Apple iPod nano 4G 8/16GB [Mac] full review

When Apple released the third-generation iPod nano last year 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.

Thin is (back) in
The new iPod nano gives you 8GB or 16GB of skip-free flash memory for £109 and £149, respectively – twice as much as last year’s nano. Unfortunately the price has gone up by £10 though and breaking the £99 barrier seems a bit tight to us (we note that the price in the US has stayed the same as last year). Apple has also made each model available in nine different colours: black, silver, pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Each colour is more vivid than previous iPod hues – even black, if you can imagine that.

Yet despite the bold new colours, 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 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 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 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, Spoken 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.

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.)

Test voice recordings I made using the iPhone’s stock headset – Apple’s new mic-enabled earphones aren’t yet available – were easy to understand, although the audio sounded a bit muffled. Voice memos recorded using Belkin’s TuneTalk Stereo, with the microphone positioned approximately the same distance from my mouth as the headset mic, produced much clearer recordings. Still, if you’ve got a compatible headset, this new capability is useful for quick, on-the-go voice notes.

A related change is that recordings – stereo or mono – are now saved in Apple Lossless format, which means they take up half as much space as the previous WAV format while providing the same audio quality. Also new to the recording feature are a level meter, displayed on the screen during recording; the ability to set chapter marks during recording by pressing the Center button; and the ability to label recordings as Podcast, Interview, Lecture, Idea, Meeting, or Memo. (Unfortunately, these labels aren’t transferred to iTunes, nor are they visible or browsable anywhere else on the iPod, so I haven’t found a good use for them.) Missing is the ability – with any type of microphone – to switch between High and Low quality, an option available on previous models.

Listening tweaks include audio crossfade, an iPod version of iTunes’ crossfade feature. When enabled in Settings, this feature seamlessly fades the end of the current track into the beginning of the next. (Crossfade isn’t applied to tracks grouped for gapless playback.) The feature works well, although, unlike its iTunes counterpart, you have no control over the length of the crossfade, and using the feature reduces battery life slightly. Apple has also added new playback options, accessible via the same action menu that hosts the Genius command, that let you browse the album or artist of the currently-playing track.

Finally, audio quality has seen a minor improvement compared to the previous model, particularly in terms of noise. Although the 3G nano’s sound quality was very good, higher-end headphones such as Ultimate Ears’ triple-fi 10 and Shure’s E500 and SE530 revealed a slight background hiss during quieter passages. This noise is essentially gone from the 4G nano.

Underpromise, overdeliver
Apple claims the 4G nano offers 24 hours of battery life for audio listening and 4 hours for video watching. The latter is actually an hour shorter than that of the previous model, the first time a new iPod nano has been advertised as having reduced battery life.

To test audio-playback time, I played, on repeat mode, a 1,007-track playlist of 128kbps AAC tracks from the iTunes Store. Volume and brightness were each set to the midpoint, with backlighting set to turn off after five seconds of inactivity. I also enabled the nano’s new Energy Saver mode, which turns off the LCD itself—not just the backlight—when not in use. Using Apple’s stock earbuds, the nano played for just under 32 hours, 34 minutes, far longer than the official estimate of 24 hours and over an hour longer than that of the 3G iPod nano, which lasted 31 hours, 20 minutes. (Battery life will be shorter if you frequently skip songs or if you use the screen’s backlight for extended periods.) When I repeated the same test with the new audio crossfade feature enabled, battery life was just under 27 hours, 55 minutes—about 4.5 hours shorter than with the feature disabled, but still nearly four hours longer than Apple’s estimate. If these results are representative, they indicate that the crossfade feature reduces battery life by about 14 percent.

To test video-playback time, I used a playlist that repeated a feature-length movie purchased from the iTunes Store. Using Apple's stock earbuds, with volume and brightness set to their respective midpoints, the new nano played for just over 5 hours, 3 minutes – more than an hour longer than Apple's estimate. The 3G nano, which was rated for five hours when it was released, also bested Apple's estimate, but by only 20 minutes – I got 5 hours, 20 minutes last year using the same movie. In other words, the real-world reduction in battery life between the 3G and 4G nanos was only 17 minutes in our testing. (According to Apple, playing games consumes approximately the same amount of power as watching video.)

The sort-of-universal dock connector
On the topic of power, a minor hardware change in the new nano is likely to bite a number of people with older iPod accessories. Like the iPhone 3G and second-generation iPod touch, the 4G nano cannot charge via FireWire – it requires USB for both charging and syncing. More specifically, the new nano requires that power be sent over the USB pins in the dock-connector port. (Previous nanos and many recent full-size iPods required USB for syncing but could charge via both the FireWire and USB pins.) This change means that any dock accessories that use the dock connector’s FireWire pins to send power – many older speakers and car chargers, for example – will not charge the 4G iPod nano.

The new nano’s features and capabilities are otherwise identical to those of the previous model, including the video-out restrictions explained in our review. Indeed, with the exception of the power issue, in my testing the 4G nano has worked with all accessories compatible with the 3G model.

Included with the nano are Apple’s standard earbuds, a USB dock-connector cable, and an adapter—number 17, if you’re curious – for Apple’s Universal Dock system.

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 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.)

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