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Monday, September 15, 2008, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Review: Apple's fourth-generation iPod nano

For its third anniversary, the highly portable 4G iPod nano gets a new tall and slim design, Genius Playlists, audio recording and other new software features, twice the storage at the same price, and a new array of colors. It continues to offer high quality audio, and plays video games, podcasts, TV and movie downloads, and movie rentals. Apple still refuses to give it a capital n, however.

Hardware orientation

The most obvious difference over previous nano models is the 4G's return to a tall orientation. Last year's thin square model gave the nano line the full video playback features of the previous full sized iPod, including support for video games, by putting a reduced size but full resolution iPod video display into a new square case. In our review, we called the 3G iPod nano "a 5G video iPod in a nano-thin shell." This year, Apple delivered the 4G iPod nano as an enhanced version of the full sized iPod in a more conventional tall nano form factor.

In introducing the new model, Steve Jobs said that users didn't prefer the compact square form factor, so the new nano uses the same display in a dual orientation format, with menus presented in a tall portrait view, and videos and Cover Flow features that work in the horizontal landscape orientation. The new change brings obvious comparisons with Microsoft's flash based Zune models introduced last year; however, that design didn't sell well at all for Microsoft, no better than the original Zune. With the new 4G nano, Apple delivers a number of design improvements that address fatal flaws in the Zune.

The first is a coherent physical interface. The Zune presented a 'squircle' touch controller with no labels and two external physical buttons above it, one for play and pause and the other marked with a back arrow. When held sideways (a mode arbitrarily determined by the video being played), the touch controller reconfigured how it worked, but the physical buttons didn't (and couldn't obviously). This changed the layout and the relationships between the buttons, making them frustratingly unintuitive for everyone but the most determined users, and doing absolutely nothing to boost Microsoft's sales.

iPod nano


The 4G iPod nano, like earlier iPod models, presents the familiar iPod click wheel that always works the same. Its buttons are clearly labeled, and the most common feature, scrolling up and down or across (in Cover Flow) is performed by running your finger around the circle. Held sideways, the click wheel continues to work as expected.

Apple's hardware experience really shines with the 4G's software integration. While it makes sense for a direct feedback virtual interface to change, such as the touchscreen of the iPhone and touch does when held sideways, changing the way physical buttons work between orientations is not the correct behavior. For example, if you hold your hand sideways while using a laptop trackpad, you don't want the computer trying to account for your body position and movement and changing how the mouse moves.

However, when playing certain video games, the new 4G nano presents a screen indicating that controls are remapped for compatibility. A contradiction? Not really, as when playing back music the device works the same in both orientations, but when converting into a horizontal games machine, it enters a mode that makes sense for the given game.

iPod nano


Hardware form factor

Apple also applied its slick industrial design savvy to enhance the new 4G nano. It returns to a iPod Mini-like metal tube design similar to the second generation nano, except that rather than being a flat oval, the latest design pinches the long edges to a smooth corner, which results in it feeling even thinner than it actually is. Not that that was necessary; the new nano is already the thinnest ever even in advance of the svelte tapering illusion of smallness.

There are two side effects of the new case being thinner at the edges. The first is a slight curve over the glass face of the screen. In seeing the leaked design specs, we worried that this would result in a TV tube-like distortion, and other critics have suggested that this will cause excessive glare, as the glass could catch light from additional angles.

In actual use however, neither turned out to be the case. First of all, unlike a CRT tube, the nano's LCD screen is of course perfectly flat behind the curved glass. In order to see any "Coke bottle" distortion, you have to hold it at a very unnatural angle. Even from an extreme angle where you can start to see the roundness of the glass, the screen still remains clear and readable.

As for glare, while it's easy to position the nano screen in a way to pick up glare on purpose, we found that whenever we saw glare, making a very slight change to how we were holding it made it easy to remove any glare at all. In comparison, the glossy screens on MacBooks and most modern PC laptops do have a problem with glare, and there is often no way to escape from the glare without completely repositioning yourself to put the offending light source behind you. That kind of glare problem is simply not present on the new 4G nano. The only way to experience distortion or glare with the new 4G nano is to hold it at an awkwardly acute angle while being willfully obtuse.

In fact, the only problem we could imagine with the new shape is its two rounded but still butter knife sharp corners on both ends of the player. If you hold it like a stopwatch, the corners can be pointed enough to be uncomfortable in your palm. This time next week, there will no doubt be a class action lawsuit charging that the 4G nano's corners are at least as dangerous to unattended children as a spoon or perhaps a pencil. Of course, many nano users will have the device inside a case or arm strap, so this issue is also hard to get worked up about.

iPod nano


On page 2 of 4: Accelerometer features; Speaking of Genius; and Software Interface