Pros: Apple’s best flash-based music player yet, offering 2GB to 8GB storage capacities in six colored, super-slim aluminum enclosures, each at affordable prices. Far more scratch-resilient than prior model without compromising style. Lives up to Apple’s promised 24-hour battery life for audio playback, can record audio for over 8 hours with use of optional microphone accessories. Includes superior screen and modestly cleaner audio than prior iPod nanos, as well as new, better earbuds, and small but nice interface additions such as a search option. Continues to work with majority of prior Dock Connector iPod accessories.
Cons: Falls shorter of current-generation iPod on big features (video, games) than did prior nano at time of release. Color choices are limited by storage capacities and prices. Transfer times for data have doubled from prior nano. Users must download iTunes themselves prior to using iPod. Some old nano-specific accessories are physically incompatible.
Updated (3X): On September 12, 2006, Apple introduced the “second-generation” iPod nano, which not only combines Apple’s most popular past iPods – the first-generation iPod nano, and previously discontinued second-generation iPod mini – but adds to them in a number of impressive ways. Our expanded First Look now includes pictures of the newest iPod in all of its available colors and packages, comparisons to its predecessors, and new accessories, plus a complete dissection photo gallery to show you what’s inside.
When Apple Computer introduced the iPod nano (iLounge rating: A-/B+) one year ago, it displaced its most resilient, popular, colorful iPod – the iPod mini – with a technologically stunning but easily damaged and more expensive alternative. This week, Apple radically updated the iPod nano, fusing the DNA of its two best mid-range iPod designs into a single excellent package: the second-generation iPod nano ($149-249). Sold in three capacities – 2GB, 4GB, and 8GB – and five initial colors, the new nano eliminates several of the biggest complaints about its predecessor, and will leave iPod buyers with only one major question: which do I want more, a $249 8GB iPod nano or a $249 30GB iPod with video?
As suggested by the photographs above and below, our comprehensive review looks at each of the second-generation iPod nano’s colors, capacities, and key performance characteristics in the pop-down sections below. Click on the “Click here for details” markers to see all of our test results, photographs, and opinions, or jump to the conclusions section at the bottom for our final thoughts. Updated: On October 13, 2006, we added a new section discussing the 4GB iPod nano (PRODUCT) RED Special Edition, which is now found at the bottom of this review, and on November 3, 2006, we updated this section to reflect the subsequent release of the 8GB (PRODUCT) RED nano.
What’s the Second-Generation iPod nano’s History? (Click here for details.)
If you’re new to the iPod universe, here’s a little background on the history of Apple’s mid-range iPod family. Back in 2004, Apple released the $249 iPod mini, an aluminum-encased iPod, which had a super-small hard disk, five color options, and a four-Gigabyte storage capacity. Despite its high price-to-storage capacity ratio, the iPod mini was a massive success for Apple, becoming exceptionally popular with female and younger buyers, and quickly forcing the company to delay overseas sales to meet domestic American demand.
In 2005, Apple updated three of the mini’s colors (blue, green, and pink), discontinued a fourth color (gold), and kept the last one (silver) the same, reducing the 4GB model’s price to $199 and adding a 6GB model for $249. Both models promised 18-hour battery life, and actually ran for even longer in our tests. The new “second-generation” mini continued to be extremely popular domestically and overseas, quickly spawning numerous clones and competitors. But at the height of its success, to stun the makers of these wannabes, Apple discontinued the iPod mini, replacing it with the original iPod nano – a high-capacity flash-based MP3 player.
The first iPod nano added a color screen and photo playback features to the iPod mini formula, but otherwise took steps back in size, color options, and battery life. iPod nano came in only two colors (white or black), each using a glossy plastic front and a mirror-like metal back. Unlike the iPod mini, which was widely agreed to be the most resilient iPod design Apple had come up with, the nano was widely considered to be the family’s most easily scratched model. It modestly exceeded its promised 14-hour battery life, hitting 16 hours in some tests, which was acceptable but not spectacular. Apple released three capacities of iPod nano, 1GB ($149), 2GB ($199), and 4GB ($249), touting the thinner-than-pencil, lighter-than-mini design as extremely wearable and powerful. It measured 3.5” by 1.6” by 0.27”, and weighed only 1.5 ounces.
Apple’s new iPod nano is basically a remixed evolution of both of these products, building upon the best obvious features of iPod mini and nano to create a more resilient and powerful music player that’s also less expensive than the prior nano. The second-generation iPod nano is made from iPod mini-like aluminum, comes in the same four colors (silver, green, blue, and pink) of the prior mini, plus black and red versions, has three storage capacities (2GB, 4GB, 8GB), and delivers 24-hour battery life on a single charge. It is slightly thinner (0.26″) and lighter (1.41 ounces) than the prior iPod nano but otherwise dimensionally the same, has a 40% brighter screen (shown below), and adds one major new feature – recording capabilities, via accessories – to the nano’s bag of tricks. Fingerprints are still visible on the new nano’s casing when you touch it, but nowhere near as bad as on the prior version’s. Scratchability has most likely taken a major nosedive across the entire casing as well.
