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.

Apple’s iPod touch receives the lion’s share of attention these days—justifiably so, given its capabilities—but until now, the iPod nano has been more consistently excellent from generation to generation. Starting with its 2005 debut as an “impossibly thin” color-screened iPod with photo capabilities, the nano has had more great years than any other iPod, receiving our high recommendation in four of its five prior incarnations. After the cool but easily scratchable first version, Apple used colored aluminum for the improved second version, added video and games to the third version, improved the capacity, body and colors for the fourth version, and threw in everything but the kitchen sink for last year’s fifth version. Since there’s been a totally new iPod nano every year since its introduction, Apple didn’t need to replace the fifth-generation model this September—a price drop would have sufficed and made a lot of sense.

As is its tendency and prerogative, however, Apple thought differently. Rather than dropping the iPod shuffle and allowing the iPod nano to become the family’s baby, placing a new iOS device between the iPod nano and iPod touch, the company undertook a radical, hack-and-slash transformation of the iPod nano into a completely different animal—one that has very little in common with the last three devices to bear the same name. The sixth-generation iPod nano (8GB/$149, 16GB/$179) retains last year’s prices and storage capacities, but combines iPod shuffle and iPod touch DNA to produce a new device that’s only slightly larger than the iPod shuffle that survived until early 2009, with only a centimeter of extra height to accommodate a 1.25” square touchscreen. Unlike the six-year-old contest-winning concept rendering that likely set this design in motion, the new nano looks like it’s running a limited version of Apple’s iOS operating system, but actually is using an update to the same operating system that has powered past iPod nano and classic models. Updated October 2011: Apple reduced the price of the iPod nano to 8GB/$129 and 16GB/$149 on October 4, 2011, and updated the software to version 1.2. We have updated this review with a new ninth page of details, and a new rating.

 

The result is a cute but less than totally satisfying compromise between Click Wheel and Multi-Touch iPods, marketed by Apple as the latter but actually as limited as the earliest versions of the former. In addition to the four virtual icon buttons that appear at once on the tiny screen, there are three physical buttons on top, headphone and Dock Connector ports on the bottom, and a large clip on the back. Gone are the video, gaming, camera, and other features that have been added to the iPod nano over the years, facts that Apple conveniently omitted when introducing the product, though its web site explains that the nano is “now all music and all Multi-Touch.” It still works with the venerable Nike + iPod Sport Kit, providing an athletic differentiation from the new $49 iPod shuffle, and continues to include a pedometer and FM radio, but most of the prior nano’s frills have gotten the chop.

 

Our comprehensive review of the sixth-generation iPod nano takes a detailed look at Apple’s new design, everything the device can do, and what’s actually been lost from last year’s model. Despite the significant changes and high price, issues that doomed last year’s similarly radical streamlining of the iPod shuffle, we wouldn’t write off the new nano so quickly—the story’s more complicated than it seems. Great battery life, the wearably small size, and the “multi-touch” gimmick all have a shot at making it a popular niche iPod; had it been billed as a super iPod shuffle or the start of a new sub-iPod nano product family, it would have been a popular low-end model. The problem is that it’s being pitched as a direct replacement for a device that did more than twice as much for the same price. Over these nine pages, accessible via the page-jumping bars above and below, you’ll get a good sense of whether it’s right for you, or worth skipping.

Body, Colors, Packaging, and Pack-Ins

Apple’s sixth-generation iPod nano has two key tricks up its sleeve to win people over—the new body design and the screen. This and the next section of our review focus on each of these subjects in turn.


As noted in the introduction to this review, the sixth-generation iPod nano is dimensionally only a little larger than Apple’s second-generation iPod shuffle: the 1.61” width is nearly identical, with a taller 1.48” height, and a shallower 0.35” depth, including its rear clip, for a total volume of 0.614 cubic inches—barely larger than the 0.5 cubic inch shuffle. If it wasn’t for the fact that companies have been stuffing screens into shuffle-sized enclosures for years, the feat would seem close to miraculous here—the difference in Apple’s case comes down to the quality and functionality of the materials.

 


The new iPod nano’s body is made from polished anodized aluminum, finished to the same gloss as the fourth-generation iPod shuffle released earlier this week—not as shiny as the car paint-like finishes of last year’s iPod nano, but similar. Seven colors are available this year, down from nine in the past two years, with historically unpopular yellow and our prior favorite purple both getting the axe.

 


Other colors have shifted in tone to match this year’s less than eye-popping iPod shuffles, including a familiar silver, the same nearly purple “blue,” copper-toned “orange,” a rosy pink, and a neutral green.

