Review: Apple iPod nano (Sixth-Generation)
Pros: A smaller touchscreen revision of Apple’s mid-priced flash RAM media player, available in seven colors. Twin user interfaces include one optimized for the 1.54” display, and another that mimics the iOS operating system of the iPhone and iPod touch. Swipe and tap gestures are used for most of the device’s controls, while using album art and wallpapers to nicely fill the screen with color. Integrated FM radio, pedometer, and accelerometer components carry over from the prior-generation iPod nano, along with sufficient 8GB and 16GB storage capacities. Includes an integrated clip that renders it instantly wearable. Superior audio battery life and volume to predecessors; remains compatible with Dock Connector accessories, including the Nike + iPod Sport Kit. Version 1.2 software update reduces need for the Nike + iPod kit by utilizing pedometer hardware for simple run tracking. Dramatically enhanced Clock features enable the nano to be used as a watch, albeit with certain practical limitations.
Cons: Feels like a first-generation version of a new product line rather than a sequel to the iPod nano. Video, gaming, camera, speaker, and microphone features are amongst a laundry list of capabilities dropped from the new model, precluding it from being used as a complete or even substantial replacement for its three most recent predecessors, primarily by users with video needs. New glossy body colors are weaker than ones introduced in last two years. Multi-Touch screen has only one multi-touch gesture, lacking for others that might have made the device more interesting. Use of rear clip, as well as connection and disconnection of some accessories, can be a modest challenge while the device is being used.
When it really comes down to it, the sixth-generation iPod nano’s 16 icons actually represent a total of six features: music/audio playback, FM radio tuning, voice recording, photo playback, workout tracking, and clock display, plus a global settings menu for all of the features. The only surprises here are in the iPod nano’s handling of video and photo content, which we discuss in the sections below.
iPod Music/Audio. Ten of the nano’s 16 icons lead generally to the same place: iPod audio playback or catalog features. Playlists and Genius Mixes are manually and iTunes-automatically generated collections of tracks, respectively, while Artists, Songs, Albums, Genres, and Composers sort the device’s song library by different headers. Podcasts and Audiobooks provide separate areas for holding those slightly different types of files, while the last icon—Now Playing—brings you automatically to the track and play/pause controls for whatever you’re currently listening to.
Because of the nano’s small screen, music playback is sort of odd this time around: select a new track and the screen is filled with a single piece of album artwork, requiring a tap to bring up the artist’s name, song title, and album name above track back, play/pause, and track forward buttons. The bottom of this Now Playing screen features a miniature “i” button to let you rate the track with up to five stars, plus a list of tracks from the same album.
You’re also able to swipe to a second screen with a scrubber bar, repeat, genius playlist creator, and shuffle icons; a third screen with lyrics appears for tracks that contain iTunes-synchronized lyric text. While Apple has made the most of this tiny display, putting the visual focus on the album art unless you need something else, the controls just don’t feel as convenient as on past iPod models—athletes in particular may chafe at having to activate and look down at the screen just to pause or change songs.
The Audiobooks and Podcasts features introduce a few changes to the standard iPod music playback interface. Audiobooks swap the album track menu for a list of chapters, while replacing the genius and shuffle buttons with “back 30 seconds” and “1/2 speed/full speed/2x speed” reading options. Podcasts has the same button changes on its second screen, while using the third screen for descriptive meta-data from iTunes, explaining what the podcast contains.
There are only two surprises in the iPod nano’s handling of audio. First is the sound through its headphone port, which is noticeably louder in this version than in the fifth-generation model. At the 25% and 50% marks using Ultimate Ears’ UE-11 Pro earphones and lossless audio test files, the new nano sounded 10-15% more powerful than before, with small but noticeable bass and treble boosts that were like the ones we heard in the new fourth-generation iPod shuffle—enough to make the audio just a little punchier. Users of inefficient headphones will appreciate the power boost, while others may want to turn the volume down a little to protect their hearing. By comparison, the Dock Connector port audio sounded extremely similar between these models, with differences that we’d describe as insignificant.
The second surprise is the way that the new iPod nano handles video content. Despite its lack of support for video playback, the iPod nano allows you to synchronize and listen to the audio portions of video podcasts, which are filed under the Podcasts icon, as well as Music Videos, which appear without special adornment as songs. Both of these videos display their album art-styled key frame on the nano’s screen without any animation, and the nano does not output their video content to an Apple cable-connected TV screen, either. Users who felt like they were being shut out of hearing their favorite songs or podcasts with the new nano therefore don’t have much to be concerned about, though they obviously lose the video portions entirely—a compromise that wasn’t necessary on the last nano.
FM Radio Tuning. Of all the new features Apple gave the iPod nano last year, only two survived in this model, and one is the integrated FM radio tuner, a feature Apple stubbornly refused to add into iPods for the better part of a decade before tossing it into the nano—nothing else—last year. As before, the Radio feature requires you to connect a pair of headphones to serve as an antenna; Dock Connector accessories, even cables, are not an alternative but can be connected at the same time.
Once that’s done, a cropped version of last year’s attractive, big-numbered tuner appears on the screen, with an “i” button in the corner to bring up a menu. Tapping on the number calls up a scrollable dial and buttons to tune station by station, plus the ability to use a Live Pause feature to stop and timeshift a brief portion of a live radio broadcast. Apple still doesn’t let you record full songs and export them for later playback using Live Pause—it wants to sell songs via iTunes, after all—but if you need to hear something you missed in a talk radio program, this feature lets you skip back and then forward again.
Hitting “i” calls up a partial settings menu, including a new Local Stations feature that automatically scans the airwaves for signals strong enough to be available stations—it grabbed a partial list of available channels—while Favorites contains a list of your starred stations, and Tagged and Recent Songs options keep track of sometimes available song metadata that the nano can save for later purchasing through iTunes. The latter three features were available on the prior iPod nano, along with Live Pause and Radio Regions settings that have been moved to the device’s separate Settings application, under General.
The FM tuner is roughly as powerful on the new iPod nano as it was on the preceding version, with fairly strong renditions of stations that nevertheless rarely escaped a light level of static during our testing. We liked the fact that the Local Stations feature gave us a starter list of stations to use without having to swipe around on the dial, and particularly liked the look of the interface, which was nice last year when it debuted—frankly an improvement on the rest of the white-backgrounded nano UI. It would be nice to have a similarly adorned radio tuner in the iPod touch and iPhone.
Voice Recording. The sixth-generation iPod nano’s Voice Memos application is an aesthetically cut-down version of the same named application for other iPods, losing the screen-filling microphone of the fifth-generation nano and iPod touch/iPhone application while keeping the volume unit meter from each of the devices, and adding the separate record and list buttons found in the iOS app. As with the last nano, audio files are recorded as stereo 128kbps AAC files at 44.1kHz, even if you’re using a monaural mic, and consume roughly 1MB per minute, give or take a little. Quality will depend chiefly on the microphone you use; the ones in Apple’s Earphones with Remote and Mic and In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic do a fine job of capturing voice memos.
Pressing the record button reminds you to plug in a microphone if you haven’t already—something that notably isn’t necessary on the iPod touch, iPhone, or mic-equipped older iPod nano—with a stop button replacing the list button while recording’s in session. Hitting the list button lets you see prior recordings, add one of six categorization labels, and delete tracks if you don’t want to synchronize them back to iTunes. Once iTunes pulls the files off of the nano, the Voice Memos icon disappears until the next time a microphone is connected. This is a no-frills feature that works well; we recorded a 30-minute test and several shorter samples without any complaint from the nano.