While Apple's original iPod derivative, the iPod mini, was a mixed bag of sorts, and suffered from spotty availability during the first half of its lifetime, the mini replacement, Apple stunning iPod nano, has been a winner since the first version appeared in late 2005. The nano, and its even better second generation successor were preternaturally thin, gorgeous, and, perhaps, most important, desirable as upgrades from repeat iPod customers. The second generation nano also fixed the only major issue with its predecessor--its scratchtastic exterior--making it, perhaps, the greatest portable music player ever created. As I noted in my review, the iPod nano was as close to perfect as is imaginable, given its small form factor, and was the perfect companion for any music lover.
Apple, of course, decided to overhaul the nano in major ways. The result, the third generation iPod nano adds a number of features that iPod owners have apparently been clamoring for, including video support, a larger and brighter display, CoverFlow, iPod games support, more storage, and a "full metal" design that eliminates any plastic vestiges that remained in the previous version. I say "apparently" above because it's unclear to me that anyone was actually asking for some of these changes. But the result is the best nano yet, so it's hard to quibble with what Apple's done. As was the case a year ago, the nano is the best small-sized portable media player ever created, even if Apple has eschewed the device's previous focus on music to reach for a wider range of functionality. Let's take a look.
Introducing the new nano
Compared to the previous nano, the new 3G nano is wider but also shorter, resulting in a completely different shape that is more squat and less like an oversized stick of gum. Contrary to spy photos of the device that were posted to rumor sites in the weeks leading up to Apple's "Beat Goes On" event, where the new nano and other late 2007 iPods were introduced, the 3G nano isn't fat looking at all. In fact, it's quite nice looking, and it retains the super-thinness of its predecessor while adding a slightly curved front fascia (somewhat like the new iPod classic). Fans of the discontinued Rio Carbon will recognize the basic form factor immediately.
Like its predecessor, the 3G nano comes in a number of bright if different colors. This year, we get black, bright red, silver, blue, and green, but no white, which was admittedly my favorite. Thanks to the new and wider form factor, the iPod nano now sports a much bigger screen (well, for the nano): It's a 2-inch wonder that packs 204 pixels per inch, thus providing the same QVGA (320 x 240) resolution as the iPod classic, but in a smaller area. The results are interesting. While I may argue that watching video on such a small screen is an exercise in futility, which may depend on how you use it. Yes, the iPod nano's screen is too small for viewing TV shows, movies, or other videos while working out at the gym. But in a cramped commute, I suspect it would work quite well, and the picture quality is nothing short of amazing. Apple's slogan for the iPod nano is "a little video for everyone," and I think that's apt: The nano isn't a pure video player at all, but for occasional video use, it should work just fine.
As with previous nanos, the new nano includes a standard iPod dock connector and a headphone jack on the bottom of the device, which I still find odd. (This placement also makes the nano even less useful for in-gym video watching, as you can't rest it on an elliptical trainer when the headphones are plugged in.) The bottom edge also houses the hold switch, which used to be found on the top edge. The top edge of the device, meanwhile, is now unmarred by any ports or buttons. The back of the device is a scratchtastic as ever, like all iPods.
A new user interface
Aside from the introduction of video support, the big news with the new nano is its new user interface, which this device shares with the new iPod classic. Apple hasn't, to my knowledge, announced a name for this new UI, but I think of it as the Halfie, since it cuts the screen in half and presents the standard (read: suddenly long in the tooth) text-based iPod UI on the left half of the screen. Text on these menus is crisp and easy to read. Meanwhile, the right half of the screen now displays a scrolling image that changes based on what's selected on the left. So, for example, if the Music option is selected, you'll see album art slowly animating by on the right. Select Photos and you'll see some synced pictures. The effect is pleasant, if pointless. I mean, how much time do you spend staring at a menu?
