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.
The three other features of the sixth-generation iPod nano are all designed to improve its appeal to specific market niches: photo playback is primarily there for kids and teens who might enjoy having a handful of images to share with friends, workout tracking is designed to appeal to athletes, and the updated clock feature is capable of turning the nano into an oversized watch face—a modest feature that, with subsequent improvements from Apple, might eventually become a big deal for future nanos.
Photo Playback. Past iPod nanos weren’t exactly fantastic photo devices—their small screens grew over time to become better, but Apple made only the slightest changes to their slideshow features, enabling the iPod touch and iPhone to become decidedly superior. Apart from the new set of five transition effects, which include Page Flip, Origami, Ken Burns, Dissolve, and Push as alternatives, the new iPod nano is worse as a photo playback device than its predecessors in almost every way.
Despite the screen’s higher pixel density, the number of thumbnails has dropped from the last version’s 24 down to 9—actually six with three halves—so you’ll be doing a lot of scrolling if you sync a large photo collection to the new nano. Additionally, the square shape of the display means that images are presented with big black letterboxes no matter what the aspect ratio is, and its size turns most digital photos into postage stamps. Counterintuitively, double-tapping rather than pinching zooms in and out of photos, which are very significantly downscaled by iTunes—a fact that doesn’t matter much until you try to do a slideshow on an external display. While dropping all of the nano’s other video-out features, Apple has for some reason preserved this one, which was introduced with the original iPod photo back in 2004. The new nano manages to display downscaled images so poorly on a TV that you’ll wish you’d never saw them; they are pixelated and color-limited enough to literally ruin the images. It’s amazing that Apple would release a device with such a poorly implemented, Chinese knockoff-like feature; even if this device had been called an iPod shuffle and sold for half the price, the TV-out quality would have been unacceptable.
Workout Tracking. iPod nanos have supported Apple and Nike’s jointly-developed Nike + iPod Sport Kit for years now, and the new version offers almost identical functionality: you need to buy the $29 Kit, complete with a white iPod Dock Connector dongle (“Receiver”) and a shoe-mounted Sensor, then plug the Receiver in to activate the Nike + iPod feature under the newly labeled and ever-present Fitness icon. As has been the case in past nanos, this feature contains male and female voice samples to provide status and motivation during runs and jogs, synchronizing data about your workouts to Nike’s Nikeplus.com server online using iTunes as a conduit.
With the exception of the new application’s need to switch screens just to provide access to your PowerSong independently from the track and play/pause controls, it’s pretty much the same application as before, with the same Basic, Time, Distance, and Calorie workout options, the same summary of performance, and the ability to remember both your runs and the settings you used for two-tap future access. The on-screen numbers are smaller to make room for buttons, but you don’t give up much else on this version unless you really liked the last nano’s speaker, which could provide voice cues and play music without the need for headphones. Support for the long-discussed but little seen iPod heart rate monitor is again included in this year’s version, as is support for Nike-developed wireless remote control watches that are a little easier to find but not especially widespread.
Last year’s iPod nano expanded the Nike + iPod running feature by adding Pedometer, new software and hardware that kept a tally of the steps you’d walked for as long as you kept the nano going. This year’s model preserves Pedometer, using a single scrolling screen to count steps while also providing saved details of your daily, weekly, monthly, and total steps, along with your daily goal. There are now six digits on the pedometer rather than four, and all of the fonts are smaller, including a timer and calorie calculator. It continues to operate in the background as you’re doing other things, placing a sneaker icon at the top of the screen to let you know that it’s still tracking your movement. Tracking of steps was identical between the fifth- and sixth-generation models in our testing.
Clock. Not since Apple’s unexpected promotion of the old iPod and iTunes “shuffle” feature has a third- or fourth-tier function like Clock become a potentially defining asset for a new iPod, but when Apple CEO Steve Jobs made a casual reference to an Apple director’s desire to wear the new nano like a watch, the accessory industry immediately rushed to work on what will no doubt be an insane number of watch band accessories.
The current incarnation of the Clock feature is a good start for what could eventually become a real justification for the nano’s continued existence. Apple offers only a single watch face, an analog version with the day of week and calendar date number beneath three rotating hands. Under the device’s Settings > Date and Time menu, it hides an option to switch to a black but otherwise identical watch face, as well as another option that makes the nano display the clock whenever the screen is first turned on, with a left swipe bringing the Home Screen back. Right swipes call up a Stopwatch and an iOS-like countdown Timer with all of the iOS alarm noises—even the famous iPhone ringtone Marimba. When the timer ends, it can play one of the alarms through a connected accessory, or just put the iPod to sleep.
Though there are many ways in which the sixth-generation iPod nano could be improved, the watch component of Clock is one we’d really hope that Apple will take more seriously next time. That there’s only one watch design here, and such a plain one, suggests that the idea of wearing the nano in this way didn’t really occur to the company’s designers until it was too late to do more with the feature. Digital, additional analog, and hybrid watch faces could very easily turn a less expensive iPod nano sequel into Apple’s equivalent of the Swatch—we’d even consider wearing one if the device was a little smaller and better clock options were available. The current design is just a little too large for us take seriously as a wrist-worn fashion accessory, but since we’re talking about Apple, the idea of a smaller sequel next year is anything but far-fetched.