Just when you thought Apple's standard iPod was overly saturating the public consciousness, Steve Jobs and company pull another beauty from the company's bushel. The Apple iPod Nano sets new standards for gadget design and stretches the boundaries of technology. It's the world's first 4GB flash player, yet it's also one of the thinnest. Plus, it boasts a bright colour screen that takes advantage of the bigger iPod's photo capabilities. Throw in some ancillary improvements, and you have not only the latest MP3 player phenom but a glance into the future. The flash-based Nano (the name is curiously similar to the Creative Zen Nano Plus's) comes in classic white or black and two capacities: 2GB and 4GB at AU$299 and AU$359, respectively. It also replaces the current popular iPod Mini line.
The Apple iPod Nano is a design wonder at 90mm by 40mm by 7mm and 42 grams. The last two numbers are key -- the thing is really thin. As we've said, it looks much smaller in person than in photos, and it truly fits anywhere, comfortably and sometimes invisibly. We've been told that the iPod Nano is 62 percent smaller than the product it's replacing, the iPod Mini. The Nano, in terms of MP3 design standards, changes everything. Now, the Creative Zen Micro looks fat, the iRiver H10 looks monstrous, and the Mini looks outdated. Of course, the others are microdrive-based players; the Nano is a flash-based player, the first to hit 4GB; a few companies came out with 2GB models earlier this year but priced them at much more than AU$300. The 4GB player holds about 1,000 songs or 25,000 photos, while the 2GB version holds about 500 tunes.
We have to admit that the Nano is a bit pricey, so we recommend spending the extra AU$60 to double your capacity. Consumers, after all, have witnessed a rise in price per gigabyte as compared to the AU$359 6GB iPod Mini and the Zen Micros of the world. But again, flash is the key word; it doesn't skip a beat and is much less susceptible to damage, and without it, the iPod Nano could never be so thin. A skinnier device would be impractical in terms of both usability and fragility. Not only does the iPod Nano's existence as the most luxurious flash-based MP3 player in the world lower flash-based MP3 player prices, but it signals the slow demise of the relatively new microdrive market. We'll see 6GB and 10GB flash-based models someday, though maybe not soon enough for those who simply cannot consider a player with less than 10GB to store their existing or growing music collections.
The iPod Nano's overall design mimics its stouter brother, with the same reflective stainless steel backside, as well as a smaller 1.5-inch colour screen and 1.25-inch Click Wheel, compared to the iPod's 2 inches and 1.75 inches, respectively. A solitary hold switch is located on top, while a standard dock connector port and a headphone jack are located underneath. The dock connector opens up an enormous world of accessories, though some may not be ideal; for instance, the iPod Nano works with Altec Lansing's iM7 boombox, albeit awkwardly. The headphone jack has an unusual but necessary placement near the lower-right corner, as one wouldn't physically fit up top. Though it may seem to get in the way, the headphone cable can have a stabilising effect when you hold the device. It's more natural to slide the iPod Nano into a jeans pocket as well, and of course, the placement makes sense when considering the optional lanyard that transforms the iPod Nano into a wearable device. However, because the jack lacks a four-pin smart connector, the iPod Nano can't be used with certain accessories, including wired remote controls.
Unlike the bigger iPod, the iPod Nano has a thin layer of glossy acrylic on its face, much like the original iPod and the company's line of iBooks; thus, it's very susceptible to scratches and, for the black version, fingerprints. Scratches have a charming effect for some devices, but they take away from the Nano's luster. The iPod Nano has no moving internal parts, so it's an ideal fitness companion. It's definitely not as rugged as the LCD-less iPod Shuffle, but thanks to the sturdy steel backside, it can hold its own in terms of durability. However, the device could be bent in half under certain circumstances.
It's certainly easier to operate a full-size iPod, but we have no major complaints about the iPod Nano's interface. Holding it is no problem, though some people will be bothered by the reduced range of motion in operating the smaller Click Wheel. The 16-bit, 172x132-pixel colour display is little, but it's bright and colourful and can be used without the backlight in good illumination. It's certainly not an ideal photo viewer, but being able to listen to music while browsing photos is a treat. Because the display is framed by such an attractively thin device, it seems to look better -- whether it's the bevel effect or the appreciation of the overall iPod Nano design, we're not sure, but it's one of the most beautiful devices we've ever seen.