 

A strong red version is offered as a (Product) Red option solely through Apple Stores, and a “graphite” colored model replaces the black and charcoal nanos with a decidedly lighter, pencil tip-like tone.

 


Aside from the rich red version, we’re not huge fans of any of these colors, particularly by reference to the just right nano options offered two years ago, but they’re inoffensive and easy not to notice during normal use.

 


That’s because your chosen color peeks out only a little from a face that’s otherwise glass—viewed head-on, the nano looks jet black when its screen is off. By contrast, the top, sides, bottom and back are thoroughly tinted save for the ports, and for three matte metallic gray buttons that look just like smaller versions of the iPhone 4’s volume and Sleep/Wake controls. They’re circular and pill-shaped, matching the welcome return to soft corner radiuses for this iPod nano from its two blade-like predecessors.

 


A plus marks the volume up button, and a minus is on the volume down button; these are notably the only way to control volume on the new nano, as there aren’t touchscreen equivalents. The larger Sleep/Wake button turns the screen on and off, similarly the only way to accomplish this with the nano as there’s no iPhone-style Home button to act as a second trigger. There’s room up top for track and play-pause buttons, but they’re not there—you’ll need to activate the screen or add a wired remote to the nano if you want to control playback or change tracks. Click Wheel iPod fans have been telling us for years that the loss of physical buttons for track control would be their biggest pain points in an touchscreen iPod nano, and now that it’s happened, only the new iPod shuffle offers a similarly compact alternative with these buttons built in. Apple could have tossed in its three-button remote-equipped Earphones, but didn’t.

 


Another big change to the new iPod nano is the addition of a rear shirt clip, a feature that renders the device wearable straight out of the box for the first time, just like the last three versions of the iPod shuffle. Though it’s oversized by comparison with the clip on any iPod shuffle, the nano’s glossy, Apple-logoed clip is slightly smaller than the rest of its rear surface, a subtle design tweak introduced in the third-generation iPod shuffle.

 

Unlike the shuffles, the nano’s clip doesn’t mask the presence of a rear service access compartment; Apple instead fits all of the components into this model by inserting them ahead of the screen, which then fills the only large hole in the otherwise unibody casing. It’s a highly elegant design, and feels good in the hand with a 0.74-ounce weight; the only physical challenge in using it is avoiding accidental screen and button interactions while clipping it to clothes or making connections and disconnections with accessories. Users will quickly learn where their fingers should and shouldn’t be to avoid problems; the nano’s black screen frame and somewhat bare top surface turn out to be advantages for this reason alone.

 


Apple packages each iPod nano in a clear hard plastic box that’s roughly 2.25” on each side and 1.75” deep—similar to the new iPod shuffle box, only larger. Yet Apple still packs a full USB to Dock Connector cable, a pair of standard, remote- and mic-less iPod Earphones, one Apple logo sticker, a Start Here guide, and a warranty booklet into a compartment behind the place where the nano is displayed—an incredibly efficient use of space. Gone, however, is the Universal Dock Adapter that Apple has included with every iPod nano since the first model, a victim of the company’s desire to reduce packaging waste, and of the challenge of recessing a device this short by the traditional 0.4” required by Universal Docks. We’ll discuss that last point further in the Accessories section of this review.

The Square Screen and New User Interface

As shiny and pleasant as the new iPod nano’s casing may be, the new screen and user interface are the parts that will generate the most discussion. With 240×240 resolution, the square screen measures under 1.25 inches per side and 1.54 inches on the diagonal, smaller than any screen since before the nano gained video capabilities in 2007. The new display has a resolution of 220 pixels per inch, which is higher than the 163ppi iPhone 3GS and its 2009 peers, and a little higher than the last three iPod nanos (204 ppi), but not as high as the new 326ppi “Retina Displays” in the iPhone 4 and new iPod touch.


Numbers aside, the dots on the iPod nano screen are plenty small, and squeeze more into a small space than ever before. The new screen’s viewing angles are nearly as impressive as the iPhone 4’s, so you can see the interface even if you’re looking at the nano on a fairly sharp off-angle. With a peak brightness level comparable to past nanos, artwork pops with color, and though both text sizes and empty space suffer by comparison with the iPhone and iPod touch, Apple has achieved some generally impressive visual compromises here.

