Of all the iPod refreshes made at Apple's September update, the iPod nano has seen the most drastic change. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by this. We'd seen details of a small touchscreen as far back as July so the move to touch on the iPod nano was expected. But did anyone guess that they'd do away with the rest of the body too?
The move from what could be seen as a "conventional" style MP3 player in the previous editions of the nano (even the 3rd gen fatty wasn't as drastic a change) to the current model moves it into a different category of player in our minds. Perhaps it should be called the iPod pico, femto, atto, zepto or yocto instead.
For some, the move from the established clickwheel controls will kill the iPod nano dead in the water. For others, the compact design and innovative touch interface will be really appealing. We also find that the video option has been unceremoniously dumped without a word. But the time to dwell on what the iPod nano was is gone: the new nano has landed.
Slipping out of the box that is almost as compact as the device itself, a quick sync with iTunes will seethe 8 or 16GB of memory packed with your music, podcasts and photos if you wish. The compact 37.5 x 40.9mm square device is only 8.78mm thick and that includes the clip on the back. At 21.1g it is light enough to clip just about anywhere.
The new iPod nano exhibits all the hallmarks of Apple's quality of construction, premium materials and minimalist design. It is formed from a metal block that appears to have no joins, with a solid build no matter where you squeeze it. The buttons feel good, the screen is firm and doesn't flex under your finger. It may be small, but it's perfectly formed.
In terms of buttons you have the volume controls and sleep button on the top and that's all. On the bottom is the regular dock connector and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Apple bundles its normal headphones in the box, so first on your list should definitely be a pair of after-market 'phones with an in-line remote as these will make control whilst on the move a whole lot easier.
The screen is the focal point of all the activity now as it is both the display and the controls. As you'd expect from Apple, this isn't shoddy press and guess approach. The touch action is precise. It is distinct and refined and every bit as good as the touch response from the iPod touch or the iPhone 4. It is also incredibly simple to use once you have mastered the basics.
Essentially the menus are ranged across four pages. Each page contains four icons, and if you'll recognise the style as it has been lifted directly from the iPhone. You can swipe through these pages and select what you want to enter. Thereafter, navigation is basically the same as before. You can browse your music by artist, song, album, composer and genre, and you also get Genius support too.
Diving into albums gives you a list displaying the cover art, which looks impressive considering the size of the thumbnail it is showing. This is down to the sharp 240 x 240 pixel resolution display. This may sound low, but given that the display is 1.54-inches on the diagonal, it means a high pixel density (220ppi) so it renders details very sharply indeed. This is where the iPod nano is likely to win fans, but the display, although it could be labelled as gimmicky, is beautiful to look at. It is bright, vibrant and detailed, and that's just as important on something small as well as on larger devices.
The basic structure of the interface requires a swipe to the right to act as a "back" control: if you are in the settings, for example, you scroll up and down the list, tap the option you want to make a change, then swipe right to return to the previous screen.
Once you are playing a track, the iPod nano just wants to show you the album art filling the screen and we quite like this. It does, once again, drive you to make sure you have art for all your albums, although once you clip the iPod nano on to yourself, it will look like you are wearing a badge with that album on it. That is, until the screen dims and goes to sleep. Touching the screen again brings up play controls and swiping will give you repeat and shuffle options and you can also create a Genius playlist from any track simply by pressing the icon.
The clip means you can easily attach it to yourself, be it on the strap of your bikini whilst rollerblading along the Brighton shorefront (yeah, right) or inside your suit whilst riding the Tube. We found it was secure enough to clip onto the waist band of a pair of shorts when running.
The iPod nano has been a popular model with runners, due to the size, weight and ease of slipping into an armband, without losing the controls, as you could always click through the cover to change tracks. The new nano loses this simplicity and sweaty hands on the run won't really work so well with the touch controls. You do get "shake to shuffle" though, but other than that, we'd advise runners to look at third-party sports headphones which come with remote functions.
The nano, like the shuffle, gets Apple's Voice Over, but not Voice Control. This means you'll be able to find out what is playing with a long press on the button of compatible headphones, but you don't get the simplicity of then being able to talk to the device to control it, which we think is a strange omission.
The sound quality is good, although we don't think it has the clarity of the iPod touch. An immediate shortcoming is the poor quality of the bundled headphones that Apple supplies and if you want to get the best from the nano, a pair of decent headphones will improve things no end.
Elsewhere the iPod nano is happy to take your photos through iTunes and throws up some interesting features. The screen is small, so this is only really going to be a novelty, but if you have tagged events and people in iPhoto then these will be carried across to the nano, so you can browse by faces. If you feel the need to browse photos of that special person in your life you'll be able to do it easily. You can even run a slideshow of a person, which is a little creepy, assuming you're the sort of person who has creepily tagged everyone in all their photos.
You also get an FM radio which requires the headphones to get a signal. Tuning is simple and you can mark favourites to return to in the future. You can also pause live radio, with a 15-minute buffer letting you rewind. There is support for iTunes Tagging so you'll be able to tag and buy a song through iTunes. This feature needs to be supported by the radio station and not all do. Once a track is tagged it will appear in iTunes and give you the option to buy it, if a recognised track is found.
Elsewhere you have a clock which has given rise to the slightly mocking trend of highlighting those manufacturers who will supply you with a wrist strap so you could wear your nano as a watch. There is also a pedometer to keep track of steps you make (remembering you have to start and stop it yourself) and support for Nike+iPod.
One of the features that wowed audiences at the launch of the iPod nano was the ability to rotate the screen, so it doesn't matter how you clip it onto yourself. It's a neat trick and works well enough. It also suggests that the iPod nano might have a few secrets up its sleeve. For example, on the last page of the menu you only have two items and space for four. It's not inconceivable that the nano could get some additional features added in the future, but we'll have to wait and see.
The battery life will give you 24 hours of music playback and we found the volume was plenty loud enough.
It isn't that the new iPod nano does anything wrong, but it is a change to the nano line, leaving a regular MP3 player type hole in Apple's line up of music devices. The connector on the bottom means it is still compatible with existing docks, although it looks very strange engulfed in an iPod dock. Perhaps it will find favour with the in-car market due to its size, but for many, we think they would prefer the separate screen and controls of the previous versions.
The new Apple iPod nano is a funky little MP3 player and the touch interface works really well. The problem, of course, is that you now have to either buy yourself an extra set of headphones, or lose the ability to change tracks without fishing the device out of your pocket. But buying those headphones is actually a good plan, so for many, the iPod nano will be the perfect little music player.