In terms of the software interface, the iPod Nano's has mostly the same look and feel. A customisable main menu with Music, Photos, Extras, Settings, Shuffle Songs, and Now Playing fields are standard. New menu additions include a stopwatch and screen lock. Though the iPod GUI is famous for being user-friendly, it's garnered complaints, including dependency on the Now Playing screen for volume and other player controls, no quick access to Equalizer settings, or the minor hassle of just turning off the unit. Still, with a bunch of handy interface items such as audiobooks and podcasts, a colour screen, and an awesome Click Wheel, the iPod Nano continues the iPod tradition of ease of use.
Along with standard earbuds, a new iPod Nano ships with a dock connector-to-USB 2.0 cable, an iPod dock adapter (not to be confused with an actual dock), and a software CD. Accessories for the iPod, including those designed for the Nano, abound. One thing we noticed immediately after taking our iPod Nano out of the box was that the black version is outfitted with the famous white earbud headphones.
In terms of features, the Apple iPod Nano is the miniature version of the current iPod, also known as the iPod Photo. It plays the same digital audio formats, including MP3, AAC, DRM AAC, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV, and Audible. It has the same PIM features with Contacts, Calendar, and Notes; for Windows users, Outlook syncing comes with the new iTunes 5.0. There are some games, the handy On-The-Go playlist function, and three new Nano-only features: a world clock that allows you to introduce multiple times from around the world; an advanced stopwatch and lap timer; and a four-digit combination virtual screen lock -- which doesn't seem useful. The 1.5-inch screen cannot match the full-size iPod's 1.8-incher, but it displays album art and digital photos in thumbnail, full-screen, or slide-show modes. However, we'll be quick to note that the Camera Connector accessory designed for transferring photos to the iPod from a digital camera does not yet work with the Nano; the iPod Nano, as stated on Apple's Web site, is not truly "100 percent iPod."
The iPod Nano isn't decked out with all features available on the market such as an FM radio, a voice recorder, or line-in recording. These features can or will be added in some way or another with the multitude of third-party accessories available. It's hard to compare the Nano to more traditional full-featured flash player such as Creative's MuVo Micro or Cowon's iAudio U2, both of which max out at 1GB and lack photo displays but incorporate line-in recording and an FM tuner into smaller -- though not thinner -- form factors. If you must have an FM tuner, don't get a Nano; if you're into digital music, audiobooks, and podcasts, the Nano is an awesome choice made even more so by its compatibility with iTunes.
Once you connect a Nano to iTunes, it will show up immediately in the source list. Configure your relationship with iTunes in the Preferences panel under iPod. You can have iTunes automatically update songs and playlists or go manual -- ditto for podcasts, contacts, and calendars. Photos can be synchronised from iPhoto in Mac or My Pictures in Windows; while these files are automatically formatted for the iPod, you can also store, though not view, full-size images directly within iTunes. For more detailed information on the iPod's audio features, read our review of the 20GB iPod.
The Apple iPod Nano is one of the faster players we've used in terms of navigation speed. Generally, MP3 players, especially hard drive-based players, pause for buffering every few songs; it's the norm, even on iPods. Selecting or forwarding through songs or browsing the music library is mostly instantaneous. Photo thumbnails can take a second to load, but again, browsing through photos is quick and painless. Data transfers to the USB 2.0-enabled Nano are swift, at about 5.3MB per second. In general, the sync relationship with iTunes on both the Mac and Windows side has been flawless; our experience with Windows hasn't always been good, but so far, our Nano-iTunes pairing is seamless.
As far as sound is concerned, the Nano gets loud but not overly so when using the included decent-sounding earbuds. The overall sound quality is excellent, with imperceptible hiss, though we've heard a bit better in terms of brightness and bass from the likes of Cowon and Sony. Surprisingly, the iPod's multitude of equaliser settings can make a difference for the positive, whereas we've characterised the EQs as being weak in the past. Reportedly, the Nano uses the same sound chip as the Mini.
It would have been difficult to guess the battery life of the iPod Nano before it was stated by Steve Jobs. It's a flash-based player, so it consumes less power than a hard drive-based model, and we initially figured it was good for 18 hours; it has a colour screen, so maybe lower that to 16. Apple rates the iPod Nano for 14 hours, on the lower side for flash-based players, though the iPod Shuffle lasted only 12 hours in CNET Labs' tests. We regularly see flash models with rechargeable cells last into the late teens or early 20s, whereas alkaline-powered players can last more than 40 hours. Check back soon for our full CNET Labs battery-drain results.
Apple's done it again. By virtue of a sweet design backed by forward-thinking tech (the first 4GB flash player; a photo-friendly colour screen), Apple will keep its ball rolling swiftly into the holiday season. The Nano's capacity will turn off many experienced MP3 fans, but we have a feeling that newbies will flock to the next big thing and help maintain Apple's lion-sized market share for all digital audio players.