First look: Fourth-generation iPod nano

When it comes to physical appearances, the iPod nano saw the biggest changes when Apple overhauled its iPod lineup this week. The new nano leaves behind the shorter, wider shape of the third-generation (3G) model to embrace the taller, slimmer profile of the nanos of old—even slimmer, in fact, than those older models. But along with its new shape, the fourth-generation (4G) iPod nano also incorporates new hardware features and new software.

The two new 4G nano models double the capacity of their predecessors, offering 8GB of flash memory for $149 and 16GB for just $50 more. Apple has also gone back to the wraparound, anodized-aluminum design of the 2G nano, increased the number of available colors from six to nine—black, silver, pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple—and made those colors much more vivid. Each model is available in all nine colors.

Shaping up, slimming down

The new iPod nano’s most obvious change from the previous model is the Return Of Tall. At 3.6 inches tall, 1.5 inches wide, and just 0.24 inches thick, the new nano recalls the days of the first- and second-generation models, although it’s slightly taller, narrower, and thinner than those models. (Comparatively, the “squat” 3G nano was 2.75 inches tall, 2.06 inches wide, and 0.26 inches thick.) And the shape of the new nano makes it feel even thinner compared to previous “tall” models than its dimensions would suggest: the curved front and back produce an oval shape that conforms to your hand and tapers to fractionally thin edges. The new nano is also the lightest screened iPod ever, an amazing 1.3 ounces, noticeably lighter in the hand than the 1.74 ounces of the previous generation.

iPod nano colors

I found the 3G iPod nano’s wider, shorter shape and rounded edges to be well-suited for pockets and more comfortable to hold in the hand than earlier nanos, so I wasn’t immediately excited by the new (old) shape. But based on comments I’ve heard from others, I seem to be in the minority; I suspect many people will welcome the new design. And the new form factor does have some advantages, as you’ll see. On the other hand, the 4G nano’s top and bottom revert to the painfully sharp edges of the second-generation (2G) nano; in fact, they’re even sharper thanks to the tapered shape.

The new nano’s other immediately noticeable change is a vertically oriented screen, made necessary by the new taller, narrower shape. However, the screen is exactly the same size and resolution as that of the 3G iPod nano: two inches (diagonal), 320-by-240 pixels, and 204 pixels per inch. Apple has simply rotated the screen 90 degrees compared to the previous model.

Finally, if the new nano’s Click Wheel looks slightly larger than its predecessor’s, it’s not entirely an illusion. Although the size of the Center button is unchanged, the new Click Wheel’s ring is a tiny bit wider, increasing the overall diameter of the Click Wheel just over 1/16th of an inch. That may not seem like much, but I’ve found that my finger doesn’t accidentally slide off the Click Wheel as much when scrolling through long lists as it does with the 3G model.

The new iPod nano's main menu

Lean screen

The vertical orientation of the 4G iPod’s screen has necessitated some user-interface changes. For example, when browsing menus, the “Ken Burns preview” has been moved to the bottom (from the right-hand side on the 3G nano’s wider screen); the result is that despite having a narrower screen, the new nano has approximately 50 percent more horizontal room for menus, and almost exactly the same amount of vertical room. Apple has taken advantage of this additional horizontal space by (wisely) increasing the menu-font size; you see fewer lines of text on the screen compared to the menus on the 3G nano (seven versus nine, respectively), but that text is easier to read. And via the Settings menus, you can increase the text size even further. You can also disable the preview area altogether to gain an additional two lines of menu space—and increase menu responsiveness.

If the new nano’s screen is vertically oriented, how do you watch videos? Generally, videos are wider than they are tall, after all. The answer is that videos always play horizontally on the nano, requiring you to rotate the device 90 degrees. Video quality is essentially the same as on the previous-generation nano.

But what about other widescreen content, such as landscape-oriented photos? Apple has added an accelerometer, similar to the one inside the iPhone and iPod touch; rotate the iPod 90 degrees to the left or right—in other words, make it horizontal—and the display switches to widescreen mode to better fit such content.

