Pros: A massive upgrade to Apple’s smallest-screened media player, adding very good video- and game-playing capabilities to the previously music- and photo-only, popular iPod nano. Achieves better than promised battery performance, as well as nearly equivalent video and audio performance to the iPod classic, making better use of its smaller components. Though shape is different, and screen is bigger and more detailed, volume is not dramatically increased over prior nanos. Available in
six colors and two storage capacities at very reasonable prices.
Cons: Screen and flash memory sizes aren’t ideal for video. Prior iPod Games, and iPod video accessories, are generally not compatible with this model. Mirror-finished rear casing returns, ready to scratch and smudge.
Apple’s new iPod nano is smaller than you’d think from the spy shots that have circulated around — the saving grace of a device that didn’t make sense to many readers only a day ago. With a 2″, 320×240 video-screen and a new array of five colors — light blue, black, silver, cranberry red, and green — the new nano shares the same interface as the iPod classic, plus the ability to output video to a television set, a first for the nano family. The 4GB model ($149) is available only with a silver face, while an 8GB model ($199) is available in all five colors; each one has a chrome back. It retains compatibility with the Nike + iPod Sport Kit, with no major feature additions save support for Mandarin Chinese, and a slightly enhanced visual interface shown below. More details to follow. New! Watch our video of the new iPod nano interface here!
Three weeks before publication of this review, the world was absolutely convinced that Apple’s third-generation iPod nano ($149/4GB, $199/8GB) would be a massive failure. Leaked shots of the device revealed that it would give up its flattened tube-like shape for a nearly square enclosure with bizarre screen and Click Wheel proportions, and its rounded edges looked more like a cheap Chinese calculator design than something the world would expect from Apple’s vaunted industrial design team. Similarly, early estimates of the nano’s size suggested that it would be nearly equivalent to a Hobbit-like 5G iPod, only thinner.
Everyone was wrong. And, as was the case with the iPod mini and the past two iPod nanos, Apple got it right. With a 2-inch, 320×240-pixel display and twice as much storage as last year’s $149 and $199 iPod nanos, the third-generation model might not photograph well, but it is shockingly excellent when you see it in person—precisely the right combination of features for Apple’s asking prices. Even we’re surprised that it’s the first iPod since 2005 to earn our flat A rating.
What’s the new nano’s appeal? It does virtually everything Apple’s new iPod classic does—and thanks to the Nike + iPod Sport Kit, a little more—in a much smaller package, with your choice of five body colors. For the first time in nano history, it plays both videos and games, using the same files that work on the iPod classic. And it remains a strong audio player, if not quite the equivalent on quality of the larger, more expensive iPod classic. Though you sacrifice storage space and a bit of battery life, what you get is a truly awesome “take it anywhere, do anything” iPod, at an entry price that can’t be beat. Whether you’re looking for a gift, a second iPod, or just something to tide you over while you wait for the right new big-screened iPod to arrive, the new nano is likely to be your best possible purchase today.
Also: Watch our video of the new iPod nano interface here, and get answers to frequently asked questions here. Additionally, on January 22, 2008, Apple released a sixth iPod nano color—pink—as a Valentine’s Day and Spring 2008 option. On February 8, 2008, we added photos of the new model to page 2 of this review.
Physical Characteristics, Packaging, and Pack-Ins
All of the controversy surrounding the third-generation iPod nano revolved around its shape and proportions: the second-generation nano was tall and thin, and everyone assumed that the new model would be only a little shorter, and significantly fatter. It’s not. In reality, each new nano measures 2.75” tall by 2.06” wide by .26” thick. That’s the same thickness as the last version, but 3/4” shorter, and .46” wider. Apple’s achieved this by making the Click Wheel even smaller than before, and almost entirely removing the spaces between the screen, the wheel, and the nano’s bottom. Early photos made these changes look awful, but in person, at this tiny size, they make sense.
Part of the appeal is, as in last year’s nanos, in the fact that you can choose from five different colors—assuming you’re willing to pay for the 8GB model. The silver nano is the only 4GB model available, and is joined at the 8GB level by black, blue, green, and red nanos—pink has disappeared for the first time in colored iPod history. Silver aside, none of the colors is the same shade as last year’s version: the red nano is darker, while the black, blue, and green nanos are all lighter than before. Black is actually closer to dark gray, and slightly iridescent. You’ll need to decide whether you like any of the new colors; we liked the black and red ones the best.
