Pros: Apple’s highest-capacity mid-range flash player to date, with an outstanding array of nine color options that for the first time are available at a $149 base price rather than as a premium option. Preserves most of the features of last year’s flat A-rated version, adding an accelerometer that adds modestly to photo, game, and audio functionality. Includes font size options and optional voice prompting to aid those who would otherwise have trouble reading the small screen. Streamlines prior features, including Cover Flow music browsing and Nike + iPod, while adding new ones such as Genius playlist creation. Doubles past year’s storage capacity for same price. Best audio quality yet in an iPod nano.
Cons: Battery life for video and game playing has dropped from prior version, though audio playback time is roughly the same. New tapered shape feels like a dull knife in the hand, versus the softer curves of prior iPods and nanos, and requires rotation for playing videos and most games. Audio recording functionality has changed from past version, losing settings control and now outputting in Apple Lossless rather than the more compatible WAV format. Curved glass screen cover is a little more fingerprint- and glare-attractive than the predecessor, though also likely to be more durable. Incompatible with past FireWire charging accessories; will not charge when placed in Bose’s SoundDock, Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi, or certain car kits.
As a combination of the second- and third-generation iPod nanos, Apple’s new fourth-generation iPod nano ($149/8GB, $199/16GB) is the family’s thinnest iPod ever, and the first to be available in nine different colors. Using a curved body and an anodized aluminum shell that will be sold in silver, charcoal, blue, pink, red, green, yellow, orange, and purple, the new iPod nano features a portrait-orientation screen and an accelerometer that adjusts the device’s display for either widescreen or portrait viewing of album art, photos, and games. The accelerometer is also used in a packed-in game, Maze, which shows off the device’s ability to gradually adjust for the user’s current orientation while maneuvering a ball through mazes, as well as a “shake to shuffle” feature that lets you shuffle playback of songs just by shaking the device. Returning to this model are the not-quite-centered bottom-left Dock Connector and bottom-right headphone port; a new swirled metal Hold switch is found on the top. A Genius feature enables the nano to create playlists of similar music with only two button presses — press the Action button during any song to bring up a menu, then select the Genius option to create the list of options. Most interesting is the new nano’s doubling of prior storage capacity for the same prices as last year. A new issue: the new curved screen cover likes to attract fingerprints. We’ll have more on the new iPod nano very soon; you can see our video of the fourth-generation nano’s interface here.
In 2007, Apple released three substantially new iPods: the biscuit-shaped third-generation iPod nano (iLounge Rating: A), the metal-faced iPod classic (iLounge Rating: B+), and the phoneless iPhone called iPod touch (iLounge Rating: B-). This year, Apple has updated all three models with new features that range from trivial to important, generally improving each while boosting storage capacity for the dollar. Our review of the fourth-generation iPod nano (8GB/$149, 16GB/$199) covers all of the key changes and details you want to know about.
You’re probably already aware that the iPod nano occupies a specific space within Apple’s family of iPods: it’s the company’s mid-priced media player, larger, pricier and more capable than the screenless iPod shuffle, but smaller, more aggressively priced, and more colorfully packaged than the flash-based iPod touch and hard disk-based iPod classic. It has just enough storage capacity to hold the average user’s entire collection of songs and/or some videos at respectable bitrates, though traditionally neither its screen nor its audio quality were first-rate by Apple’s standards. Users came to consider it the ideal workout-ready iPod because of its small size, flash-based storage, and unique compatibility with the Nike + iPod Sport Kit, a jogging sensor that tracks a runner’s performance.
Last year’s iPod nano was a standout during an otherwise disappointing time for high-end iPod fans, who found themselves forced to choose between the iPod classic’s capacity and audio quality, or the iPod touch’s bigger screen and Wi-Fi capabilities. Back then, Apple gave the nano a great new screen, the ability to play videos and games, a new interface, and aggressive pricing, though it deviated from the candybar shape of prior iPod nanos and minis to achieve a larger screen size. There was no reason that Apple had to radically change last year’s device; it could easily have preserved the same general form factor, changed the colors, and boosted capacities.
