Review: SwitchEasy Ticker for iPod nano 6G
Moments after Steve Jobs noted with seeming amusement that one of Apple's board members planned to wear the sixth-generation iPod nano as a watch -- 26:37 on Apple's September 2010 Special Event video -- developers started working on strap accessories to facilitate the idea. Never mind that Jobs seemed to imply that the idea wasn't totally ready for prime time, a fact that crystallized during subsequent real-world use of the nano; when millions of nanos are being sold, even nichey add-ons have a chance of making some money. And so it is that we look today at the most noteworthy iPod nano watch straps released in 2010, as we await the inevitable release of a better-suited seventh-generation nano - hopefully with the equally predictable simple Apple wrist strap in the box rather than as a $19 add-on.
After testing Griffin’s Slap Case, Ozaki’s iCoat Watch ($25), SwitchEasy’s Ticker ($25), and Minimal’s LunaTik Watch Kit ($70), there’s one clear winner in execution—LunaTik—but no single design that completely makes sense in both pricing and practicality. Confronted with the question of whether to do nothing more than sell stylish cloth or plastic wrist straps with attachment holes for the nano’s rear clip, or create a completely protective case that happens to have straps hanging off the sides, developers have taken different and not entirely satisfactory approaches. Consequently, each design leaves room for improvement, though we suspect that most of today’s nano strap makers will wait until the next nano is introduced to actually make them.
LunaTik succeeds because the designers at Minimal went in the opposite direction from rivals who prioritized low entry price and ease of use—traditional iPod nano accessory musts—over excellence in execution, each strategy equally viable where truly niche products are concerned. Using expensive techniques pioneered by earlier iPod shuffle accessorizers, Minimal created a machined aluminum frame that literally needs to be screwed together with an included wrench, perfectly blending with the silver or red iPod nano to form a solid watch base with a sturdy rubber and metal strap. The result actually looks like a handsome if oversized watch, turning the nano’s top and bottom into its sides, and thus permitting control of volume and screen unlocking on one side while offering Dock Connector and headphone port access on the other.
One note on nano orientation is worthwhile at this point: right-handed users who wear their watches on the left wrist will prefer to install the nano inside LunaTik and other wriststraps such that the buttons are on the right and the ports are on the left. Otherwise, activating the screen to tell the time or reaching around to change the volume feels awkward, though having the nano’s headphone cable dangle outwards feels better when the orientation is flipped, reducing cable rub on your skin. It is a strength of LunaTik that you can insert the nano in either orientation, and a strength of the nano that its screen can be rotated to face upright regardless of which you choose. Also unusually impressive is the wristband itself, which features matching gray metal clasp and pin pieces to resize for different wrists without leaving rubber dangling off the side. Rivals attempt a variety of cheaper solutions that are at least a little less satisfactory in either comfort or sturdiness; once again, LunaTik feels like a real watch.
Apart from the $70 price tag—$50 if pre-ordered—neither of which is cheap, port access and body protection are where LunaTik may turn off some users. Due to the metal frame, you’re restricted to using headphone and Dock Connector plugs that are as small as Apple’s, without much room for larger accessories. Unless you’ve purchased third-party accessories that are aggressively tailored, you’ll need to recharge the nano using its included USB cable rather than a Universal Dock when LunaTik’s on; some third-party speaker docks with open sides do work to charge the nano inside LunaTik, but others don’t. Because it uses screws to secure its frame, taking the case off is a chore—Minimal warns users ahead of time that this is a “premium conversion kit for someone [who] wants to dedicate [a] nano to being a watch,” not a mere case. Finally, despite the attractive metal frame’s benefits, both the screen and rear clip are left entirely exposed inside LunaTik, leading to smudges on the face and sweat on the back, particularly when exercising. Power Support’s Anti-Glare Film helps considerably with the face though LunaTik tends to pull it up a little at the corners; nothing can be done about the nano’s back. Similarly, though this is the rare nano watchstrap design that permits use of the Nike + iPod Sport Kit, that compatibility advantage is offset by LunaTik’s greater susceptibility to sweat intrusion.
The other strap designs are all less noteworthy than Minimal’s, though it’s some consolation that each sells for only $25. Griffin’s Slap has the advantage of coming in your choice of eight colors, and unlike LunaTik, it provides protection for everything except the nano’s screen and headphone port, which are exposed for your use. Due to the design of the watch band—a single strip of flexible, rubber-coated metal that quickly and conveniently wraps around your wrist without requiring a clasp—you can easily turn the nano around so that the buttons and ports face in your preferred orientation, and the nano is much better protected than in LunaTik thanks to the use of a lot of rubber and a hard plastic inner frame: only the nano’s screen and headphone port are exposed, with everything else covered.
