When Apple released the third-generation iPod nano last fall, the company unveiled a radically redesigned player, essentially turning the nano into a miniature version of the iPod classic in both functionality and appearance. It would have been tough for Apple to top that feat this year, and, sure enough, the fourth-generation (4G) iPod nano isn't nearly as dramatic an upgrade. But nevertheless, the new version of the nano offers some unique new features, more storage for the same price, and a new design--albeit one that looks quite familiar. In the process, the nano has officially surpassed the iPod classic as Apple's flagship non-touchscreen iPod. (Take a look at our First Look for additional details.)
Thin is (back) in
The new iPod nano gives you 8GB or 16GB of skip-free flash memory for $149 or $199, respectively--twice as much as last year's nano at the same prices. Apple has also made each model available in nine different colors: black, silver, pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Each color is more vivid than previous iPod hues--even black, if you can imagine that.
Yet despite the bold new colors, the new nano's most-obvious change is its shape. Coming in at just 1.5 inches wide and 0.24 inches thick, but 3.6 inches tall, the new nano evokes the first two iPod nanos rather than the previous short-and-wide model. And, indeed, the 4G nano is almost identical in size to those first two models--just a smidgen taller while slightly narrower and thinner. But the shape of the new nano makes it feel even thinner than its dimensions would imply: the body, made of a single piece of anodized aluminum, is curved in front and back, resulting in an oval shape that tapers to fractionally thin edges. Thankfully, the nano's screen--now made of glass--curves significantly only at the left and right edges; the rest is relatively flat to reduce glare.
The new nano is also the lightest full-featured iPod ever, an amazingly light 1.3 ounces. On the other hand, like the second-generation (2G) nano, the new model's top and bottom edges are painfully sharp; in fact, the nano's tapered sides make for corners that can be brutal if you sit down wrong with the nano in your pocket. In this respect, those who loved the more-pocket-friendly shape of the 3G nano may find this revived design disappointing.
The 4G nano's vertical screen is actually identical in size and resolution to that of its predecessor at two inches (diagonal), 320-by-240 pixels, and 204 pixels per inch; it's simply been rotated 90 degrees. On the other hand, the new model's Click Wheel is ever-so-slightly larger than the previous one, giving you a little more than 1/16 of an inch additional diameter--all of it on the scrolling ring section. That may not seem like much, but I found myself better able to scroll long lists without my finger accidentally slipping off the ring. I also like the new Hold switch, which, in addition to being moved to the top of the nano, protrudes more, making it easier to use.
4G iPod menu
The nano's vertically-oriented screen--the first for a non-touchscreen iPod--forced Apple to make some changes to the iPod's interface, and the nano is all the better for it. For starters, the "Ken Burns effect"-like Preview Panel, which shows a visual preview of items in the current category, is now considerably smaller and located at the bottom of the screen. As a result, despite having a narrower screen, the 4G nano has about 50 percent more room for menu titles and long item names while retaining the same amount of vertical space. Apple has also increased the menu-font size, making menus noticeably easier to read, and offers an even larger font, via Settings, for those who need it. You also get the welcome ability to disable the Preview Panel completely, which gives you even more room for menus and increases menu responsiveness considerably.
Apple has also made a few changes to the nano's menus themselves. In addition to including new graphics for several settings screens, Apple has done a good amount of reorganizing: all playback-related settings are found in a new Playback menu, and many miscellaneous settings are now gathered under a new General menu. Overall, I found the new menu layout to be clearer and easier to navigate, especially now that you can disable the Preview Panel.
The new landscape
Although the vertical screen is great for browsing long menus, most video is wider than it is tall. So the new nano plays all video sideways--you rotate the player 90 degrees in either direction to watch. Either direction? Indeed: Apple has added an accelerometer to the nano, so it senses the nano's orientation and adjusts the display accordingly. The new screen, despite being slightly curved on the shorter axis, is perfectly flat along the longer axis--when you rotate the nano to watch video in landscape mode, there's no left-to-right distortion. Overall, video quality is comparable to that of the previous model, although the screen in our test unit was a bit yellower than that of the previous generation (which was itself a bit on the cold/blue side), and the new glass material seems to attract more fingerprints.
The accelerometer is also used to invoke Cover Flow: while browsing the main or Music menus, you just rotate the iPod to horizontal. You then use the iPod's Click Wheel to "flip" through album covers. New to Cover Flow is an alphabetical overlay that appears when quickly flipping through albums, making it easier to home in on a particular artist.
Newer iPod nano games--including the three included titles, Klondike, Vortex, and Maze--can also take advantage of the accelerometer. For example, Maze requires you to tilt the iPod to guide a ball through an onscreen maze, and Apple has reworked the older Vortex to add a portrait mode; whether you see the portrait or landscape view depends on the orientation of the iPod. (Klondike plays only in landscape mode but offers menus in either orientation.) The new nano can also play--in landscape mode only--any games compatible with the 3G model.
Note that because the Click Wheel itself doesn't rotate when in landscape mode, the Menu and Play/Pause buttons are located on the left and right sides of the Click Wheel, with Back and Forward on the bottom and top. (Which of each pair is located where depends on whether the Click Wheel is to the left or right of the screen.) This can be confusing when trying, for example, to skip chapters in a movie. It's also an issue with games; in fact, when launching older games, the nano displays a screen showing a Click Wheel rotated 90 degrees (in other words, with the Menu and Play/Pause buttons on the sides), noting the "new button layout for this game."