Instead, the fourth-generation iPod nano is a different animal. Gone is the once-controversial nearly square shape of its immediate predecessor, replaced by the familiar anodized aluminum candy bar body of the much-loved second-generation iPod nano. There are now nine different colors to choose from, and you can pick any of them for either $149 or $199—the first time Apple has offered so many color options at its lowest nano price. Gone is the polished metal exterior of the prior model; the color once again wraps completely around the shell, except for white or black plastic top, bottom, and Click Wheel parts.
The major reason for last year’s shape change, a two-inch, 320×240 display, has been flipped on its side to become taller than it is wide, and in addition to changing the nano’s interface, Apple has added an accelerometer to detect the device’s orientation. Videos and games now play only when the nano is in wide mode; everything else works in tall orientation, and in some cases, both. Notably, the screen’s aspect ratio remains the same as the prior iPod nano’s, and has not shifted to the 1.5:1 format used by movies, the iPod touch and iPhone.
Another big change is in capacity. The $149 iPod nano now includes 8GB of storage space—twice what last year’s $149 model offered—while the $199 version offers 16GB. Viewed another way, you’ll have to pay an $80 or $100 premium to get an iPod touch with the same capacity, a substantial premium for the larger display and wireless capabilities. There are other changes, too. Some are evident just from watching this video of the new interface; others are not. We walk through of all of them in the sections below.
[Editor’s Note, September 18, 2008: Days after the release of the 8GB and 16GB iPod nanos, Apple was discovered to have given international third-party distributors a limited number of 4GB fourth-generation iPod nanos to sell at a price of €129. Apple has suggested that this 4GB model will not see general release, though it is available in the full array of nine colors. Our review discusses only the generally available 8GB and 16GB models.]
Physical Characteristics, Packaging, and Pack-Ins
Apple rightly describes the fourth-generation iPod nano as its thinnest iPod ever, though other changes to this device’s enclosure are several in number and equally important. At 3.6” tall by 1.5” wide by 0.24” deep, this model is a little thinner, narrower, and taller than any prior nano, each difference slight enough that you mightn’t notice it unless you were actually putting the devices next to each other.
In a direct comparison against the second-generation nano, however, the physical changes are stark. Put aside the color differences, addressed separately in the next section of this review. The new nano has a tiny, swirled metal Hold switch on the top where there used to be a larger plastic bar, and the distance between the Dock Connector and headphone ports at bottom has been cut by roughly 60%. These changes are in line with ones made to the third-generation nano, though the fourth-generation’s ports are even closer together, and the Hold switch looks a little smaller, but it’s easier to use thanks to its slight elevation above the device’s otherwise flat top surface.
Every prior nano, particularly the second-generation version, had soft corners, but the new one feels like a dull knife in your hand, with radiuses that are better for grip but worse for comfort. Cup your hand on the nano’s sides and, unlike the second-generation model, you can’t easily make it slide. One wonders whether Apple’s continued obsession with thinness will eventually lead to something so sharp that it creates paper cuts; there are times when thicker is better. Despite its larger size, the new second-generation iPod touch feels better in the hand.
Another area of mixed improvement is the new nano’s screen. Apple has switched to a curved glass coating that matches the curve of the device’s front, adding both glare and a tendency to attract unsightly fingerprints. On the flip side, this new coating is supposed to be more durable than its plastic predecessors; we’ll have to see over time how that plays out.
Pack-ins and packaging haven’t changed much from the two prior generations of iPod nano. Once again, the device comes in a clear plastic box with a white cardboard insert, which conceals a pair of standard iPod earbuds, a USB-to-Dock Connector cable for synchronization and charging, and a Universal Dock Adapter to help the nano recline in widely available iPod-agnostic dock accessories. This Adapter is numbered 17, for those keeping count; the new iPod touch’s Adapter is 16. The only other pack-ins are two Apple stickers, a warranty and safety pamphlet, and a simple black and white Quick Start manual. You’ll need to download iTunes 8 (or later) from Apple’s web site to place music, videos, and other content on the nano, as no software is found in the box.