Slap’s disadvantages are three in number: first, it looks really cheap, second, the headphone port hole is so tiny that only Apple’s super-thin plugs can fit in, and third, there’s no way to recharge the nano or use it with the Nike + iPod Sport Kit without pulling it out of the enclosure. The latter point is of particular concern given the nano’s need for frequent recharging and appeal to athletes. As much as we’ve liked some of Griffin’s industrial designs in the past, and as attractive as a $25 price tag might be for something that protects the nano and renders it wearable, there’s no getting around the fact that we wouldn’t actually feel comfortable wearing Slap in public due to its bubbly shape and inexpensive-looking rubber texture. You might feel differently, and if you do, we wouldn’t discourage you from trying this case if you’re using Apple’s headphones and not concerned about Dock Connector access.
SwitchEasy has scored points with so many of its iPhone, iPad, and iPod case designs that Ticker’s comparative mediocrity came as a complete surprise to us; apart from a couple of touches, it sets the bar so low that we can’t consider recommending it. Ticker consists of a matte-finished and typically two-toned plastic band with a metal resizing pin and glossy colored buttons—the second-toned parts—to activate the screen and volume controls. Unlike any of its rivals, Ticker is packaged with twin screen protectors, a cleaning cloth, and applicator card, providing substantial protection for the nano while offering a medium-sized pass-through hole for the headphone port. Seven colors are available, and Ticker’s design is just a little sharper visually than Griffin’s Slap; not great or really even good, but a little more streamlined. Here, the orientation of the buttons and ports are kept up and down, respectively, which depending on your taste for having the headphone cable sticking downwards may or may not work for your needs; apart from turning the entire watch strap upside down, there’s no way to change the orientation here.
Ticker suffers from both common and new design issues. On the common side are its Dock Connector incompatibility and corresponding lack of Nike + iPod Sport Kit accessibility, plus the fact that it still looks cheap by $25 accessory standards. New is the wristband’s plastic material and overly simplified pin system, which make the band trickier than the others to wrap around your wrist, with less adjustability for different wrist sizes. If it fits you, the strap will double back inside itself so that nothing’s dangling out when it’s being worn. As with Slap, this isn’t a design that we’d actually want to wear out anywhere, but due to its feel and wristband, it falls short of even a limited recommendation to users who might like its looks. Ticker’s only real advantage is the comprehensive protection it offers with the included screen film, but that’s not enough to make this strap worth buying.
Last and least of the bunch is Ozaki’s iCoat Watch, which like Griffin’s Slap Case uses a flexible metal bar underneath a colorful silicone rubber watchband to hold the nano on your wrist without clasps or pins. Ozaki gets far more credit than either Griffin or SwitchEasy for actually taking the time to try and make its watch bands attractive: the seven different versions include different riffs on Apple’s official colors, each with a second contrasting color used for varied and somewhat interesting geometric patterns. While none of the patterns actually appealed to our aesthetic tastes, each is crisply implemented in the rubber, and users looking for something “fun” could gravitate towards these straps before most of the others we’ve seen.
Unfortunately, Ozaki’s approach to “iCoating” the nano is the worst of the group. This is the only watch strap in the collection that has nothing surrounding the iPod, which merely attaches to a rubber hole at the accessory’s center, such that its sides, face, top, and bottom are all just out there; it’s the only design that really advertises the fact that you have a nano sitting on your wrist. Ozaki makes a half-hearted attempt to address the lack of protection by including two identical (and more easily lost) black rubber port covers that can simultaneously cover or individually expose either of the nano’s accessory holes. As much as we appreciated what the company tried to do by focusing on iCoat Watch’s aesthetics, we wished it had spent similar or more time working on the rest of the accessory’s design. In its current form, it doesn’t feel worthy of a $25 asking price, and is tied with Ticker as a last choice option.
Having said that, iCoat Watch raises a point that the three other straps don’t: by throwing away basic expectations of device protection, it somewhat increases the convenience of attaching any accessory to the nano, and speeds your ability to remove the nano whenever you don’t want to wear it as a watch. Given how young the idea of “iPod as watch” really is at this point, there are real and as yet unanswered questions as to what the proper use model or models are for accessories of this sort, some of which will hopefully be answered with a more watch-ready seventh-generation iPod nano next year. Issues with headphones could easily be eliminated with an integrated Bluetooth chip, charging needs reduced with improved power consumption, and actual watch face viability improved with a superior collection of virtual timepieces, digital and analog alike. For now, there’s no truly great way to wear the sixth-generation iPod nano as a watch, but given the experimentation and limited successes we’re seeing thus far, we’d be surprised if that hasn’t changed by this time next year.