Sadly, the problems with this new UI are many. First, it's slow compared to the old purely text-based design, and I suspect that has a lot to do with the underlying hardware. It's particularly bad when you move from Halfie into a full-screen list view that's reminiscent of what's available on the iPhone (<a href="/reviews/iphone.asp">see my review</a>). These full screen lists are located a few levels deep into the menu system. So, for example, if you navigate from the main menu to Music, the Halfie style menu remains on screen. But select anything in there and the menu switches to an iPhone-style full screen menu: Playlists and Artists are plain text lists, while Albums are plain text lists with small album art displays. All are decent looking, but the transition between these menus and Halfie is notably slow.
Also slow is the new CoverFlow view, another UI style taken from the iPhone. On the nano, you don't have to manually turn the device sideways to view CoverFlow, which is nice, but the performance is miserable: If you scroll too quickly in any direction, the album art display can't keep up and you'll see plain gray icons until the CPU catches up. That said, CoverFlow remains a wonderful way to browse a music collection, and its addition here is appreciated.
The new nano is the first in this family of iPods to support iPod games, but that support comes with a huge caveat: To this date, Apple offers almost 20 iPod games for sale from its iTunes Store, so the addition of game support to the nano would seem like a good thing. Sadly, that's not the case: Not one of those games is actually compatible with the new nano (or with the new iPod classic for that matter). Instead, those games only work with the iPod with video 5G, as before. And as of this writing, Apple only plans to port three of these games (Ms. Pac-Man, Sudoku, and Tetris) to the iPod nano 3G and iPod classic. They're not available yet. Cue the deflating balloon sound.
To somewhat offset this disappointment, Apple actually bundles three iPod games with the new nano, iQuiz, Klondike, and Vortex. As with previous generation iPod games, they're all slow to load on the little nano, and the smallish scroll wheel on the little device isn't exactly a great way to interact with games. (Though the circular Vortex is an interesting match for that form factor.) In short, game support is like video support, an interesting addition but clearly not a focus.
Facts and figures
The new nano is available in two versions, a 4 GB version that comes in silver only and costs $149, and an 8 GB version that comes in all of the available colors and costs $199. These storage allotments are considerable improvements over the 2 GB and 4 GB sizes offered last year. This allows for more music--which I still feel is the best use for a nano--or, at the very least, a small selection of TV shows, movies, and other video content.
Apple claims the new nanos will garner a whopping 24 hours of battery life for audio-only usage and 5 hours for video. While the company's battery life claims are always suspect, the audio rating is identical to what the company claimed for the 2G nano and my experiences with that were incredibly positive. I have worries that the new Halfie UI will unnecessarily drain the battery--and no, there's no way to turn that off--but that doesn't appear to be the case in my testing.
The iPod nano ships with what is now the expected small collection of doo-dads, including ear buds, a 3G nano-compatible iPod Dock adapter, and a USB sync/charge cable. No installation disk is provided, but that's for the best as Apple updates iTunes so often these days that downloading the software online advisable anyway. You can use the iPod nano 3G with an iPod Dock (available separately) to output video to a TV. No case--even a cheap slipcase--comes with the device.
One thing that's always an issue when Apple ships any truly new iPod is that there are precious few accessories available when the device first becomes available. This is certainly true of the new iPod nano 3G : Do a search for accessories on Apple's online store and prepare yourself for disappointment.
While I've raised a few issues here, it's important to remember that the new iPod nano provides everything that made the previous version best of breed, but adds a slew of new functionality. Indeed, the nano is now essentially a very small version of the iPod classic with much less storage. Though Apple is wise to highlights things like video playback and CoverFlow support, I'd argue that the new nano is instead the ultimate portable audio player and that those with typical portable player needs should look first at this device. It's an attractive, functional device with plenty of storage (for audio at least) and some new if somewhat esoteric features that make it even better than before. The iPod nano 3G once again raises the bar, and I suspect that Apple will sell millions of them, and deservedly so. Highly recommended.