 

It’s obvious after spending time with the new nano that the company’s user interface designers spent plenty of time thinking about how to make a compelling touchscreen experience for a device this small, and for the most part, they’ve succeeded—as we’ll note again later, the issue with the new nano isn’t so much what it does as what it doesn’t do. Apple has replicated the core of the iPhone and iPod touch interface with a set of swiped Home Screens that contain grids of icons—2 by 2 at most, with the ability to hold down any icon and change its location within the Home Screens. Little dots at the bottom of each screen let you know how many more screens are available to the left or right. There’s no Unlock Screen, but Apple lets you choose the nano’s wallpaper from a set of nine built-in images, without offering the option to substitute your own photos—a small disappointment.

Four Home Screens are available when you first turn on the iPod nano, and they’re largely occupied with icons devoted to items that appeared under the “Music” menus of prior iPod nanos: Playlists, Now Playing, Artists, and Genius Mixes are on the first screen, followed by Radio, Podcasts, Photos, and Settings on the second, Songs, Albums, Genres, and Composers on the third, plus Fitness and Clock alongside two blank spots on the fourth screen. Plugging in an accessory with a microphone creates a new icon called Voice Memos, replicating the long-time iPod nano voice recording feature with some small tweaks. Using iTunes to synchronize an audiobook to the iPod nano creates a sixteenth icon called Audiobooks. There’s no delete button for icons you don’t want to see; they just need to be moved onto different pages.

 

Giving each of these modest features its own icon may sound a little crazy, but Apple obviously took this route for two reasons: first, the icons make the iPod nano look like it has a lot of features, which it doesn’t, and they’re better than the alternative—largely white scrolling screens with black text, just like the prior iPod nanos. That’s actually what you’ll see after clicking on most of the icons, with extra white space to accommodate the imprecision that fingers introduce relative to wheel-and-button-based track selection. Only three or four title, artist, or album names appear at once on the screen, which makes for a lot of swiping through lists unless you use the miniaturized alphabetical navigation bar on the right of the screen, a godsend that actually works pretty well if your finger’s not shaking. A list-scrolling interface that’s dependent on a thin jump bar is just one of the ways in which the new interface feels practical and iOS-consistent from a design standpoint, but less than ideal as a user experience.

 

Another is the way that Apple has tried to work around the absence of a Home Button, which has proved more convenient and versatile over the years than most early iPhone or iPod touch adopters could have imagined. With no Home Button, the iPod nano requires you to either swipe from left to right over and over again until you return to the Home Screen, or hold down on some empty space on the otherwise packed display until the Home Screen reappears. Since the empty space changes locations from screen to screen, sometimes in the middle and sometimes near an edge, you’ll always need to hunt for a place to hold your finger. It’s this kind of bizarre inconvenience—like needing to hit the last iPod shuffle’s play/pause button three times to go back a track—that shows how Apple’s hate of buttons has recently gone too far; adding just that one button would have saved a lot of frustration.

The last major oddity in the new iPod nano’s interface is its support—or lack thereof—for multi-touch gestures. Apple has touted the nano as a “Multi-Touch” device, but in reality, its screen is too small for more than two adult fingers to do anything but sit there simultaneously, so there’s only one two-finger gesture on the device. No, it’s not “pinch to zoom,” which might have made sense for the Photos feature, but rather “turn to rotate,” which is used to spin the entire interface 90, 180, or 270 degrees so that the screen can be read in any position the nano’s in. As before, the iPod nano has an accelerometer than could have done this automatically, but Apple doesn’t use it for this purpose.

 

Would it have made more sense to use the accelerometer here, just as in the last iPod nano, plus all iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches? Maybe, maybe not. The accelerometer was most noteworthy in past nanos because of a self-explanatory feature called Shake to Shuffle, and still does that here; the awkward angles a clipped nano may take when hanging off clothes might lead the screen to rotate unnecessarily. But the idea of calling the new nano “Multi-Touch” when rotating the screen is its only multi-finger gesture seems like overaggressive marketing; the nano might be capable of more, but as is, the advanced display offers almost no benefit to end users.

 


One final note on changes to the iPod nano user interface regards Accessibility, the collection of features designed to make the device usable by hearing- or visually-disabled listeners. Apple has brought over a couple of features from the iPhone and iPod touch—Mono Audio and the screen color-flipping White on Black—while keeping the text-to-speech VoiceOver system, and removing others, including support for larger fonts. Between the smaller-than-iPod touch, unscalable text used on Home Screen icons and other elements of the interface, and the removal of physical track-switching and play/pause buttons, our feeling is that the sixth-generation nano is a comparatively weak choice for disabled users relative to its predecessor.