If anything, the new controversy will rage over Apple’s decision to bring back the first-generation nano’s mirror-polished steel back casing, which like that model—and unlike the fully anodized aluminum back of the second-generation iPod nano—easily attracts scratches and fingerprints. Consider a case or protective film mandatory if you want to keep the nano scratch-free.
As with the iPod classic, the combination of two types of metal doesn’t do much for us visually in silver, but the colored nanos look better.
They actually carry their coloration over to the newly re-designed bottom, which now features a circular Hold switch, Dock Connector port, and headphone port, enabling case makers to cover the new nano’s entire top without fear. In addition to looking better thanks to the completely centered Dock Connector, the bottom’s new Hold switch is at least as easy to flip as last year’s, and the headphone port isn’t recessed or otherwise difficult to use. Overall, Apple has made the new nano’s ports and controls more convenient than before without compromising their functionality.
Last year, Apple alternated between two types of packaging: classy black cardboard boxes for its full-sized iPods, and clear hard plastic display containers for its iPod nanos and shuffles. This year, the cardboard boxes have gotten better, and the hard plastic containers have just become smaller: as before, the third-generation nano is suspended inside the case’s front, while a larger compartment behind it holds three accessories and a small packet of papers.
Like last year’s model, the new iPod nano ships with a pair of standard Apple iPod Earphones, a USB-to-iPod Dock Connector cable, and a Universal Dock Adapter (number 13) that lets you mount the nano in any Universal Dock-equipped accessory. The cable is used to charge the nano’s integrated battery and/or add music, videos, and games to it from any USB 2.0 port-equipped computer.
Four of the iPod nanos—the silver, blue, green, and black versions—come with a basic set of Apple paperwork, consisting of a threadbare set of instructions, some warnings, and two Apple stickers. The red nano, which is called the iPod nano (PRODUCT) RED Special Edition, also includes a red card that explains that part of the device’s purchase price will go towards charity to fight AIDS in Africa.
Updated: On January 22, 2008, Apple released a pink version of the iPod nano, which is identical in packaging and pack-ins to the prior silver, blue, green, and black models, and differs only in the color of its shell. Photos of the new model can be seen above.
What’s Inside: The 3G nano’s New Screen and Battery
Unquestionably, all of the changes Apple made to the third-generation nano’s enclosure were a result of one thing: its screen. And an impressive little screen it is. Almost as bright as the iPod classic’s 2.5” display, it packs just as many pixels—320 wide, 240 high—into a much smaller 2” space, roughly the same size as the screens used on first-, second-, third-, and fourth-generation iPods, and bigger than the ones found on iPod minis and past iPod nanos.
Larger screens generally require more power, but as with the iPod classic, Apple’s somehow managed to keep that under control in the new iPod nano: the company promises 24 hours of audio playtime and 5 hours of continuous video before the battery runs out. Like the iPod classic, we found Apple’s video estimate to be conservative: the new iPod nano played our two iTunes Store test videos back repeatedly for 5 hours and 47 minutes before expiring—better than promised, and an hour shy of the 80GB iPod classic. For those keeping track, that’s better than last year’s 30GB video iPod, and comparable to the 80GB model. Similarly, the new iPod nano blew past Apple’s promised 24-hour audio run time in our standard test using 50% volume, no equalizers, and minimal screen interaction, playing music and non-music content continuously for 30 hours and 21 minutes before expiring. Your real-world use of the nano will vary, but being able to achieve that sort of run time under any conditions is extremely impressive.
The two critical things you should understand about the iPod nano’s new screen are the new functions it enables—described in separate sections of this review, below—and how much better suited it is to a device like the nano than the 2.5” display is to a device like the iPod classic. Though it would initially seem logical to assume that a larger display coupled with a larger hard disk would make the iPod classic a better device than the iPod nano, that’s not necessarily the case.
To be frank, neither the nano nor the iPod classic has a phenomenal screen for portable video viewing: either one is a big step down from the 3.5” widescreen used on the iPhone and iPod touch, and you’ll need to hold them closer than you might prefer if you want to make out the fine details. But because its pixel density is higher, the iPod nano’s screen has clarity that looks more like the iPhone’s than the iPod classic’s; the two devices literally share the same interface in all regards, and it just looks better on, and more suited to, the nano’s display.
