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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.
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.
Macworld’s buying advice
Aesthetic changes aside, the fourth-generation iPod nano isn’t the dramatic overhaul last year’s nano was. If you’ve already got a 3G nano, the 4G model’s new features may not be compelling enough to get you to upgrade—especially if you prefer the 3G model’s more-pocket-friendly shape. And even with twice the storage at the same price, the new nano won’t satisfy those who want to carry massive amounts of media with them or who watch lots of video.
Nevertheless, the 4G iPod nano is a solid upgrade, offering useful new features in Genius and Spoken Menus; new voice-recording functionality; a gimmicky-but-useful accelerometer; an improved interface and menu system; and a number of other minor improvements. Interestingly, of these new features, only Genius and the new microphone compatibility are available on the latest iPod classic, meaning the iPod nano has, for the first time, surpassed the classic/full-size line in functionality. If you’re in the market for your first nano, you can’t go wrong. And if you’ve been waiting to upgrade a 1G or 2G model, now’s the time to buy; compared to the similarly shaped 2G model, the new nano is better in every way except for the sharp corners.
Update 9/16/08, 11:09am: Corrected name of Spoken Menus feature.
[Senior editor Dan Frakes reviews iPods and their accessories for Macworld.com.]
Apple 16GB iPod nano (4G, late 2008)