The nano's menu with previews disabled and larger type

Apple has put this accelerometer to a couple other good uses. First, instead of having to access Cover Flow mode via a menu item, you enable it by rotating the nano 90 degrees to the left or right while browsing the main or Music menus. (Cover Flow isn’t available for non-music media.) You then use the iPod’s Click Wheel to “flip” through album covers. Clicking the Center button displays the tracks of the currently selected album; selecting a track and pressing Center again plays that track. A nice addition to Cover Flow is that when scrolling quickly through covers, a large letter appears onscreen reflecting the first letter of the artists you’re currently skimming, making it easier to find a particular artist. One drawback to this 90-degree-rotation approach is that the Click Wheel’s controls don’t rotate accordingly, so Menu and Play/Pause are located on the sides of the Click Wheel when browsing via Cover Flow.

But perhaps the most unique use of motion detection is shake-to-shuffle: any time you’re listening to music, a vigorous left-right shake of the nano activates Shuffle Songs mode; each subsequent shake skips to the next shuffled song. Apple executives told me this trick requires a strong enough shake that running with the nano won’t accidentally shuffle. Similarly, shake-to-shuffle is disabled whenever the Hold switch is activated or the screen has dimmed, and you can disable it completely via a new option in Settings.

What’s on the menu?

In addition to the new layout of the iPod’s user interface, Apple has made a few changes to the nano’s menus themselves. Some of these are simple aesthetic tweaks (for example, new graphics for some Settings sliders), and some are purely organizational (moving all playback-related settings to a new Playback menu, and moving many miscellaneous settings under a new General menu). But a few changes reveal new features. For example, you can enable audio crossfade, which works surprisingly well. There’s also a new language option, “English (UK),” and, as I mentioned above, you can disable the Preview Panel and increase menu-font size. There’s also a new Energy Saver feature, which, according to the iPod nano’s user guide, “can extend the time between battery charges by turning off the iPod nano screen when you aren’t using the controls.” In other words, instead of just turning off the backlight, the entire screen is turned off.

Among the two most-significant new features is Spoken Word Menus, a feature designed to make the iPod more-accessible to those with impaired vision. Oddly enough, you won’t find this option in your iPod’s menus until you’ve enabled the feature from within iTunes. When you do, iTunes generates an audio file—using OS X’s own text-to-speech functionality—for each track and artist name currently synced to the iPod, as well as for each menu name, and then copies those audio files to the iPod. (It uses whichever voice and speaking rate you’ve chosen in Mac OS X’s System Preferences or, if you’re using Windows, in Control Panels.)

When browsing your iPod’s menus, menu and item names are then “read aloud,” giving you pretty much complete control without having to actually see the iPod’s screen. It’s a great feature that finally makes the iPod accessible to vision-impaired users. (It’s also handy for anyone who doesn’t want to take their iPod out of their pocket or bag to use it.) Of course, since the sound files are generated by OS X’s text-to-speech feature, some are better than others at correctly “reading” a particular artist or track name, but they’re generally close enough that you can figure them out.

Note that these sound files take up space on the iPod, so you don’t want to enable this feature if you aren’t going to use it. Also, sync times are longer with the feature enabled because iTunes has to generate additional sound files each time new items are added to the iPod. That said, I found the space and time required to be reasonable: For a nano with 144 songs, the initial generation and syncing of sound files took about a minute and a half, and the sound files themselves used only 2MB of space on my iPod. (If these values scale proportionately, sound files for a 5,000-song library would require about 70MB of space and would take approximately 52 minutes to generate from scratch.)

The Genius menu

The other big new feature is Genius, an on-the-iPod version of iTunes 8’s flagship feature. Assuming you’ve already set up Genius in iTunes—a process that uploads details about your music library to Apple’s servers and then downloads to your computer aggregate data about other users’ libraries—iTunes syncs this data to your iPod, making it available to the nano’s own Genius algorithms.