The Split-Screen, Half-New User Interface
During our iPod classic review, we noted that as iPod screens became bigger and more colorful, and their fonts less chunky, the minimalist designers at Apple didn’t seem to know what to do with them, and consequently each generation of full-sized iPod had more and more white space on the right of the screen. That wasn’t as much an issue for the iPod nano, which saw its screen shrink from the iPod mini, which itself shrunk from the full-sized iPods; as the screens got smaller, the white space disappeared.
A lot has changed in the third-generation iPod nano. In addition to gaining half an inch on the diagonal, the screen has roughly doubled its previous pixel count from 176 by 132 pixels to 320 by 240 pixels. Keeping font sizes equal, Apple would have again been faced with an abundance of white space. Instead, it has dropped the nano’s perceivable font size by the visual equivalent of one point, and like the iPod classic, cut the screen in half.
Apple has shifted all of the nano’s old first- and second-level menu options—and the 5G iPod’s, as well—over to the left half of the screen, using the right side for artwork. Use the Click Wheel to highlight Music, Videos, Photos, or Podcasts and you’ll see cover art or pictures floating on the right, and underneath the shadow of the left side’s menu. Dig down to the third level menu and the whole screen will become white, save for the blue highlighting cursor and black or gray text. Playlists now have small gray song tallies, Albums have small artists’ names and art icons, Songs have artists’ names, and Genres have artist and album tallies. Videos also have icons and summary information as appropriate.
Apple has put a little extra Mac OS X Leopard-style spin on the new interface, as well. Search gets a clean matte overlay bar, for instance, and old Aqua-influenced elements such as the volume level bar and scroll bars have been replaced with more solid, less glassy alternatives.
On the iPod classic, we felt that the new interface generally looked fine, if a bit odd, but on the nano, it feels like a bigger improvement from what came before, even though the most noteworthy features are rough approximations of earlier, more powerful Apple products. There’s a cut-down version of the iPhone’s Cover Flow, which works similarly but with more button pressing, less fluidity, and a white background. Somewhat better is the new Now Playing screen, which has perspective-angled album art inspired by Apple TV, again only in white rather than the Apple TV’s black. Additionally, after a minute or so of audio playback, a large clock will appear on a white screen-filling background along with a battery indicator and play icon. None of these screens looks amazing, but they surely look better on the nano’s smaller screen than on the classic’s bigger one.
The split-screen interface adds considerably to the iPod nano’s settings menu. Old commands such as “shuffle,” “repeat,” and “clicker” that may have confused some users in the past now have explanations on the right side of the screen, and new options such as “Music Menu” make their purposes clear.
Apple’s long-neglected equalizer (EQ) feature still isn’t adjustable by users, but at least the various presets now have bar-style visual indicators of how they work—assuming you know what the bars are supposed to represent.
Audio and Video Performance
Unlike the iPod classic, which saw a noticeable change or two in audio performance from its predecessor fifth-generation iPods, the new iPod nano hasn’t changed much from the second-generation nano in sound quality. When used with premium earphones, there’s a more instantly apparent base level of noise than in the iPod classic—basically equivalent to the second-generation nano’s—and as a consequence, careful listeners with top-quality earphones will still be able to hear a little hiss overlapping the silent parts of audio tracks.
But this sound is relatively slight, and not only hard to hear without using great earphones, but also less likely to be heard by users of the less expensive, lower-capacity nano. In other words, unless you’re an audio snob, you’re unlikely to notice this, or even care.
Entirely new to the iPod nano family is video playback functionality, so in one sense, anything the nano can do here is an improvement over what came before. Like the iPod classic, the new nano can store 640×480 videos in MPEG-4 or H.264 format, displaying them at 320×240 resolution on its own screen, and at full resolution (up to 480p or 576p, actually) on a separately attached display. Unless you already have Apple’s Universal Dock for the iPod, you’ll need to buy all-new video accessories to take advantage of video-out on the iPod nano, as the device’s TV Out feature is locked. The implications of this limitation are discussed further here
The good news is that Apple hasn’t skimped at all on its on-iPod output: the nano plays back the same video files as the iPod classic, and just as well. There’s an ever-so-slight tradeoff in crispness, akin to the difference we mentioned in the iPod classic review between the enhanced iPod 5G screen and that of the classic; the nano is closer to the enhanced iPod 5G, and thus a hint softer. Again, most users will never notice the difference, and will be blown away by the fact that the nano plays videos as well as it does.