Nine — That’s Right, Nine — Different Colors, Compared
The single best physical change to the fourth-generation iPod nano is its selection of colors. Most likely because there isn’t anything else compellingly different about this model and its immediate predecessor, Apple now offers customers nine different options, each plainly named—silver, black, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple, red, and pink. For the first time in nano history, you don’t need to spend $199 or $249 to get these choices; they’re all available in either $149 8GB or $199 16GB models. And none is precisely identical to the similar colors of past iPod minis or iPod nanos. Here are the differences.
Silver: The silver iPod nano 4G has made the biggest change from prior models. Unlike all past silver iPods, minis, and nanos, this model now sports black plastic top, bottom, and Click Wheel accents rather than white parts. Its metal color is basically unchanged. This is the only new iPod nano color combination that we really don’t like, but some people might enjoy the change.
Black: Apple now uses the word “black” to describe not just pure black, like the second-generation nano, but also a dark gray charcoal color that first appeared on last year’s third-generation model. Today’s black is almost identical to last year’s, perhaps a hint lighter, and features true black plastic accents like the ones on the silver nano. As much as we liked the jet black second-generation nano, we also like this color scheme a lot.
Blue: With the possible exception of black, none of the new nanos is markedly paler in color than the third-generation version, and most are similar to the second-generation colors. Blue is one of the most different: it’s now closer to blue jean blue than the second-gen’s slightly more aquamarine color.
Green: Green is a more intense version of the second-generation nano green, making both of the old colored nanos look a little dull by comparison.
Red: Apple went from a rich, saturated red in the second-generation nano to a darker, blue-infused tone in the third. The fourth-generation color is slightly stronger and closer to pure red than the second-generation version.
Pink: Apple’s pink changes have mirrored its red ones: the first nano color was intense, followed by a more subdued version, and now returns to intense. The new color is a slightly stronger pink than the second-generation nano’s, but it’s hard to see unless you hold them right next to each other.
Orange: Previously only available in the second-generation iPod shuffle, the fourth-generation nano’s orange looks virtually identical to the metal tone picked back then. The old shuffle looks a tiny bit brighter in color, but this could be attributable to the way light dances off of their different surfaces; in any case the difference is tiny.
Purple: Apple’s purple is a rich, saturated indigo rather than the pale version introduced last year in the iPod shuffle. The color leans almost towards royal blue under certain lights, and is right now one of our favorites in the bunch. It doesn’t always photograph accurately in color, but it is indeed more blue than red to our eyes.
Yellow: Only once has yellow made an appearance in the iPod family before, and that’s in the long-discontinued first-generation iPod mini, where it was called “gold.” It was the first and only color option that Apple discontinued when it updated the mini to the second-generation, and hasn’t appeared in an iPod of any sort since then, reportedly because the gold color was unpopular. The new tone is substantially unlike the old one—it’s a strong, saturated yellow, versus the original faded gold color; it’s as unmistakably its own tone as green, orange, and pink.
Choosing a fourth-generation iPod nano color should be pretty easy for most people: there’s something in this pack to appeal to every sort of user except for one looking for a sedate or vanilla option. We think that Apple’s selection of colors this time out is fantastic, and its choice to offer them all at the most aggressive price point yet is simply wonderful.
What’s Inside: The 4G nano’s Screen, Interface, and Accelerometer
Though the form factor of the new iPod nano has changed from last year’s model, virtually all of its individual components have stayed the same. There’s only one difference save orientation between this year’s and last year’s 320×240, two-inch screens: the new one has a slightly bluer tint than the old one, which was slightly purple. It’s not a huge difference, or especially positive or negative, but it’s noticeable.
The biggest changes between the two devices are interface-related, both in the ways they display content and the ways that their Click Wheels operate. Obviously, the switch to a vertical screen orientation from a horizontal one has forced Apple to completely re-engineer the prior device’s menu system, which used an awkwardly busy “text on the left, moving graphics on the right” interface. Some of the prior elements—miniature album and box art icons during Album or video menus, tiny thumbnails for photos, and so on—have been kept, but they’ve been updated to deal with the new orientation.
