iPod nano (3G) Review

Apple iPod nano (3G), actual size

The iPod nano is the first out of the gate in Apple’s newly revamped line of music players. Available in 4GB ($149) and 8GB ($199) versions (sadly, no 16GB model) and five different colors, the new nano looks pretty funky in its new wide-bodied form factor. The biggest news is the addition of video playback, a bigger and brighter screen, and a revamped interface, but there are plenty of other nice touches too. It’s definitely an awesome new iPod, but is it worth it to upgrade from your old nano?

The most striking thing about the new nano is its shape: Although it’s just about the same volume as the second-gen model, it’s been squashed vertically and now measures 2.75 by 2.1 by .25 inches (the image above is the actual size… at least, it is on my 15-inch MacBook Pro — ymmv). That’s crazy thin, but it feels pretty sturdy and still sits well in my hand. The front is anodized aluminum in a matte finish and has slightly rounded edges. The back of the casing has reverted to the first-gen nano’s polished stainless steel — invaluable for getting the poppy seeds out of your teeth while you’re headed out to work or play.

side view of the iPod nano
The screen is larger than the previous generation by half an inch (diagonally), bringing it within spitting distance of the 5G iPod video’s 2.5-inch screen. And its pixels are packed 204 to the inch, which is even tighter than on the iPod touch (163) or iPhone (160), making for a very sharp picture. The new nano screen is also 65 percent brighter than its predecessor, making it very easy to see even in broad daylight. And thankfully, the screen is covered in a hard coating that makes it very resistant to scratches.

The click wheel hasn’t changed, though the hold switch is now located on the bottom edge, and the button is round instead of oblong. Also, the button matches the color of your iPod — silver, teal, black, green, or Product(RED) red.

One smart change Apple made was to center the dock connector instead of having it off to the side like on previous models. That means the new nano doesn’t look so idiotic sitting off-kilter in speaker docks. It’s also worth noting that the headphone jack is set into the curved lower right edge, exposing part of the headphone plug, though this hasn’t caused any problems yet.

Apple made much better use of the 2-inch screen’s real estate by splitting the screen between text menus and graphics. In the main menu, you get text on the left and album art (or photo previews) animated with the Ken Burns pan-and-zoom effect. The Settings menu makes even better use of this feature, giving you information or a description about whatever setting is highlighted. Both the Main and Music menus are customizable as well, and you can look for specific content via the handy search feature.

I love the new screen saver, which shows a large clock, play mode, and battery life. Unfortunately, it only comes up when the display’s backlight goes out; I hope Apple fixes this soon and gives you the option to see the screen saver or large album art.

My two favorite interface enhancements have to do with music browsing: In song and album mode, you can now see the artist name in smaller text underneath the album or song name. These browsing modes were virtually useless to me before this change. Also, there’s now an automatic playlist for recently added music and video, so you can quickly find new stuff on your iPod. Combined with the artist name in small text under each song, this addresses a major issue I had with music browsing on iPods.

Much has been made of the addition of CoverFlow to the interface, which lets you browse through album covers, much like on the iPhone. Aside from the fact that half the music I have doesn’t seem to match up to album art in Apple’s database, I don’t find it a particularly useful feature on the iPod nano, given the other more efficient options. Also, the album covers don’t glide like a Rolex as they do on the iPhone, and you need to let the iPod’s processor catch its breath for a moment before you start scrolling like mad.

Finally, I like that you don’t have to hold the play/pause button as long as you used to when you want to turn the player off.

Music sounds fine on the iPod nano, with no audible system noise. I tested for a few minutes with the included earbuds, but since those are worthless, especially for higher-quality MP3s or even Apple Lossless files, I swapped them out for my Etymotic ER4P’s to make absolutely sure the sound is good, and it is.

One huge benefit of the new split-screen interface is that when you’re browsing the iPod’s built-in equalizer presets, you get a graphical representation of what each preset does to the sound. Unfortunately, there’s still no custom EQ option. A nice bonus: Repeatedly pressing the center select button while music is playing brings you to a contextual menu that lets you shuffle songs or albums without having to dig back into the Settings menu.

File format support is the same as ever: AAC, protected AAC, WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless, and MP3. The battery life hasn’t improved for audio playback; it’s still at a pretty solid 24 hours.

I watched Terminator 2, some SNL sketches, and an episode of Chappelle’s Show on the 320 by 240-pixel screen, and all of the videos were adequately smooth. Full-length movies are watchable, but not quite comfortably so, while half-hour TV shows are actually very doable.

There’s a Full Screen option in the Settings menu when you’re browsing videos; this is definitely a good idea to enable for both TV shows and letterboxed movies. It would be nice if you could access that setting while a video is playing, though at least you can adjust brightness without going into the menus. Also, since the headphone jack is on the bottom, you can’t really prop the nano up against anything to watch video without holding it in your hand. Strangely, Apple disabled the TV output feature, even though it’s available in the menus. That’s presumably so Apple can have more control over video-related accessories.

The battery lasts for a very respectable 5 hours of video, but don’t watch them all at once or you’ll go blind! Supported video formats include H.264 (m4v), MPEG-4 (mp4), and QuickTime (mov); video files generally takes up about 1 hour per gigabyte, depending on size and quality.

Photos and album art
Still images look great on the high-res screen, but despite album art automatically doing the Ken Burns pan-and-zoom effect in split-screen mode, you still can’t enlarge photos on the iPod. CoverFlow would be really handy in photo mode, too, instead of tiny thumbnails.

Preloaded games include iQuiz, Vortex, Klondike, all of which are pretty lame, though it’s cool that you can save your games if you get interrupted. At the time of this writing, none of the iPod games in the iTunes Music Store work work with current-gen iPods, but Sudoku, Tetris, and Ms. Pac-Man (and hopefully Texas Hold ‘Em) are on their way to the nano by the end of September.

I had no trouble using the new nano with any of the existing speaker/docks crowding my apartment. It also works fine with the Apple Radio Remote and Belkin’s TuneTalk Stereo voice recording adapter.

To Upgrade, Or Not to Upgrade?
If you can unload your old nano for some decent cash on eBay or Craigslist, the new nano will definitely not disappoint you for your efforts. My only serious gripe is that there’s no 16GB version at the moment, but that will very likely change, possibly even in time for the holidays. It’s just a huge shame that you can’t get the new interface on older (5G) iPods, but Apple’s gotta sell the new models somehow, right?

iPod nano vs. 80GB iPod video
iPod nano vs. Creative Zen V Plus
iPod nano vs. Zen V Plus, side view