Activating the Genius feature creates a new playlist with music similar to the selected track. (How does this work? It looks at libraries that include the selected track to see what other music those people like, and then compares this data with other tracks 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. The saved playlist is also transferred back to iTunes the next time you sync.

Although Genius appears in the iPod’s menus, choosing that menu item simply provides instructions for how to use it. You actually access the feature in one of two ways. While playing a song, you can press the Center button repeatedly until the Genius option appears; alternatively, while playing a song or with a song selected in the iPod’s menus, you can hold down the Center button to bring up a new menu that includes a Start Genius command. (This menu also includes convenient options for adding the current track to an On-The-Go playlist, to browse albums, or to browse artists.) In either case, the selected or currently-playing track is used as the basis for the Genius playlist.

You can also refresh a Genius playlist you’ve saved to your iPod; this forces the iPod to create a new playlist of similar music. Some, or even many, of the contents will be the same, but if you’ve got lots of music on your iPod, there will be some differences.

Note that because the Genius feature just debuted, it currently bases its recommendations on iTunes Store purchases; this means that any songs that aren’t available on the iTunes Store can’t be used as the basis for a Genius playlist. As more and more iTunes users take advantage of the feature, this should change and you should be able to create Genius playlists based on any track.

The new maze game

Game on the side

The new nano comes with three games: Klondike and Vortex, both of which was included with the previous nano, and a new game, Maze. Maze takes advantage of the iPod nano’s accelerometer by requiring you to tilt the iPod to guide a ball through an onscreen maze. But Apple has also reworked Klondike and Vortex, adding a portrait mode to each. So when your iPod is positioned horizontally, the game looks exactly as it did on the 3G nano; when positioned vertically, you get a narrower, taller version.

Older iPod nano games also work on the new nano, but play only in landscape mode. Which presents a problem: these older games were designed for an iPod with the Click Wheel below the screen, with Menu on top and Play/Pause on the bottom; when you play on the 4G nano, the Click Wheel is 90 degrees off-kilter. To make this less confusing, whenever you launch an older game, the nano displays a screen showing a Click Wheel rotated 90 degrees (with the Menu and Play/Pause buttons on the sides), pointing out a “new button layout for this game.”

The screen you see when launching a game designed for older iPods

When playing older games, a nice touch is that you can choose whether you want the Click Wheel—and, thus, the game’s controls—to the right or left of the screen by simply rotating the iPod. (Apple obviously feels you should play iPod nano games with a single thumb; it’s nearly impossible to use two thumbs or fingers in landscape mode.)

Ins and outs

The new nano supports the same audio and video formats, as well as the same video- and audio-out options as the previous model. There’s a standard 1/8-inch stereo minijack for headphones, and audio and video output via the dock-connector port. (Component and composite video are supported via the appropriate cable or dock cradle, sold separately.)

While older iPods allowed audio recording with the proper third-party dock-connector accessory, and the original iPod classic and the 3G iPod nano even supported stereo recording, the new nano (along with the updated iPod touch and iPod classic models) now supports audio recording using Apple’s new $29 Earphones with Remote and Mic. These earbuds, which look similar to the ones that ship with the iPhone, offer a control pod for volume and basic playback control, as well as a microphone. Plugging them in enables the iPod’s recording feature and lets you record voice memos without the need for a separate accessory.

On the other hand, the 4G iPod nano takes a step backwards when it comes to battery life. Although Apple estimates the same 24-hour audio playback as the 3G nano, video playback is estimated at 4 hours, compared to 5 with the previous model. We’ll be testing battery life as part of Macworld’s official review.

First impressions

Overall, the new iPod nano looks like a solid upgrade in most areas, despite slightly-shorter video-watching battery life (and, to some of us, a step backwards in shape). Perhaps most important—from Apple’s perspective, at least—the new design, with its thinner appearance, vertical screen, and more-vibrant colors, evokes perhaps the strongest “I want one now” response of any non-touchscreen iPod yet. Stay tuned for our official review, which we’ll post soon.

[Senior editor Dan Frakes reviews iPods and their accessories for Macworld.]

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