Apple has preserved the same video settings and layout on the new iPod nano as it features on the iPod classic, rather than using the more refined displays of the iPod touch and iPhone. Consequently, you need to pre-select whether a video will take up the entire screen or display in letterboxed widescreen mode. Rather than fading in as white overlays on top of the video, status bars—title, battery life and play/pause status on top, volume, time/chapter scrubbing, and screen brightness on bottom—slide in and out on bars that appear from off-screen.
There is also a new option, Captions, in the Video Settings menu. Closed captioning will be available in certain videos sold through the iTunes Store, so you’ll be able to have this text appear as an overlay to the video if the Captions option is selected. Widescreen has also been renamed Fullscreen in this menu, emphasizing what the iPod nano has rather than what it lacks. Turn on Fullscreen mode to crop the sides of a widescreen video and fill the iPod nano’s entire 4:3 display with what’s left.
Whereas the iPod classic’s Photos menu was a step backwards from the 5G iPod it replaced, the new iPod nano’s identical feature is a step forwards from the last generation nano. Here, you lose little and gain a lot, including for the first time the ability to output photos to a television set—assuming, once again, that you’re willing to use one of Apple’s authorized video accessories.
Previously, the nano placed three rows of four miniature photographs on a white screen as thumbnail images of your library. The new nano has three rows of five photographs that are larger and more detailed than before, against a more attractive gray background. Last time, the words “Photo Library” alternated with the date of the current photo; now, the library’s name appears at the top of the screen, with a tally of the photos below it to the left, and the full calendar date to the right. Pictures optimized for the new screen are bigger and more detailed than before, too.
The iPod classic lost a number of the 5G iPod’s photo-to-photo transition effects, but the iPod nano still has only five: cross fade, fade to black, zoom out, wipe across, and wipe center. The prior nano had push across, push down, wipe across, wipe down, and wipe from center; the new ones are generally better. You also continue to have the option to use them at random, or none at all. These aren’t the same five effects as are found on an iPhone, and we’d like to see more transition options, but for a device the nano’s size, these are fine.
New Games, and Support for Game Downloads
When Apple introduced downloadable iPod Games as a new section of the iTunes Store last year, one comment appeared over and over again from readers: “why can’t we play these on the iPod nano?” The answer was simple: the nano lacked the graphics chip and screen that would let it play the same games as the 5G iPod. This year, Apple’s changed that, markedly improving the nano’s video hardware to enable it to play the same games iPod classic can play.
On a positive note, this is a major upgrade for the iPod nano, which used to play only four drab built-in titles. Apple has thrown them away, replacing three of them with new and improved alternatives. Music Quiz and Solitaire have been replaced by the 5G iPod game iQuiz and a refreshed solitaire game called Klondike, which are much-improved visually over the old iPod’s built-in games.
The old-fashioned Breakout clone Brick has been replaced by the 5G iPod game Vortex, which wraps bricks around the inside of a tube for your paddle to break with a ball or upgraded weapons. Apple appears to have mostly preserved Vortex from the 5G iPod original, but it’s lost some of its transparency effects, which is a bit of a bummer. Still, these three games are better than the four that used to be on iPods; no one will miss the Missile Command-like Parachute.
Unfortunately, the 5G iPod’s downloadable games won’t work on the iPod nano, which is a major bummer for those who spent $5 per title to build up the prior iPod’s libraries. All of the games will have to be updated for use on the iPod nano and classic, a process that is starting slowly with only three downloadable titles, Tetris, Ms. Pac-Man, and Sudoku. Apple hasn’t yet said whether past iPod 5G customers will have to pay again to play the same titles on their new iPods. We certainly hope not.
Refreshed Extras: Clocks & Timers, Calendars, Contacts, Screen Lock, and Notes
Though no one gets excited about such changes, Apple has visually updated each of the iPod nano’s Extras applications to take better advantage of the 320×240 display. They’re identical to what’s on the iPod classic, and as a result, steps up from what used to appear on the iPod nano.
Clock now fits three nice-looking transparent clocks on screen at once instead of the second-generation nano’s two black and white ones. They’re displayed on top of a gray map of the Earth, and add the words “today” or “tomorrow” to let you know what day it is, as well.
Alarms has now been broken out into a separate Extra. You can now set alarms to go off once, every day, weekends, weekdays, every week, every month or every year.