Six Remaining Features: iPod Audio, Radio Tuning + Voice Memo Performance

When it really comes down to it, the sixth-generation iPod nano’s 16 icons actually represent a total of six features: music/audio playback, FM radio tuning, voice recording, photo playback, workout tracking, and clock display, plus a global settings menu for all of the features. The only surprises here are in the iPod nano’s handling of video and photo content, which we discuss in the sections below.


iPod Music/Audio. Ten of the nano’s 16 icons lead generally to the same place: iPod audio playback or catalog features. Playlists and Genius Mixes are manually and iTunes-automatically generated collections of tracks, respectively, while Artists, Songs, Albums, Genres, and Composers sort the device’s song library by different headers. Podcasts and Audiobooks provide separate areas for holding those slightly different types of files, while the last icon—Now Playing—brings you automatically to the track and play/pause controls for whatever you’re currently listening to.

 


Because of the nano’s small screen, music playback is sort of odd this time around: select a new track and the screen is filled with a single piece of album artwork, requiring a tap to bring up the artist’s name, song title, and album name above track back, play/pause, and track forward buttons. The bottom of this Now Playing screen features a miniature “i” button to let you rate the track with up to five stars, plus a list of tracks from the same album.

 


You’re also able to swipe to a second screen with a scrubber bar, repeat, genius playlist creator, and shuffle icons; a third screen with lyrics appears for tracks that contain iTunes-synchronized lyric text. While Apple has made the most of this tiny display, putting the visual focus on the album art unless you need something else, the controls just don’t feel as convenient as on past iPod models—athletes in particular may chafe at having to activate and look down at the screen just to pause or change songs.

 


The Audiobooks and Podcasts features introduce a few changes to the standard iPod music playback interface. Audiobooks swap the album track menu for a list of chapters, while replacing the genius and shuffle buttons with “back 30 seconds” and “1/2 speed/full speed/2x speed” reading options. Podcasts has the same button changes on its second screen, while using the third screen for descriptive meta-data from iTunes, explaining what the podcast contains.

 

There are only two surprises in the iPod nano’s handling of audio. First is the sound through its headphone port, which is noticeably louder in this version than in the fifth-generation model. At the 25% and 50% marks using Ultimate Ears’ UE-11 Pro earphones and lossless audio test files, the new nano sounded 10-15% more powerful than before, with small but noticeable bass and treble boosts that were like the ones we heard in the new fourth-generation iPod shuffle—enough to make the audio just a little punchier. Users of inefficient headphones will appreciate the power boost, while others may want to turn the volume down a little to protect their hearing. By comparison, the Dock Connector port audio sounded extremely similar between these models, with differences that we’d describe as insignificant.

The second surprise is the way that the new iPod nano handles video content. Despite its lack of support for video playback, the iPod nano allows you to synchronize and listen to the audio portions of video podcasts, which are filed under the Podcasts icon, as well as Music Videos, which appear without special adornment as songs. Both of these videos display their album art-styled key frame on the nano’s screen without any animation, and the nano does not output their video content to an Apple cable-connected TV screen, either. Users who felt like they were being shut out of hearing their favorite songs or podcasts with the new nano therefore don’t have much to be concerned about, though they obviously lose the video portions entirely—a compromise that wasn’t necessary on the last nano.

FM Radio Tuning. Of all the new features Apple gave the iPod nano last year, only two survived in this model, and one is the integrated FM radio tuner, a feature Apple stubbornly refused to add into iPods for the better part of a decade before tossing it into the nano—nothing else—last year. As before, the Radio feature requires you to connect a pair of headphones to serve as an antenna; Dock Connector accessories, even cables, are not an alternative but can be connected at the same time.

 

Once that’s done, a cropped version of last year’s attractive, big-numbered tuner appears on the screen, with an “i” button in the corner to bring up a menu. Tapping on the number calls up a scrollable dial and buttons to tune station by station, plus the ability to use a Live Pause feature to stop and timeshift a brief portion of a live radio broadcast. Apple still doesn’t let you record full songs and export them for later playback using Live Pause—it wants to sell songs via iTunes, after all—but if you need to hear something you missed in a talk radio program, this feature lets you skip back and then forward again.

 

Hitting “i” calls up a partial settings menu, including a new Local Stations feature that automatically scans the airwaves for signals strong enough to be available stations—it grabbed a partial list of available channels—while Favorites contains a list of your starred stations, and Tagged and Recent Songs options keep track of sometimes available song metadata that the nano can save for later purchasing through iTunes. The latter three features were available on the prior iPod nano, along with Live Pause and Radio Regions settings that have been moved to the device’s separate Settings application, under General.