Is anything missing from the prior nano hardware? Not really, unless you consider physical support for all of the old nano’s accessories to be important. Our New and Old Accessories section below adds additional details on this subject. Additionally, Apple has shrunk the nano’s packaging considerably, for the first time leaving iTunes software entirely out of the iPod’s box. We discuss that in the Colors, Packaging, and Pack-Ins section below.
Colors, Packaging, and Pack-Ins (Click here for details.)
Apple’s new iPod nano boxes are its first ever to discard a cardboard, CD-sized design in favor of a hard, clear plastic shell. The second-generation iPod nano now sits iconically in front of a white background, surrounded by a clear shield; a sticker on each box top is opened to allow you to pierce the shield and remove the iPod inside. Accessories are kept in a separate compartment, divided by a radically smaller instruction booklet, safety and warranty booklet, and two small white Apple stickers.
In a move that some users think is a cruel or foolish trick on Apple’s part, the new nanos are sold in colors that vary by capacity. If you want a black iPod nano, you need to buy the 8GB version; if you want a blue, green or pink nano, you need to buy the 4GB version.
Red nanos are available in 4GB and 8GB capacities, while silver nanos are available in 2GB and 4GB capacities – you have no color choice but silver at the 2GB level. While we understand the major business motivations for Apple’s limited offerings – inventory management and a desire to force customers to pony up $249 for the popular black color – at a minimum, the green, pink, and blue bodies should really be available in 8GB capacities via special order. Additional colors, of course, would be much appreciated.
If it’s not instantly obvious from the smaller-than-CD-sized package, Apple no longer includes iTunes software in the iPod nano’s package – you’re instructed to download the software yourself from Apple’s web site before you connect the nano to your computer. This is an unfortunate inconvenience for anyone who doesn’t have broadband Internet access, but trivial for everyone else – the 25 Megabyte download took us only a couple of minutes on a high-speed connection. Also missing from the box is the small fabric starter case Apple surreptitiously inserted into the prior nano’s case when people threatened lawsuits over that model’s scratchability; it’s frankly no longer necessary.
The other items in the newest iPod’s box are pretty much the same as in the prior model’s: you now get a new Universal Dock Adapter (numbered 11) for use with Apple-standardized docking accessories, plus a standard USB 2.0 cable, and one pair of Apple “new” pack-in earbuds.
There’s almost entirely good news about these new earbuds. Thanks to a thoughtful redesign, they feel noticeably lighter and more comfortable than before, providing superior external noise isolation and apparent bass. Gray silicone rubber rings cover their slightly smaller diameter bodies, rather than the larger, hard plastic rings used in Apple’s earlier models. Most users will be very happy with the sound quality and feel of the new earbuds, plus the fact that they do away with the easily damaged and lost black foam covers, entirely. The only thing lost here is the prior earbud’s iconic design; Apple has clearly traded off fashion for comfort, a choice we think was ultimately in the best interests of iPod users. Additionally, Apple will, for the first time, sell extra earphones identical to the pack-ins for a price of $29, so you can replace the pack-ins with “official” replacements if they break.
Second-Generation iPod nano: What’s Outside (Click here for details.)
Essentially, the second-generation iPod nano’s body is a shrunken iPod mini with a color screen, with dimensions (3.5″ by 1.6″ by 0.26″) that are identical to the prior nano, but thinner by 0.01″, and at 1.41 ounces, it’s lighter than the prior nano by 0.09 ounces. The size and weight differences aren’t as noticeable as the curve differences on each model’s top, bottom, and sides; the new nano has rounded, tube-like sides and classically Apple rounded rectangular top and bottom surfaces.
You can see all of the colors and sides for yourself in these photos. Each new model preserves the top-mounted Hold switch, front-mounted Click Wheel, and bottom-mounted headphone and Dock Connector ports of its iPod nano predecessor. The latter ports enable the nano to be worn upside down (screen facing you) when attached to lanyard headphone accessories, a feature not found in any other current iPod model, but one that makes this model less pocket-friendly than full-sized iPods.
Each new iPod nano save the black version has a white top, bottom, and Hold switch, each part made from plastic rather than metal, unlike the prior nano; no one will mind this change. These nanos all also have white Click Wheels with body-matched metallic center buttons, now concave (depressed) rather than convex (iPod mini) or flat (iPod nano). The icons and text on each Click Wheel are gray rather than colored, a fallback to the original iPod mini’s design. Additionally, the central Action button on the Click Wheel has shifted from convex (sticking out, iPod mini) or flat (original iPod nano) to concave (depressed inwards) for fewer accidental button presses.
