Review: iPod nano (7th generation) combines the best of its predecessors

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First, instead of a simple set of volume buttons, the new nano sports a three-button controller on the side. This controller is identical in functionality to the inline remote found on Apple’s iPhone-bundled headphones (and on many third-party headphones designed for use with Apple products): It has a volume-up button at the top, a volume-down button at the bottom, and a slightly recessed playback-control button in the middle. Press this middle button once to toggle play/pause, quickly press it twice to skip forward a track, and quickly press it three times to skip back a track.

These buttons aren’t quite as good as dedicated back and forward buttons, but it’s easy to find any of the three buttons by feel, and for the millions of people who are familiar with Apple’s three-button-remote design, it’s instantly recognizable—and a welcome addition. (If you have headphones with a similar inline remote, you can continue to use that remote, as well.)

Second, there’s the aforementioned Home button on the face of the iPod—another feature I specifically wished for last time around. Pressing this button once takes you from wherever you are in the interface back to the most-recent Home screen; pressing it again takes you to the first Home screen. Quickly double-pressing when listening to music takes you to the Now Playing screen, and triple-pressing at any time lets you toggle the iPod’s VoiceOver accessibility feature or invert the screen colors.

If you’ve used an iPhone or an iPod touch, the Home button will feel familiar, and it’s a huge usability improvement for the nano: Instead of having to right-swipe many times, or tap-hold on the display, to return to the Home screen, you just press the button. There’s still a good amount of left-and-right swiping when navigating the nano’s menus and screens, but it feels much less forced now than when it was the only way to navigate.

Multi-touch makes sense

Speaking of tapping and swiping, the biggest advantage of the 2012 nano’s larger screen is that it dramatically improves upon many of the problems I had with the previous version’s interface. As I wrote back in 2010:

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 [fifth-generation] 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.

The new nano betters my suggestion with a screen that’s even larger than that of the 2009 model. And as predicted, the bigger screen makes the 2012 nano’s iOS-inspired interface much more usable. For example, instead of showing only three items in a list view, the new nano shows seven, making browsing lists much less frustrating; you now see six “app” icons on the screen at at time, rather than four; and the status-bar clock, dropped from the previous nano due to the lack of screen space, is back—you no longer have to navigate to the Clock screen to check the time.

A track list on the 2010 nano (top) and the 2012 nano (bottom)

The Now Playing screen is also much improved: Instead of a square cover-art screen with all controls overlaid—requiring multiple swipes to cycle through all the options—the new nano shows the cover art in the middle of the screen, with track info at the top and playback and volume controls at the bottom. Tap the screen once, and you get repeat, Genius, shuffle, and track-list buttons, along with a progress scrubber and, if available, lyrics. (When listening to an audiobook, the shuffle button is replaced by a playback-speed button.) Sound familiar? It’s closer to the look of the iOS Music app than to last year’s iPod nano interface.

(One place I would like to see Multi-Touch used that it isn’t: As with the iOS Music app, you can’t swipe the Now Playing screen to skip to the next or previous track. At least here there’s a reason for it: You use the left-to-right swipe to return to the Home screen—although that gesture isn’t strictly necessary anymore, given that the Home button does the same thing.)

Other “apps” also benefit from the larger display. The Radio screen offers a much-larger frequency display, as well as larger track info, and it’s easier to access radio-playback options and special radio features (local stations, favorites, tagged songs, and recent songs). The Clock screen can show the hour, minutes, seconds, day, date, and year without looking crowded; lap times in stopwatch mode; and timer options without having to switch to a different view. The Voice Memos features shows the recording time in large digits. The Fitness (Nike+) screen shows more options at once. And while the Photos feature loses some transition options compared to the previous version, viewing photos is something you might actually do with this nano—the rectangular display means photos use nearly the full screen, and you can zoom in and out using familiar pinch gestures.

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Larger screen makes Multi-Touch much more usable than with previous model
    • Physical playback and Home buttons
    • More-iOS-like interface
    • Regains video playback of older models
    • Exceptionally thin and light


    • Only $50 less than entry-level iPod touch
    • Screen isn't as good as those on other Apple devices
    • Some users will miss previous model's built-in clip
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