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Review: Apple's fourth-generation iPod nano

Accelerometer features

Another feature Apple is using on the nano to set it well past aspiring competitors is an accelerometer. Just as with the iPhone and touch, if you hold the new nano sideways you'll enter Cover Flow mode automatically; the feature is navigated by spinning around the circle on the click wheel and clicking the center to select.

The other feature of the accelerometer is "shake to shuffle." While playback is rarely affected by bumping the device, if you give it a deliberate shake, you'll hear an electronic tone and a random new song will begin playing. This feature can be turned off in settings if you don't like it.

Another use of the accelerometer is in playing new games that take advantage of it. Apple includes a tilting Maze game to show the feature off. Despite all the critics moaning about how Apple has lost its edge and excitement at this (and every previous) iPod event, the company continues to lead in various innovations, some small and some significant, but usually always marked by an understated simplicity that reveals a certain genius.

Speaking of Genius

A recurring theme of Apple's "Let's Rock" iPod event was the Genius feature, which was outed as a marketing name by industrial spy leaks, but not really revealed in any detail. Rumors specified a Genius Playlist and Genius Sidebar without explaining what they would do, and didn't anticipate the Genius feature on the iPods themselves.

In iTunes 8, Genius is the new marketing name of two features. The first, Genius Playlists, is an automatic playlist generator that works a bit like Party Shuffle, except that rather than intelligently picking out your favorites, it selects music that "goes well with" a song you have selected. This is genius for users who have a song in mind and can't really quantify how to construct a series of smart playlists to select other songs like it. Genius Playlists uses algorithms developed by Apple to find similar music, and requires users to upload metadata up to the iTunes Store in order to get regular updates that progressively make the system smarter at finding similar music based on the millions of aggregate associations of participating users.

Opting into Genius Playlists also activates the Genius Sidebar, which is essentially a renamed iTunes Mini Store. Apple gives iTunes away for free in order to encourage users to use its iPods. It also encourages iTunes users to buy content from the iTunes Store. In order to make the entirely optional store more prominent, Apple introduced the Mini Store as a sidebar that popped up in iTunes 6.0.2, offering users suggestions of related music they might want to buy. The web collectively freaked out that Apple had turned this feature on "without permission" in its software, and that it was anonymously delivering information about the user's music library back to Apple in order to make the feature work better. Apple promptly made the system opt in a few weeks later.

Genius Sidebar is the next iteration: you still get to opt in, but Apple now offers more carrot to lead you toward giving the company prominent advertising space next to your music library. In exchange for giving up a strip of the iTunes interface to the Genius Sidebar, Apple will create Genius Playlists for you from your own music. Unsurprisingly, the Genius Playlist feature works better when used with purchased music that has complete and predictable metadata on it.

If you turn on the Genius features and decide you don't like the deal, you can opt out by turning Genius off, which converts your dynamic Genius playlists into standard playlists and stops exchanging data between you and Apple's iTunes cloud (below).

iPod nano

To ice the deal, Apple has also added 'Genius Playlist to go' features to its new iPods, including the 4G nano, the new 2G touch, the second-gen iPod classic, and the existing iPhone, iPhone 3G, and the original iPod touch. Earlier classic models do not support the Genius Playlist features, despite mistaken rumors that suggested this might be in the works. The new 4G nano uses a revised software platform that puts it ahead of the iPod classic and earlier iPod models, and of course, all of the iPhone and touch models support the same software, so adding forward support for the new Genius feature was easy for those models.

If you think Genius is a blood boiling outrage of epic proportions, you will no doubt be particularly enraged by the offer Apple throws up to check out new games when you plug in a new iPod to sync it (below). Oh the humanity! Apple is clearly in business to make money, and expects users who download iTunes for free to occasionally at least consider browsing its wares.

iPod nano

Software Interface

Last year's non-touch iPods got a new software menu interface that presented animated graphics on the right half of the wide screen. Now that the 4G nano has a tall screen, it has moved this animated album art to a strip below the menus. Apart from this rejiggering, the new nano works very similar to the previous model. Again, nothing has changed with the iPod classic's form factor, and so predictably, nothing has changed with the iPod classic software. As we predicted last year, the iPod classic is only being kept around for users who want more storage than flash RAM can currently, affordably provide. There's no hard drive based touch or iPhone, and the classic itself looks ready to retire in a year or two.

The big difference with the new 4G nano is that when you hold it sideways, it goes into Cover Flow mode automatically, which you spin through with the click wheel. This works exceptionally well; it's both very rapid and smooth with no hesitation.

This very visual presentation of your music library puts emphasis back on album cover art, and works identically to the view on the iPhone, except that you control things from the click wheel rather than via direct touch. Because the 4G nano's controls amount to spinning and clicking, you don't need to think about orientation of the player and how the controls might be changing or not, it just works.

For visually impaired users, the new nano supports audio controls that are activated in iTunes. Turning the "use spoken menus for accessibility" feature on (below) copies menu audio files to the device so users can hear navigation as they use the device. The voices are generated by the desktop system, allowing users to customize the voice used as desired.

iPod nano

The new nano software also sports an optional audio crossfade feature, which blends one song into the next during playback if you like that sort of thing.

On page 3 of 4: Recording software and mics; Audio In Killed the Video Cable; Photos, Nike+, Radio Remote, and iPod Games; and What ships in the box.