By comparison, the black iPod nano has all-black parts from top to bottom, and white icon text on its Click Wheel. Each model’s rear has bright white laser engraving with the classic iPod elements: Apple and iPod logos, storage capacity, serial number and other small technical details and electrical certifications. We found the engraving hardest to read on the silver nano, and easiest on the black, though the black one revealed flaws in the engraving that weren’t as obvious in the colored models.
Because Apple chose to use aluminum again – we’re very glad that it didn’t go with magnesium – the new nano bodies have one major, obvious advantage: they don’t scratch like the old nanos, which we noted in our review were showing flaws quickly after unboxing. Fingernails, small drops, and general carrying around have failed to create marks in our new nanos to date; all these models show easily are fingerprints, which are hard to eliminate from anything that gets held in your hand.
Physically, the new nano’s weakest point is its screen, which appears to be covered by a thinner-than-iPod mini plastic shield that more likely than not will be better than the prior nano’s from a scratchability perspective. As with the iPod nano, a simple piece of plastic film will keep it in great shape for years. It’s also worth a brief note that we found small metal imperfections on several of our review samples – typically hints of extra material around the case’s hole cut-outs – but they’re neither large nor noticeable enough that most people would mind.
Overall, the second-generation iPod nano’s body is decidedly superior to the one it replaces, answering basically all the requests that iPod fans (and detractors) have lodged since the iPod mini was discontinued last year. There’s no doubt in our minds that Apple made the right choice to switch back to the best features of its prior design, and we hope that future purse- and pocket-friendly iPods will adopt the same scratch-proof metal cladding of these models. All that’s needed at this point are additional color options and other slight tweaks.
What’s Inside: Transfer Speeds, Battery Life, and Other Tech Details (Click here for details.)
If you’re curious to see what the iPod nano looks like inside, we now have a complete dissection gallery full of photos you can check out. Like last year’s model, the nano continues to be a model of internal design efficiency, packed with cutting-edge microprocessors, flash memory, screen and battery components, each largely improving on what came before.
As we discovered when we opened up one of the new iPod nanos, Apple has made a number of changes to the components of this model: it appears as if prior CPU supplier PortalPlayer has indeed lost its place inside the new nanos, with its chips and others replaced by custom parts from Apple’s prior flash memory supplier Samsung. When looking at the nano, the component change is almost entirely impossible to notice: the interface has the same menus, timing, and looks as the prior one’s. But the new components have yielded some other changes that aren’t as obvious, most of them positive.
The single biggest addition to the old iPod nano formula is storage capacity. Continuing the trend started by the first iPod nano, this model eschews hard disks entirely in favor of flash chips, with 2GB, 4GB and 8GB capacities selling for $149, $199, and $249 respectively – doubling of the capacity at each prior iPod nano (1GB/2GB/4GB) price point. Formatted storage capacity on the new 8GB nano is 7.4GB – more than enough to store a typical DVD in full, plus hundreds of songs. From a big picture standpoint, it’s perhaps not surprising that the new 8GB iPod nano is no larger or more expensive than its 4GB predecessor, but this is the first time that Apple’s offered such high capacity at this price, let alone in such a small enclosure. By iPod standards, it’s a great value.
Another positive change is in screen quality. Apple claims that it has increased the screen’s brightness by 40% over the prior model, and we did immediately find the difference noticeable when old and new nanos were placed next to each other. However, it’s worth noting that not all iPod nanos were created equal in this regard – two old models differed from each other in screen brightness and tone, one bluer and brighter, the other pinker and dimmer.
The new nano’s screen is brighter and more color-neutral than both of the earlier screens we’ve seen, but still has a slightly pink tint. Because of the added brightness, you won’t notice it as much as before, and frankly, we don’t think most people will care at all.
Fulfilling Apple’s promises, battery life has also received a massive upgrade from the prior iPod nano, which promised 14 hours of audio play time and actually delivered around 15. This time, Apple has promised 24 hours of continuous music playtime, and our tests have shown this number to be accurate to basically the minute – it ran for 24 hours and 2 minutes on a continuous audio test at 50% volume. We also ran a musicless slideshow test for 5 hours and 55 minutes before the battery expired; Apple promises that a slideshow with music will run for up to 5 hours. There are some surprises, too. As detailed further in the New Features section below, the second-generation iPod nano can now record audio in addition to playing it back, and its continuous recording performance was surprisingly impressive: on low-quality mode, one of our nanos ran for 8 hours and 15 minutes of recording time before its battery died, consuming 1.25GB of storage space in the process. On high-quality recording mode, the new nano ran for 3 hours and 53 minutes in a continuous test before the battery died. We’re not sure why the high-quality recording mode runs the nano down faster than the low-quality mode, but we’ve seen it happen twice.
