generally brought to a list of black text on white background options, sometimes with a tiny piece of art off to the left side. The lists are all formatted with enough white space to be easily tapped by a finger, the only major change from the Click Wheel-based interface of most earlier nanos. As with the last model, a swipe from left to right on screen brings you back one level through the menus, but to avoid confusion, a right to left swipe doesn’t advance you forward.
The nano ships with eight total icons activated, and several others appear automatically if you add audiobook or iTunes U content to the device, or connect an accessory with a microphone built in for voice memo recording. We discuss all of the “apps” below.
Music (and Audiobooks): As a hybrid of the fifth- and sixth-generation iPod nano interfaces, the Music app starts you with a large text list of familiar sorting options for your audio library—playlists, albums, artists, songs, and so on. Just like prior iPods, you tap on a sorting method, then keep drilling down until you reach a specific track or the shuffle button, either of which can be tapped to start hearing music.
At that point, the interface shifts to a Now Playing screen virtually identical to the one on the fifth-generation nano, filling the center of the screen with album art while the top and bottom have dark gray bars with lighter text and icons. Replacing the Click Wheel, Apple positions large track back, play/pause, and track forward icons above a slim volume slider, duplicating three functions found on the new nano’s left side buttons.
When you’re using Bluetooth—a topic discussed in detail in the next section of this review—a tiny Bluetooth icon appears on the bottom right corner of the screen; you can press this button to select from wired or wireless audio sources, bringing up a text list of choices akin to the ones on iOS devices.
An extra tap on the album art overlays the track number, a scrubbing position bar, and four icons atop the album art. Two icons control repeating and shuffling, one activates the Genius Playlist feature in an attempt to create a playlist of songs that sound good together, and the last brings up a list of the tracks on the current album. Song lyrics, if they’re present on a track, can be scrolled through below the icons.
It bears mention that the hidden iPod nano app Audiobooks is based entirely upon the Music app, swapping the shuffle feature for a button that toggles 1/2x, normal, and 2X playback speeds, the Genius feature for a button that skips 30 seconds back, and the track list button for a chapter list button. Their interfaces and features are otherwise the same.
Videos, Podcasts + iTunes U: Unsurprisingly, the new Videos app is a lot like its predecessors on video-capable iPod nanos, and similar to the interface of current iPod touches and iPhones. Here, Apple creates a single top-level menu featuring square icons on the left side and text headers immediately to the right, including Movies, TV Shows, and Music Videos. Tapping on any header brings you to a list of videos inside that category, and tapping on any of them will immediately start the video playing.
Apple’s video playback interface is different from the fifth-generation iPod nano’s. The top of the screen contains a “done” button to exit the video, plus a scrubber with twin duration indicators. The bottom has a bar with chapter list, previous chapter, play/pause, and chapter forward buttons. Noticeably missing are the current time and a battery indicator—useful features that are just gone—as well as the prior volume slider, which is now handled with the buttons built into the new nano’s side. Unlike the iPod touch, you can’t zoom in on your video to eliminate letterboxing: the video is presented in its original aspect ratio with black bars above and below. We discuss video quality in the next section of this review.
Note that the new iPod nano still cannot synchronize high-definition videos, which isn’t a huge surprise, but still remains a difference relative to the more capable iPod touch. As the nano now comes in only a 16GB capacity—14.7GB formatted—it doesn’t have a ton of room for videos, regardless, and so most likely will be used primarily to hold music, with a movie or a few TV show episodes here and there.
Two additional iPod nano apps, Podcasts and the hidden app iTunes U, are hybrids of the Music/Audiobooks and Videos apps. When you add an audio podcast or audio iTunes U download to the nano, it plays back with the same interface found in Audiobooks, including the special pop-up buttons; descriptive text can appear below the buttons. But when you play a video podcast or iTunes U video download, you get a menu akin to Videos, with similar on-screen overlays—generally minus the chapter select feature.
Fitness: Apple’s latest Fitness application expands upon earlier versions, albeit with extremely similar underlying functionality. Previously known as Nike + iPod and only available as a feature when users connected a $29 Nike + iPod Sport Kit, the Fitness application is now ever-present on the nano, retaining Nike+ branding without the mandate of purchasing separate accessories—a change initiated in the prior iPod nano, and continued here.
You begin by choosing from walking or running modes, with a small history icon in the bottom left corner and settings in the right—a more convenient layout than on the last iPod nano. Walking mode is just a screen-elongated version of the prior pedometer interface, complete with step counting and statistical tracking features. Apple’s pedometer is only reliable to the extent that the nano actually moves with your body, and we found that it missed between a third and a half of light steps. However, if placed in the correct location on your body and given the opportunity to bounce around, it’ll provide a respectable approximation of your walking activity.
Running mode is similarly a reformatted version of the prior Nike+ interface, but with large track and play/pause controls on the screen at all times rather than as an overlay, and new swipable icons at the bottom of the screen to show you distance, remaining time, calories burned, and other details. The integrated Settings menu still lets you choose male or female voice prompting for your runs, a PowerSong to help motivate you at times of need, and height/weight customizations to improve the accuracy of its stride estimations.
The improvements to Fitness aren’t obvious from these screens, but they’re non-trivial. First, in addition to the simulated, accelerometer-estimated Nike + iPod run tracking found in the prior iPod nano, Apple uses the new nano’s wireless chip to communicate—optionally—with a shoe-mounted Nike+ Sensor for more accurate motion tracking. Like earlier iPod touches but unlike any prior iPod nano, the $29 Nike + iPod Sport Kit’s dongle is not required for this—you just need the $19 Nike+ Sensor.
Additionally, the nano’s new Bluetooth 4.0 chip can pair with a low-energy Bluetooth heart rate monitor such as the Wahoo BlueHR, displaying constantly updated heart rate information at the bottom of the screen, as well as with Nike+ remote controls. In addition to their own dedicated pairing screen within the Fitness application—re-pairing is effortless, handled automatically when you go to start a workout—heart rate monitors have a special menu that lets you select from various sports to calibrate the data. While we noted very brief interruptions in the audio when simultaneously using a Nike+ Sensor, BlueHR heart rate monitor, and Bluetooth headphones, music generally flowed smoothly and sounded great despite the simultaneous use of three wireless accessories at once.
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