The new menus have markedly larger on-screen text than before, yet display up to ten choices on the fourth-generation nano’s vertical screen versus nine on the prior nano. Additionally, the new nano can boost its font to an even larger size that has nine even larger choices; here, the text is as big as on the screen of the iPod classic. It appears that Apple can pick shortened menu words for the larger font size—a typo makes the game “Maze” display as “Mae” when the size is boosted—and there’s also a new voice prompting feature that lets visually disabled users navigate all of the menus, including song choices, with audio-overlapping voice prompting. This feature is activated in iTunes, downloading voice prompts directly to the iPod nano, and taking up space in the process; it works surprisingly well but won’t be desirable for most users, as it’s constantly playing on top of other audio.
Thanks to the aforementioned built-in accelerometer, a feature borrowed from the iPhone and iPod touch, the new nano can sense its orientation and display certain content on a different angle. Photos, videos and games can be displayed in widescreen mode; photos can also be viewed in vertical mode. Extras, such as clocks, calendars, contacts, and notes, display only in vertical mode. We discuss each of these items in later sections of this review, but it suffices to say that while the rotating screen feature is a nice addition to the nano’s bag of tricks, it strikes us generally as unnecessary; again, Apple could have preserved the prior nano’s landscape-oriented screen and avoided the need to keep turning the device around.
The accelerometer enables two additional features that may or may not wind up being used more widely in this model. First, a menu option lets you activate “shake” mode, which lets you shake the nano to turn on shuffled playback mode and navigate away from the current song. We didn’t think much of the feature when it was first demonstrated, and felt weird using it in public, but it’s a nice way to quickly change songs in the car. Second, new iPod nano games could conceivably take advantage of the accelerometer for control; more on that in a subsequent section.
Unfortunately, the new nano’s Click Wheel sensitivity has suffered. The last model responded rapidly to even casual brushes, but the new one is a little less likely to respond quickly to scrolling and volume motions. Apple has fixed issues such as this in the past with firmware updates, but it remains to be seen whether this one is correctible in that way.
Audio Recording and iTunes Synchronization
Originally added to the iPod nano in the second-generation model, a feature called Voice Memos continues to allow users to record audio when a compatible recording accessory is attached. But there’s been a big change this year: now Voice Memos on both the new iPod nano and the second-generation iPod classic works with both Dock Connector recording accessories and headphone port-based microphones such as the one included with the iPhone and iPhone 3G. Apple will sell a new pair of recording-capable headphones shortly for $29, but the current iPhone headphones do work for this purpose.
Though this feature works generally as expected, there are a couple of unpleasant surprises. First, Apple has removed your ability to choose quality settings for the iPod nano’s headphone or Dock microphone recordings, and second, the nano now creates files in Apple Lossless format rather than WAV. Sample recordings we made with a headphone port-connecting microphone were automatically created in monaural mode, while a Dock Connector recorder automatically recorded in stereo mode, both at 44.1kHz. The benefit is that stereo recordings are likely to be smaller than they would have been before, but the consequence is that you may not be able to modify the Apple Lossless files in your editing software of choice. Another new feature lets you press the nano’s center button to insert chapter markers mid-way through your recording.
It’s worth noting that the second-generation iPod classic has not gained the chapter-marking feature, nor has it lost the ability to choose recording modes. As a consequence, if you have a need for more control over your audio recordings, the classic—or a past nano—may be a better pick than the new nano.
On a separate note, we have for years tracked the speeds at which various iPods synchronize with iTunes under real-world conditions, and have performed tests on both the new iPod nano and the new iPod touch to see how quickly they can be filled with data. In our test environment, it took 1 minute and 29 seconds to put 1GB of mixed video and audio files onto the new nano, versus exactly 2 minutes for the same 1GB of files onto the new iPod touch. You can expect that completely filling the 7.4GB of usable space on an 8GB iPod nano would take nearly 11 minutes, and roughly double that for a 16GB model, which offers 15.05GB of usable capacity.
