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Near-Perfect Ultra-Portable Music Player
on October 14, 2012
The latest iPod Nano is an update to the current state of the art in ultra-compact music players and it represents incremental but important improvements over its predecessors with only a few minor trade-offs. I'm convinced it represents a substantial functional upgrade for most users.
Its major advantage, in my opinion, is actually its slightly-larger size in comparison to the 5th generation. Although the smaller form factor of the previous Nano was remarkable for its extreme compactness, it actually made the device somewhat cumbersome to use. Its touch-screen was too susceptible to unintended inputs and it couldn't be easily held in one hand while manipulating its controls. Attempts to control it via screen-input while clipped onto one's clothing tended to be futile: you'd need to un-clip the device, then hold it in one hand and manipulate its touch-screen with the other. While the tiny size and convenient clip made it practically disappear while in use, it could be an ergonomic nightmare to actually interact with.
The new Nano is still tiny but much better for one-handed use. My index finger comfortably sits on the three-way volume/play/pause button (itself a major improvement) while my thumb has easy access to the sleep/wake button, the home button and the improved, larger, multi-touch-enabled screen. This easy one-handed control has the significant practical advantage of not requiring the interruption of my activities to switch, for example, between podcasts, music playlists and FM radio.
Other improvements follow logically from the Nano's new shape. The screen's larger proportions allow all the main "apps" to show up on a single home screen, so less fiddling is typically required for switching. Videos and photos become practical on a screen of these proportions, so it's perfectly reasonable to load some viewable content in addition to the audio content that will no doubt remain the Nano's main reason for existence. With few pixels, photos take up very little memory. The screen has neither the stunning colors nor the retina resolution of the premium iDevices, but photos still show up crisply and become the modern equivalent of the now-obsolete "wallet"-sized photos people used to carry. Video content is surprisingly usable as long as you can set the Nano in a viewable position - for example, on a cardio machine at the gym. The Nano supports rotation, so displaying the beautiful panos you've made with your new iPhone is simply a matter of rotating the device to the horizontal and then looking very, very closely. Maybe bring a magnifying glass.
More important for most people, the new Nano is an improved device for playing music. The "Home" button is a good antidote to the common experience of getting lost in the old Nano's sometimes-inscrutable layers of touch screens, bringing you immediately back to the home screen without interfering with playback. An even bigger practical improvement is the addition of the play/pause button on the volume control, a feature lifted from the (now unfortunately absent) remote-equipped earphones of many previous iPods. It's worth a few minutes' time to familiarize yourself with this button's very clever functions: click to play or to pause, double-click for next track, triple-click for previous track (even when in shuffle mode), double-click-and-hold for cueing (great for skipping forward in podcasts), and so on. Most routine playback functions are accessible through this simple and very welcome interface and can be accomplished while diverting little attention from whatever you're otherwise engaged in.
The list of major upgrades doesn't end there. The inclusion of Bluetooth will make the Nano usable, for the first time, with many car audio systems and also with wireless Bluetooth headsets and remote Bluetooth speaker systems. The FM radio is much better than I would have imagined if I hadn't used the previous Nano, with legitimately excellent reception and a very nice interface that lets you select unlimited numbers of "presets." I've used small portable radios in the past, and maybe there are some other good ones out there, but the ones I've experienced have been terrible. I'm personally still attached to FM, and this level of FM quality would make the Nano a terrific device even if it did nothing else.
In general I find the new Nano to be a beautiful, nearly-flawless little piece of practical technology that can do things which, not that long ago, I would not have expected to be possible within my lifetime. While it's not inexpensive, it has real life-improving potential for people who love music or who want to remain portably connected to a world of podcasted information. Being smaller than a credit card in two of three dimensions, it fits easily into the smallest pocket. While jaded consumers of technology can claim it's a mere incremental improvement over its predecessors, I prefer to see it as an instance of exceptional, practical, functional design in a world full of cheap junk that too often disappoints or fails to function altogether. While I have a few nitpicks (below), none of them significantly diminish its overall excellence. It earns every star.
- There are a few disappointments and drawbacks:
--- The Ear Pods that come with the device sound good overall but don't have the remote function included with many iDevice earphones in recent years. While the new Nano has a hardware button that mimics that function, the corded remote is often more accessible, making pause/play and track-change functions instantly available even if the device is buried in a pocket. A decent set of Apple-compatible remote-equipped earphones would be a nice addition.
--- This latest Nano eliminates the useful integrated clip featured by the last (6th generation) Nano, making it more a pocket device. Its thin-ness and Bluetooth support compensates for this: the old Nano's clip made it slightly cumbersome in a pocket, as it could catch on things and added significantly to the device's thickness. Nevertheless the previous generation remains the ultimate for portability and, while thicker and slightly wider, weighs around 1/3 less than the latest model.
--- The white screen-surround on the colored Nanos doesn't look all that great in my opinion. It does give the Nanos a clean, friendly look, but to my eyes black would be a better choice and would contrast sharply with the bright colors and icons. I chose the boring but still attractive "slate" (black) model, which does have a black screen-surround.
--- I would like more flexibility in some of the settings: for example, the ability to keep the screen "on" longer, even indefinitely, before it sleeps. As it is, the screen goes dark so quickly I'm often still in the middle of fiddling with whatever I'm working on and have to re-wake the screen to continue. The previous-generation Nano was similar.
--- The previous 6th-gen Nano enjoyed an unintended popularity as a watch, mainly with kids, who seemed to love using it for this purpose. It had lots of clock faces to choose from and could be set to default to the clock when waked from sleep (as can the current model). The new Nano gives up the prospect of practical wrist-wearability. It also features fewer clock faces and only a few background options, all color-matched to the device, none of which is customizable. Perhaps this helps contribute to a lean OS and optimize the device's storage space. Whatever the case, the new Nano is not a watch, nor a clock, although it will accurately show you the time and it still has a useful stopwatch and countdown-timer.
- The Lightning connector is functionally far better than competing connector types such as Micro-USB and a clear improvement over the old style. The previous-generation Nano was nearly dwarfed by its connector, and it's easy to see that retaining that oversized monstrosity (as it will seem to have been, within a year or two) would have precluded the current positioning of the Home button on the new device, among other drawbacks.
- The Nano is still not an iOS device: internet connectivity and wireless- or Cloud-syncing remain in the future. This makes sense: a Nano is likely to be away from a wifi signal much of the time it's used, and cellular capability hardly seems reasonable. If you're looking for a do-it-all device, a smart phone remains a much more versatile (but cumbersome) alternative. The Nano is fundamentally optimized to function as a stand-alone audio player. Pandora will have to wait.
- Why not simply use a smart phone for music playback and podcasts? Well, you could - but the Nano has some significant advantages. Its size makes it much easier to carry while active, or while working around the house or in the garage. Its dedicated intelligent play/pause button makes interfacing with audio playback much simpler. And at least among Apple devices it is the only one to offer FM radio, which it does very well. These tend to be very important differences in day-to-day use and can easily justify its purchase price as a separate device.