Apple iPod nano (sixth generation, late 2010) full review - Page 3

Similarly, when browsing lists, the small screen size means you see only three and a half entries—track names, artist names, and the like—at a time, so you end up swiping and scrolling a lot. (There’s no way to adjust the font size to be able to view more items at a time.) And the small screen means there’s not a lot of difference between a large “change screens” swipe and a smaller “do something on this screen” swipe—during my week with the nano, I often performed the wrong swipe, initiating an unintended action. And the new nano’s small size means that, unlike on iOS devices, there’s no physical Home button. Instead, if you tap-and-hold for a few seconds on an area of the screen with no controls, you return to the Home screen. But in many cases it’s easier to just swipe to the right as many times as it takes to get there.

Finally, a minor consequence of the nano's size is that since the small screen has no title bar, there’s no option for a title-bar clock. Instead, you can choose to have a new full-screen clock appear whenever you wake the nano, but that adds another tap—to dismiss the clock—before you can start whatever action you woke the iPod to perform. (And since there’s no setting for adjusting the length of time before the screen goes to sleep—the screen dims after 20 seconds and goes to sleep completely after 60 seconds—you end up performing this extra tap frequently.)

The big question, for me, is why the nano’s screen had to be so small. Given the existence of the iPod shuffle, there doesn’t seem to have been a compelling need for another as-small-as-we-can-make-it iPod, and a slightly larger design would have allowed for a larger screen. For example, a rectangular nano—perhaps the same width, just a bit longer, with a screen similar in size to that of the 5G nano—would have been considerably more useful, allowing you to view at least five items on the screen at a time, instead of three and a half, perhaps with enough room left over for more onscreen navigational aids. Of course, battery life would suffer a bit with a larger touchscreen, but the nano’s battery life is impressive enough that losing a few hours of playback time would be an acceptable compromise for many users.

Back for more

Multi-Touch screen out of the way, it’s worth running down the features from previous nano generations that are still here because, as I’ll get to in a moment, Apple has dropped a few notable capabilities this time around.

Like its predecessor, the 6G iPod nano continues to support most common audio-file formats, including podcasts and audiobooks, and has an advertised battery life of up to 24 hours. (We’ll follow up later with our battery-test results.) It also lets you view photos synced via iTunes and, provided you have the right cable, output those photos to a TV—although photos synced to the nano are scaled down considerably. You can also use the new iPod nano for data storage.

There’s still the aforementioned FM radio with multi-region support, iTunes Tagging, and the capability to pause live radio using a 15-minute buffer. New, though, is a feature to automatically scan for—and quickly access—stations in your area. You also still get a built-in pedometer and built-in Nike + iPod app—though the Nike + iPod dongle is still required. The new nano continues to include a built-in accelerometer, although this time around it’s used only for the pedometer and the Shake To Shuffle feature. (The previous nano used the accelerometer to automatically reorient the screen when you rotated the device.)

Apple iPod nano

The nano’s clock feature still includes stopwatch and timer modes which, of course, you access by swiping to the left when viewing the clock. And provided you connect headphones with a built-in microphone, you can still record voice memos.

The new nano also continues to offer accessibility features such as mono audio and VoiceOver—the latter being the feature that lets you, for example, hear information about what’s playing, and choose a playlist by listening to spoken prompts. However, as I’ll get to in a moment, you’ll need to purchase new headphones to take advantage of all the nano’s VoiceOver capabilities. New to the 6G nano is an inverted-color mode for “white-on-black” visuals.

Finally, in my testing the iPod nano continues to offer good audio performance—assuming, of course, you feed it quality audio files. A devoted audiophile might quibble with the nano’s audio output compared to a higher-end component, but most iPod nano owners will be using the device on the go, and in that context, it sounds great.

Missing in action

At the same time, the 6G iPod nano is missing quite a few features compared to previous models. Perhaps the most-talked-about omissions relate to video: The built-in video camera that debuted with the fifth-generation nano also dies with that model, and unlike the previous three nano generations, you can no longer sync videos to the nano and watch them on its screen or on your TV. As we noted in our roundup of iPod questions and answers, the new line of iPods clearly divides Apple’s portable line into music-only and video-focused devices, and the 6G iPod nano is on the music side of the fence. Similarly, the new nano loses the capability to play games. (Granted, games made for Click Wheel iPods simply wouldn’t work on the new nano, but what’s to say a touchscreen nano couldn’t play new games?)

But I’m fine with those particular changes. I know I don’t speak for all iPod nano owners, by in my experience both as a user and in talking with other iPod users, the 5G nano’s video capabilities—both recording and watching—went unused (or at least underused) by many people. The screen was small for watching video, the camera’s quality was mediocre, and the overall experience could be summed up as “OK in a pinch.”

Other cuts that are unlikely to be met by angry hordes of users include the media-search feature, the option for choosing audiobook playback speed, and the capability to sync contacts, calendars, and notes to the iPod.

The most significant drawback compared to last year’s model, at least in my testing, has to do with playback control. Once you’ve used the new nano’s Multi-Touch interface, it’s safe to say you won’t miss the Click Wheel, at least when it comes to navigating onscreen elements. Where you may miss it is when trying to quickly control playback. As useful as the Multi-Touch screen can be, it’s no substitute for physical playback controls when, say, the iPod is in your pocket, or when you’re trying to skip tracks while running or driving.

This lack of physical playback controls would be easier to overlook if the new nano included Apple’s Earphones with Remote and Mic. These earbuds, which shipped with the previous iPod nano, include an inline remote-control module that lets you adjust volume, toggle Play/Pause, skip or scan forward or back, and access some VoiceOver features. Disappointingly, the 6G nano includes Apple's older, standard earbuds—the ones without the three-button remote and microphone.

What this means is that if you want to control playback, you must pull out the nano so you can see its screen, then wake up the iPod, then navigate to the appropriate screen. This isn’t too much of an inconvenience in some situations, but I found it to be a hassle during active use. (This is, of course, ironic, considering the popularity of the iPod nano as an “active” iPod—a use for which it could have been even more appealing now, thanks to its smaller size and built-in clip.) Given the lack of physical playback buttons, and the £129 or £159 price tag of the new nano models, this omission seems especially shortsighted (or, depending on how you look at it, like a prime opportunity for Apple to sell more Earphones with Remote and Mic.)

Dropping the earbuds with the inline remote and mic also limits the nano’s VoiceOver feature. Whereas you can press-and-hold the play/pause button on that remote to hear information about the current track or, with the help of the volume up and down buttons, choose a playlist, performing these tasks using VoiceOver without the inline remote requires turning on the full VoiceOver interface, significantly altering the way you interact with the touchscreen. And getting track information or choosing a playlist is a much more complicated task using VoiceOver on the screen than it is using an inline remote.

The good news is that Apple’s inline-remote design has now been around for a few years, so you’ve got plenty of choices for third-party headphones—with much better sound quality and a variety of designs—that feature a compatible three-button inline remote.

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