Shake it like a Polaroid picture
Another unique use of the accelerometer is shake-to-shuffle: while listening to music, giving the iPod nano a vigorous shake switches to Shuffle Songs mode and skips you to a random track. Subsequent shakes skip to a new track. Unfortunately, you can't, for example, use it to skip to a random track within the current playlist, artist, or album listing; once you use shake-to-shuffle, you're in Shuffle Songs mode.
Thankfully, Apple has designed this feature to require a considerably forceful shake. In my testing, running with the nano attached to my arm or waist didn't jar the player enough to activate the feature; I was also able to drop the nano nearly two feet onto carpet without interrupting playback. In addition, the feature is disabled whenever the Hold switch is enabled, and you can use the Settings menu to disable shake-to-shuffle completely.
Smarter than your average player
Perhaps the most-highly-touted new nano feature, also available on the second-generation iPod touch as well as iPhones running the latest software update, is an on-iPod version of Genius, iTunes 8's playlist-creation and music-recommendation system. (You can read more about how Genius works in our first look at iTunes 8.) Once you've set up Genius in iTunes, iTunes syncs its Genius data to your iPod. If you're listening to a song and you want to hear more songs like it, just hold down the Center button until the new action menu appears, and then choose the Start Genius option. (You can also access the action menu while browsing songs; alternatively, you can access Genius during playback by pressing the Center button to cycle through the onscreen options until the Genius option appears.) The nano creates a new 25-track playlist of similar songs contained on your iPod.
If you like a particular Genius playlist, you can save it to your iPod; it appears in the Playlists menu named after the track on which the playlist was based. Genius playlists also contain a Refresh option that creates an updated playlist based on the same original track. Whether or not the tracks in a refreshed playlist will differ from those in the original depends on the contents of your iPod.
Saved Genius playlists are automatically transferred to iTunes whenever you sync the iPod; conversely, any Genius playlist you create in iTunes can be synced to your iPod (which also copies the songs in the playlist). Note that if you refresh a Genius playlist on your computer or iPod, the next time you sync, the newer version will replace the original on the other device. Interestingly, if you refresh both versions before syncing, the next time you sync you'll end up with both versions on both devices.
Speaking your iPod's mind
Considerably under-hyped is the 4G nano's new Spoken Word Menus feature, which actually "reads aloud" as you browse the iPod's menus, offering nearly-complete navigation even if you can't see the iPod's screen. Designed to increase the nano's accessibility for those with vision issues--and, indeed, between Spoken Word Menus and the option for larger type, the 4G nano is the most-accessible iPod yet--the feature will also appeal to those who insist on navigating their iPod's menus while speeding down the highway (and, more important, make it safer for those of us sharing the road).
After enabling Spoken Word Menus in iTunes, iTunes uses the text-to-speech functionality of Mac OS X or Windows to generate audio files for the names of most standard menus and, impressively, for browsable metadata for every item on your iPod: track names, playlists, artists, albums, genres, and so on. It even creates sound files for the text of some dialog screens; for example, the confirmation screen for deleting a voice memo. (iTunes uses whichever voice and speaking rate you've chosen in Mac OS X's System Preferences or Windows' Control Panels.) iTunes then copies these audio files to the hidden system area of the iPod.
This feature works surprisingly well for alphabetically-sorted lists; I was able to easily browse to a particular playlist, artist, or song. It's less effective for browsing long playlists that aren't sorted alphabetically, unless you're quite familiar with the specific track order.
Despite its name, Spoke Word Menus also announces various changes of state. For example, if you rotate the iPod to activate Cover Flow, the nano briefly lowers music volume to say "Cover Flow"; when you switch back to vertical orientation, it says "Now Playing." (Unfortunately, it doesn't read album names in Cover Flow.) And when the battery gets low, the iPod says "low battery" just before shutting down, so you're not left wondering why the music stopped.
On the other hand, thanks to the slight delay between selecting an item and hearing its text, it's even easier to overshoot menu items when browsing by sound than when browsing by sight. And, as with text-to-speech on your computer, some words are "read" better than others. Words in a different language--for example, Spanish words on an English-language Mac--often sound particularly bad. Finally, I did come across a few places the feature didn't work at all; for example, in most Extras (Alarms, Calendar, Contacts, and such), in the Photos section, and on the Search screen.
Because the sound files required by Spoken Work Menus take up space on your iPod, and the creation of audio files slows down syncing, it's not something you should enable unless you need it. For example, on my test nano with 1,438 songs and one video, the initial generation of sound files took 55 seconds; syncing those files to the iPod took 5:35; and the sound files themselves filled 96MB of space. (Subsequent syncs were much faster, as iTunes generated sound files only for media added to the iPod during that sync.)
Audio notes to self
Among the 4G nano's other improvements is an upgraded recording feature. While the previous nano, as well as recent full-size iPods, allow stereo audio recording through a third-party dock-connector accessory such as Griffin Technology's iTalk Pro or Belkin's TuneTalk Stereo or TuneStudio, the 4G model adds the ability to record mono voice notes using Apple's Earphones with Remote and Mic or any iPhone-compatible, mic-equipped headset. (Such headphones and headsets also provide basic playback control and, in the case of the Apple model, volume control.)