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.
A little more than a year after releasing the sixth-generation iPod nano, Apple on October 4, 2011 announced “the new iPod nano,” with a “redesigned user interface, 16 new digital clock faces and improved built-in fitness features.”
As it turns out, the “new” iPod nano is merely the old one with a minor software update—even the Apple part numbers and boxes have thus far stayed the same—but what Apple calls software version 1.2 turns out to offer a handful of nice improvements over last year’s version 1.0 and February, 2011’s version 1.1 releases. They’re enough to make the updated device worthy of a second look and a slightly higher overall rating. Here’s what’s changed.
Originally, the iPod nano attempted to mimic the interface of an iPod touch on a much smaller screen, presenting users with a set of four icons at a time spread across multiple Home Screens. While you could hold down on an icon to make all of the icons jiggle, then rearrange them into your preferred order, there were far too many icons—dedicated buttons for artists, songs, albums, genres, composers, playlists, and Genius Mixes, seemingly there solely to occupy Home Screen pages.
Apple has made two significant changes here. First, the new iPod nano interface presents users with a horizontally scrolling set of much larger icons that are viewed one at a time with the edges of two additional icons off to the sides of the screen. Each icon is easy to press: they were previously roughly iPod touch-sized, and are now physically bigger than even the oversized iPad versions. Moving between them is as simple as swiping to the left or right. You can restore the old user interface with a new Settings option under General > Home Screen called “Small Icons,” which turns the prior interface on or off with the tap of a switch.
Second and more critically, though you can still rearrange the order of the icons, there’s less need to do that than before. By default, Apple has removed all of the useless filler icons that were previously in the interface, and added another new Home Screen settings feature to let you turn virtually all of the icons on or off individually. Everything from the new Music icon to all of its sub-icons can be disabled, as can icons for everything from the integrated FM radio to previously obscured Audiobooks, iTunes U, and Voice Memos options. This is the rare iPod nano feature that iOS device users will wish they had, as you can substantially reduce Home Screen clutter with this tool. It’s very much appreciated.
The only consequence is that the new Music icon now leads to a second-level collection of organizational choices in text menu form, turning what was previously one tap from the main screen (“Playlists”) into two (“Music,” “Playlists”). But if you really need a one-tap solution, again, you can just turn the additional Home Screen icon or icons on as needed. Overall, while the music playback experience is otherwise the same—complete with crowding of the Now Playing screen—this is a better solution for users than the way the nano originally shipped in 2010.
Originally, the iPod nano’s Clock application had only two watch faces to choose from, and then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs almost chuckled when mentioning that one of the company’s directors planned to wear the nano as a watch. For the last year, accessory makers have developed iPod nano watch bands, but actual sightings on users’ wrists have been few and far between. The nano shipped last year with only two very similar clock faces, and many users—including us—were holding out for a new nano that could work with wireless headphones rather than requiring a cord to dangle from one’s wrist.
Apple hasn’t changed the hardware, but it has improved the Clock feature by adding 16 new clock faces for a total of 18 options. With Disney and Muppets licenses, it includes separate Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse faces similar to classic analog watches, as well as Kermit the Frog and Animal faces that burst with color from the small screen. There are now great digital, analog, and hybrid digital and analog clocks ranging from classic chronometers to Nixie tubes and even an abstract, Tokyoflash-style design; some include calendar details, others do not.
Tapping on the screen brings up a translucent pane with arrows that let you see all 18, which we’ve gathered here. Some of the faces look considerably better than one might expect from still images; one features moving gears, others feature extremely detailed, high-resolution hands, and some just tick away. It’s an excellent initial collection that would only become more appealing if Apple offered additional options. As before, swiping from right to left brings up stopwatch and timer features, neither themed to the old or new clock faces.
As originally shipped, the sixth-generation iPod nano effectively continued the prior models’ support for the Nike + iPod Sport Kit, a $29 combination of a shoe-mounted sensor and a Dock Connector-based wireless receiver. An icon called Fitness featured artwork of a generic runner, and by default showed only two options: a step-counting walking tool called Pedometer and History. If you plugged the Nike + iPod receiver in, a third choice called Nike + iPod appeared.
That’s changed. Now, the Fitness application is represented with a Nike+ icon, and you’re immediately presented with three choices: Walk, Run, and History. Walk is a slightly redesigned version of Pedometer, now presenting statistical details on two half-pages accessed with horizontal swipes rather than a vertical scrolling list. Walks are now estimated by distance, as well as for prior number of steps, calories burned, and totals for daily, weekly, monthly, and overall walking. Run contains all of the prior Nike + iPod options and voice prompts—the major difference is that the iPod nano can now use its own integrated pedometer hardware to track your runs rather than requiring the Nike + iPod accessories. In other words, you can hit the Run button, choose a Basic, Time, Distance, or Calorie workout, then just start running.
Initially, no acknowledgement is made of the Nike + iPod receiver’s connection to the device, but if you’ve connected one when you’re about to start a run, you’re still prompted to activate the sensor. More serious runners will probably want to do this, as an arm- or chest-mounted iPod nano’s integrated tracking hardware will be triggered by arm or chest movements rather than leg strides. Even its ability to accurately estimate walking steps will be impacted when worn on a wrist held at your side. So while the unlocking of Nike + iPod features isn’t a bad thing, it’s not a huge change, either.
Three additional pieces of wallpaper have been added in the new software, bringing the total to 12. They’re a blue set of overlapping mountain ridges, a purple-blue set of iPod silhouette-style waves, and a flat color, the latter offering the least visually busy backdrop yet included for the nano.
Notably, this flat color changes depending on the color of the nano’s body: it’s dark gray for the graphite nano, light gray for the silver model, green, pink, and so on for the other nanos. The original nano’s model-specific two wallpapers, generally color-shifts, also remain intact after the update.
There’s now a Sleep/Wake Button setting that enables you to turn the top button into a double-clickable “Next Track” or “Play/Pause” button; you can select one feature with a check mark, and activate it with an on-off switch. A Group Compilations switch has also been added under Music. A Radio settings menu has been spun off from the General settings to hold Radio Regions selections and a Live Pause on/off switch. And Nike+-related options now appear under Fitness settings by default.
While Apple didn’t go as far as it could and should have with what it calls a “new iPod nano,” the October 2011 version 1.2 software update certainly takes some of the rougher edges off of the sixth-generation model’s user interface. Home Screen navigation that was previously cramped has become streamlined and more customizable, Clock functionality that was originally half-baked has been dramatically improved, and small Fitness and Wallpaper tweaks make the nano a little easier to enjoy right out of the box. All of these changes are welcome, and along with modest price drops to $129 (8GB) and $149 (16GB) make the updated nano worthy of a flat B rating. After our prior reluctance to actually use it on a daily basis, the nano now has at least enough clock functionality to be worthy of considering as a watch.
That said, the updates are effectively band-aids for a product that arrived considerably cut-down from predecessors that were prized for their greater functionality. The sixth-generation nano still can’t play videos, does a terrible job of outputting photos to a television, and lacks for so many of its older brothers’ features that it remains more akin to an upgraded iPod shuffle than a smaller iPod classic or touch. To the extent that Apple is now re-imagining the nano as a possible wristwatch, the device remains saddled with the frequent need to be recharged and the requirement that a wire dangle from wrist to head—issues that only wireless audio hardware, more power-efficient components, and perhaps an easier charging solution will ultimately remedy. Should Apple truly want to create a “new” iPod nano with these features, it will have a hit on its hands, and on all of ours.