The only real component-related step down we noticed in was in transfer speeds. Apple last year shifted iPods entirely to the highly common, PC-friendly USB 2.0 standard for data transfers, and the original iPod nano was pretty fast at transferring music, photos, and other data from computer to flash memory. In a direct comparison between current and past 4GB iPod nanos, however, we discovered that the new nano transfers at around one-half the speed of its predecessor: it took 4 minutes and 35 seconds for the old nano to transfer a 2.58GB file – incidentally, a full DVD image of Windows Vista – while the new one took 9 minutes and 15 seconds for the same file. Average users can expect that nano music library refreshes will take longer than before – not much of a problem if you fill your nano once and use it for a while, but a possible inconvenience if you repeatedly deplete and then re-fill the nano all the time.
Interface and Menus: A Brief Overview (Click here for details.)
In short, Apple hasn’t changed anything major from the prior iPod nano’s menuing system in the new nano: it is just as we described last year, so we’ve only modestly updated our prior descriptions for this new review.
The iPod nano uses a scaled down version of the first color iPod interface released in October, 2004, but with small visual tweaks. A gray bar at the top of each screen identifies where you are in the iPod’s menus, while a battery indicator on its right provides a mostly accurate count down to complete discharge. Blue-colored Play and Pause icons in the upper left corner let you know whether the nano’s paused or playing, no matter what else you’re doing (hunting for songs, playing photos or games, or changing settings) in the menu system.
As with the full-sized iPod, a variety of black text on white background menus dominate the nano’s interface. You begin by selecting from Music, Photos, Extras, or Settings, each leading to a second menu of choices. If you want to bypass the menus and just start listening to music, you click on the fifth option, Shuffle Songs, and your entire stored collection will play back in random order. Each of the menus looks virtually identical to the ones on the full-sized iPod, save for an omission in nano’s photo abilities – it can’t optionally display photos on a TV – and an additional option, Nike+iPod, which appears if you connect Nike’s optional Sport Kit (iLounge rating: A-) to the bottom Dock Connector port. Other less iPod-specific options, such as Radio and Voice Memos, appear if accessories are attached to the nano.
Of course, nano plays back music tracks just like a full-sized iPod. You select audio from the Music menu, which initially lets you choose from Playlists, Artists, Albums, Songs, Genres, and Composers, plus a new option called Search, described in the next section. Additional categories, such as audiobooks and podcasts, can be added to the iPod’s menus via settings screens or adding such content to the iPod for listening. Once you’ve selected a track, a screen called Now Playing appears.
Pressing the center button on the Click Wheel while listening to a song moves you through five screens: volume adjustment, the “scrubber” to move anywhere you want in the current track, a large picture of the current song’s album art, song lyrics, and a 0- to 5-star rating screen. Lyric text is small (eight lines at a time), but entirely readable. Touching the Click Wheel and moving back and forth changes volume, your place in the track, your place in the lyrics, or rating; pressing the nano’s forward or backward buttons on the album art screen moves you through multiple pieces of art (and their associated “chapters”) in podcasts.
Photo playback is largely identical to the full-sized iPod’s, only smaller. Instead of 30 thumbnails per page, you now get 12 that are easy to identify. Landscape-orientation (wide) photos still display in full-screen mode, while portrait-orientation (tall) photos appear with significant black bars on their sides. Just as with the larger iPod, nano displays bezeled play and pause icons on screen during a slide show; unlike the full-sized iPod, it has only five different transition effects between slides, which can be randomized during shows if you prefer. The current full-sized iPod has more and better transitions, and though we’d like to see them here, too, this isn’t a killer omission for the tiny nano.
Interface and Menus: New Features (Click here for details.)
Feature differences between the old and new nanos are not pronounced, but they’re there. The most trivial is that the new nano’s Clicker sound actually sounds like a “click” now rather than a chirp; as before, it can be heard with or without headphones attached, or turned off.
The most noticeable changes are ones you’ll notice when browsing through menus and songs. For the first time on an iPod, Apple has added a search engine that helps you find songs, artists, and albums based on their alphabetical letter content. All you need to do is select the new Search menu option under music and then use the Click Wheel to input your choice of letters to search by. Rather than providing a list of only songs, the feature lets you search multiple iPod databases at once and find results in one big list. Individual songs appear in the list without an icon, while artists show up with a head and shoulders icon, and albums appear with a CD icon. If you’re trying to find something quickly, Search is a great way to do it.
There’s only one annoyance in the Search feature as currently implemented: you need to scroll to and then hit a Done button when you’ve finished entering letters – pressing the Menu button brings you out of the menu rather than back to your search results. That one simple refinement could make this feature even better.
Scrolling has also been modestly enhanced. If you move quickly through a large library, the iPod displays a bezeled large-sized letter on screen to let you see quickly where you are in a long list of songs.