The FM tuner is roughly as powerful on the new iPod nano as it was on the preceding version, with fairly strong renditions of stations that nevertheless rarely escaped a light level of static during our testing. We liked the fact that the Local Stations feature gave us a starter list of stations to use without having to swipe around on the dial, and particularly liked the look of the interface, which was nice last year when it debuted—frankly an improvement on the rest of the white-backgrounded nano UI. It would be nice to have a similarly adorned radio tuner in the iPod touch and iPhone.

 

Voice Recording. The sixth-generation iPod nano’s Voice Memos application is an aesthetically cut-down version of the same named application for other iPods, losing the screen-filling microphone of the fifth-generation nano and iPod touch/iPhone application while keeping the volume unit meter from each of the devices, and adding the separate record and list buttons found in the iOS app. As with the last nano, audio files are recorded as stereo 128kbps AAC files at 44.1kHz, even if you’re using a monaural mic, and consume roughly 1MB per minute, give or take a little. Quality will depend chiefly on the microphone you use; the ones in Apple’s Earphones with Remote and Mic and In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic do a fine job of capturing voice memos.

 

Pressing the record button reminds you to plug in a microphone if you haven’t already—something that notably isn’t necessary on the iPod touch, iPhone, or mic-equipped older iPod nano—with a stop button replacing the list button while recording’s in session. Hitting the list button lets you see prior recordings, add one of six categorization labels, and delete tracks if you don’t want to synchronize them back to iTunes. Once iTunes pulls the files off of the nano, the Voice Memos icon disappears until the next time a microphone is connected. This is a no-frills feature that works well; we recorded a 30-minute test and several shorter samples without any complaint from the nano.

Six Remaining Features: Photo Playback, Workout Tracking + Clock

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.

Battery, Capacity, iTunes Synchronization Times + What’s Missing

Battery life for the sixth-generation iPod nano is one of the new design’s highlights. Despite the significant size reduction in this year’s model, which always forces compromises on battery size, the new nano once again handily surpassed Apple’s promised 24-hour audio run time in our testing, achieving 33 hours and 19 minutes of continuous playback before emitting a quick chime and turning off. It notably did so while playing at a 50% volume level that’s louder than its predecessors, while squeezing nearly an extra hour of life out relative to the fifth-generation model, and over two hours more than the fourth-generation nano.

The 8GB iPod nano has 7.35GB of usable space, nearly 1GB more than the 8GB iPod touch, while the 16GB iPod nano has 14.8GB of usable space, just a little more than twice the lower-end model’s capacity. Loss of some of the stated capacity is, as always, due to both differences in formatting the devices’ flash memory and the space required for the operating system. In any case, the new iPods have enough space for between 2,000 and 4,000 three-minute songs at 128kbps, respectively, with fewer songs as length or quality improves.

 

Filling the new iPod nano with music continues to be as fast and painless as with prior models. Once you’ve downloaded and installed Apple’s iTunes 10 software, you can select music, audiobooks, and podcasts—including music videos and video podcasts, as noted earlier in this review—to just drag and drop on the iPod nano icon. Transferring 1GB of files to the device took 1 minute and 45 seconds, a little faster than doing the same thing with the new iPod touch (2:05), and more than three times faster than the nearly 6-minute duration of syncing with the new iPod shuffle. The nano’s superior transfer speed means that refreshing its content is easier than with most other iPods, so you can quickly load it with new songs before leaving the house; the only delay is its requirement, unlike the iPod touch, that you hit an eject button in iTunes before disconnecting it.

 

What’s missing from the sixth-generation iPod nano relative to its predecessors? Without going into greater detail, here’s a quick list.

Music: Cover Flow, search, and the built-in speaker are gone.

Video: Cannot play movies, TV shows, or the video portions of music videos and podcasts.

Video Camera: Gone entirely.

Microphone: Gone entirely.

Photos: Poor video output quality, no automatic musical slideshows.

Games: Free games are gone, downloadable games are not compatible.

Extras: Alarms, calendars, world clocks, contacts, and notes are gone.

Accessibility: Large fonts are gone.

There are other comparatively minor and related omissions from the new iPod nano, as well, but the ones you’re likely to notice are all above.