Audio and Video Performance, Including Battery Life
The single biggest audio change to the iPod nano isn’t one that’s glaringly apparent, or even touted by Apple, but it’s there: the sound chip has changed. Months ago, long-time iPod audio chip supplier Wolfson Micro made clear—with minimal discretion—that its chips were not going to be included in either the upcoming iPod nano or iPod touch refreshes, which were then unknown. Lo and behold, the new devices arrived, and they sound like the 2007 iPod classic—they’re cleaner, with a nearly non-existent static noise floor that’s as well-suited to audiophile-grade earphones as free pack-ins. That’s really good news for those who hope to use their nanos with better headphones; the fourth-generation model is definitely the best-sounding iPod nano yet.
There are other changes to the nano’s audio functionality, as well. Using the accelerometer, Cover Flow mode is now activated automatically when you’re in any music menu and the device is on its side, and it’s a little faster and more fluid now. It looks as if Apple has achieved the extra speed by decreasing the sharpness of the covers slightly, a change that’s acceptable given the tiny screen size.
In addition to a much-improved Now Playing screen, which occupies the nano’s entire display width with album art a la the iPhone and iPod touch, Apple has added an optional Audio Crossfade feature to blend songs smoothly into one another, another little thing that hasn’t been added to the new iPod classic. While crossfading has been on our list of nano wants for a long time, the manner in which it operates—not when you manually select a new song, and without any control over the length of the fade, as found in iTunes—isn’t great. We’re hoping to see the feature gain a little manual control in a firmware update.
Apple has focused a lot on a new iPod nano feature called Genius, which lets you select any song from the device’s collection and automatically create a playlist of similar songs to listen to. Unfortunately, in addition to requiring you to provide information about your iTunes library to Apple—anonymously, the company says, though it requires an iTunes account login to set the service up—the Genius feature requires an initial synchronization of the iPod nano with iTunes in order to operate on the device, and depends upon iTunes to have identified your tracks in order to be able to create these lists. We found that it did an OK job of creating related playlists, but shuffling songs within a given genre would have produced similar results.
Apart from the small screen coloration difference noted earlier in this review—a slight blue tint to video, versus purple on the prior nano—video playback on the new nano is fundamentally identical to how it was on the third-generation model. You still have brightness, chapter, and volume controls accessible at a push of the center button, the same choices between owned and rented videos, video playlists, and settings.
Unfortunately, Apple’s worst decision of 2007 lives on in the new nano: video-out is still locked, requiring an overpriced authentication chip-based video cable, or a similarly expensive docking device to function. This unpublicized change to the iPods, which broke accessories and infuriated users, was never explained by Apple; it continues to render these nanos incompatible with many popular video accessories released prior to September 2007.
Despite the fact that Apple has taken some steps to make the new nano more power efficient, eliminating the on-screen clock that appeared on the non-backlit screen of the prior model while music is playing, run time has overall changed for the worse in this model. The good news is that music fans won’t see a huge difference: Apple promised 24 hours of music run time for both the third- and fourth-generation nanos, actually delivering 30 hours and 21 minutes on the third, and 30 hours and 57 minutes on the fourth. Both were set on 50% volume with minimal device interaction.
Where the new nano struggles more is in the video department. Apple lowered their promised run time to four hours of video from five hours in the prior nano, and though both numbers proved conservative in our testing, the new nano ran for roughly an hour less than its predecessor. We played a test loop of The Incredibles and Star Trek II on the third-generation model for 5 hours and 47 minutes on 50% brightness and 50% volume, but two fourth-generation models ran for only 4 hours and 45 minutes or 4 hours and 59 minutes on the same settings. It’s worth noting that game playing, which has become increasingly important in iPods over the past year, consumes roughly as much power as video playback, so a drop in battery life for video also means a drop in game-playing capability.
Note that the fourth-generation iPod nano has a comparable audio run time to the iPhone 3G, and a video run time that’s 50 minutes shy of the second-generation iPod touch, though the touch offers nearly nine hours more audio play time. If you really need substantially better audio and video battery life, the 120GB iPod classic runs for much longer, and as noted in its review, transfers files even faster.
Photos, Games, Nike + iPod, and Extras
There’s largely good news on the iPod nano’s other features, namely Photos, Games, Nike + iPod, and Extras.