New Apple iPod nano (2010) £129
16th Sep 2010 | 14:00
The new nano goes on a diet, gets mutli-touch, but loses video playback
Apple iPod nano: Overview
Somebody at Apple obviously hates the phrase "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" because it has completely redesigned its best-selling iPod, the iPod nano, yet again.
This year's model is half the height of the previous generation and has the same clip-on design as the new iPod shuffle. The big change is that there's no click wheel, just a screen.
In fact, the only physical buttons found on the device are for sleep/wake and adjusting volume. Everything else is controlled by a brand new multi-touch display.
But don't mistake the nano for a scaled down iPod touch; the nano appears to run some version of iOS, Apple's iPhone, iPod touch and iPad operating system, but its a unique severely restricted version compared to the full fat iOS 4 found on the touch. You can't buy and install third party apps, for example, and there are far fewer applications, and no Wi-Fi.
In Apple's iPod line up, the new nano still sits squarely in-between the simplistic iPod shuffle and the all-singing, all-dancing iPod touch,with the traditional iPod classic now marginalised as a device reserved for people who need a lot of storage.
Historically the nano has always represented a good balance between price and features, but this time around we were surprised to find that the UK price has actually risen by quite a bit, with the 16GB version at £159 (up from £138) and the 8GB version at £129 (up from £118).
What's even more surprising is that the ability to play or create videos (one of last year's nano's most touted features) has been removed altogether, making the new nano an audio-only device.
But before we tackle that thorny issue, let's take a look at the intriguing new multi-touch display.
Apple iPod nano: Features
The screen itself is perfectly square, measuring 3.9cm on the diagonal, and a resolution of 240 x 240 pixels. You get four icons on each screen, and from the Home screen you have access to Playlists, Now Playing, Artists and Genius Mixes.
Swipe left and you get another screen containing Radio, Podcasts, Photos and Settings. The next screen contains Songs, Albums, Genres and Composers and finally the last screen boasts Fitness and Clock.
As with the iPhone, pressing and holding an icon makes it wiggle, so you can move apps between screens. You can also change the wallpaper in the Settings app. Good use is made of inertia scrolling when navigating through lists, and you can also press and hold to bring up an alphabet letter to jump straight to it.
Navigating with touchscreen
It's not immediately obvious how you move back up a level in a menu, but a right swipe always takes you back one screen from wherever you are. Tapping and holding anywhere will take you back to the Home screen.
Once you understand all this, you'll find navigating menu items on the new nano is much easier than using a click wheel.
Apps like Playlists, Genius Mixes, Genres, Composers, Podcasts, Albums and Songs are just different ways of accessing your music collection and are much the same as they've always been.
As you'd expect, the Now Playing app displays album artwork for whatever track is currently playing. Tap once to bring up player controls and swipe left from here to access more controls for creating a Genius mix based on the playing song, or scrub through the track.
The Radio app uses the earphones as an antenna and makes good use of multi-touch, enabling you to scroll through FM frequencies, or you can just tap the arrow icon to scan for a station with a good signal. You can also pause live radio for 15 minutes.
The Fitness app isn't the full Nike + iPod Sport Kit experience - instead its just a pedometer, which is a bit disappointing, but you can plug in the Nike + iPod Sport Kit accessory to the 30-pin dock connector port.
Apple iPod nano: Performance
Syncing the new nano with iTunes was a pretty typical experience. People tend to either love or hate iTunes, so don't expect anything different here.
One thing we noticed was that while the nano won't play video, it won't stop you syncing and playing the audio from video podcasts.
The battery life is a healthy 24 hours of audio playback and charging is done through the dock connector.
There's no doubt about it – navigating menu items using multi-touch is a lot easier than using a click wheel. The multi-touch display frees you from the constraints of the click wheel and also feels fast and responsive. It's also bright and colourful, meaning photos really stand out.
In typical Apple fashion it even adds a bit of Ken Burns-style magic to your slideshows. It's little touches like this that continually surprise you (in the best way) about the nano.
The nano's minimal approach to physical buttons means that you can't pause or skip a track without actually looking at its tiny screen, which is a big drawback for any exercising endeavour.
As you can imagine, flailing about jabbing at the screen can only bring frustration on a treadmill, or if you simply want to skip a track while walking down the street without bumping into a lamppost.
It comes as something of a relief then to discover that if you plug in a pair of headphones with a clicker on them (like the ones that come with the iPhone) they function perfectly well with the nano, enabling you to pause and skip tracks without having to look at the screen.
Given this, why on earth has Apple only included the bog-standard clicker-less white iPod earphones in the box?
To make matters worse, two features of the new nano actually require headphones with a clicker to work at all! Plug in some earphones with a built-in microphone and a new app called Voice Memos appears, enabling you to record... yes, you guessed it, voice memos.
VoiceOver is also available as an option for visually impaired users who want to be able to navigate the menu system, but it will also tell you the name of the currently playing song if you click and hold on your headphone's in-line clicker button. Without the clicker button this feature simply isn't available.
It's no secret that Apple's earphones are of dubious audio quality, so we'd always recommend investing in a better pair, but make sure you buy some with an in-line clicker, because without it your nano experience will be seriously hampered.
Apple iPod nano: Verdict
The argument can be made that video on a small screen is a fundamentally flawed idea anyway. Indeed, watching a TV show or music video on a nano was never a comfortable experience, but the simple fun of being able to shoot a quick video of your friends and watch it back immediately was hard to beat.
As a strategy for Apple it makes sense to focus the iPod nano entirely on music and leave video to the more accomplished iPod touch, but the price difference between a low-end iPod touch and the high-end iPod nano is pretty narrow.
As we've already mentioned, the multi-touch interface is well designed and accessible. The new clip on the back is also a useful addition, especially if you want to take your new nano to the gym – there's no need to stuff it into a pocket anymore.
Genius playlists are also a stand-out feature, enabling you to quickly and easily create a playlist of similar sounding music, which makes life easy when you can't decide what to listen to.
What the new iPod nano does, it does incredibly well. Putting multi-touch onto a device with a screen that's only 3.9cm on the diagonal, and making it work in a way that feels intuitive and natural, is an incredible achievement. Hats off to Apple for getting this right.
Our only real gripe with the way the nano performs is the lack of controls on the headphones supplied in the box.
Comparing the new nano to last year's model we can't help but feel that we're missing out on something. While Apple has given us multi-touch with one hand, it has taken away the ability to play and record video with the other, while charging is £21 more for the trouble.
A video-capable 8GB iPod touch is only £30 more expensive, and with an iPod touch you get access to the thousands of apps available on Apple's App Store.
If Apple wanted to convince us that taking video playback away from the nano in exchange for multi-touch was a fair deal then it needed to include some sort of nano App Store, or at least bundle a few more apps with the nano beyond the simple Clock, Radio, Photos and Fitness apps you get by default.
As it stands, the new nano performs wonderfully as a device purely for listening to audio, provided you invest in some new headphones, but it feels unnecessarily limited in other areas.