Accessory Support

It goes without saying that the sixth-generation iPod nano’s size is such a radical departure from prior models that new cases and other protective accessories will be required for those who want to wrap it in something. However, cases for past iPod nanos have proved less and less popular over the years—and challenging for developers to replace every single year—so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see relatively few options over the course of this model’s life time. Wristbands appear to already be in the offing, though, and we’ve already seen photos of the first cases from major and minor developers, alike.

Electronic accessories that were compatible with the fifth-generation iPod nano are generally compatible with the sixth-generation model, subject to only a couple of major limitations: dock design and video functionality. iPod speakers with open docks that ignored Apple’s Universal Dock standard are most likely to be fully compatible with the new nano, without inhibiting access to its front controls; speakers with recessed Universal Docks may in some cases make touching the bottom of the screen a small challenge. Audio-out and their remote controls will both continue to work just fine, as will the wired three-button remotes and microphones that worked with prior-generation iPod nanos.

 

Accessories with video-out functionality will find that the new nano offers little worth displaying on a TV screen, as discussed earlier in this review. The new model will work fine in most cars with Dock Connector- and line-in based audio systems, as well as with past headphones, with the aforementioned headphone port volume changes representing the single biggest change we found during testing.

Value and Conclusions

More than most of Apple’s iPods—and certainly the majority of its iPod nanos—the sixth-generation iPod nano is a love it or hate it addition to the family, dropping so many of the capabilities of its predecessors that it’s hard to take seriously as a sequel. Haters will seize upon the omissions, the unchanged price tag, and the lack of true multi-touch functionality as reasons to pass on the nano, and we can’t say that we’d blame them; this would certainly be the first nano we’d have skipped, and as our limited recommendation suggests, we’d expect that most of our readers will do the same. There are enough of last year’s nanos floating around at lower prices to make this one extremely easy to forget; our editors all agreed that we would have felt differently if this was a $99 model; there’s just not enough here to justify these prices.

None of this is to say that the sixth-generation iPod nano is a bad product overall. The new form factor and touch screen represent one cool if not strictly necessary result of blending iPod shuffle and iPod touch DNA, and the result is surely not as ridiculously hard to use as last year’s iPod shuffle. Even if it turns off at least as many people as it ropes in, there will be some who embrace the new nano in spite of all it has lost—and don’t mind paying $149 or $179 for the privilege. Unlike the prior iPod shuffle, we wouldn’t actively urge them to save their money. The sixth-generation iPod nano may well wind up being a one-off design, like the third-generation “fat” nano, but like that model, the heart of this product’s a good one—it’s just the rough interface edges and limited feature set that need some additional work. Apple will have to decide going forward whether to shrink the nano further into the watch it could become, or enlarge it a little to regain the video features it has lost.

 

As 2010 winds down and 2011 draws near, Apple’s iPod lineup has two sweet spots—the new $49 iPod shuffle, and the $299 fourth-generation iPod touch with 32GB of storage. Everything in between these models strikes us as just a little bit off the mark right now in terms of features or value for the dollar, so the easiest option until Apple improves the middle of its lineup is to consider last year’s models and possibly used and/or refurbished devices, instead. Otherwise, this is the year to join the touch crowd, live with the limitations of the cheap shuffle, or enjoy the new nano for the novelty that it is. Apple’s never come closer to making something worth wriststrapping, and who knows, you might be at the vanguard of a fashion movement if you’re willing to give this one a try.

October 2011: Software Version 1.2 – New Features + Conclusions

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.

Home Screen

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.

Clock

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.

Fitness

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.

Wallpaper

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.

Other Settings

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.

Conclusions

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.

Archived Original Pros + Cons

In October, 2011, we updated the pricing and Pros and Cons from the original sixth-generation iPod nano review to address the changes Apple made in version 1.2. Our original details are preserved here for archival purposes.

Original price: $149 (8GB), $179 (16GB). Original rating: B- (Limited Recommendation).

Pros: A smaller touchscreen revision of Apple’s mid-priced flash RAM media player, available in seven colors. New user interface mimics the iOS operating system of the iPhone and iPod touch, using swipe and tap gestures 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.

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, while the lack of physical Home and track control buttons complicates the device’s ease of use; plenty of swiping is necessary. Use of clip, as well as connection and disconnection of accessories, can be a modest challenge while the device is being used.

Our Rating

B
Recommended

iPod nano 6G Version 1.2

B-
Limited Recommendation

iPod nano 6G Versions 1.0/1.1

Company and Price

Company: Apple Inc.

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPod nano (sixth-generation)

Price: $129 (8GB), $149 (16GB)

Compatible: PC/Mac