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Review: Apple's new 3G iPod nano is a 5G video iPod in a nano-thin shell

The new third generation Nano has the same small and ultra thin form factor as previous Nanos and similarly occupies the same sports-centric product position in the Apple's iPod line. However, it adds full video iPod features on a screen smaller than the existing 5G video iPod. How well does it deliver?

The All-New 3G Nano

Based on Apple's own unflattering photos and all of the "Fat Nano" blogger talk, I imagined the new Nano would look like a chunky stopwatch. In reality, the new Nano is as thin as the tall Nano it replaced, but its rounded back cover makes it appear and feel even thinner. It's also significantly shorter, making it look more like the original iPods, shrunken a size or two and then squashed flat.

In addition to being an all new form factor with a larger screen with the ability to play photos, video, and games, the new Nano fits well into the Nano family tree. It's ultra thin. Let me rephrase that: it's crazy insane wafer thin, both compared to the slim iPhone, and the previous generations of music-only Nanos.

The new Nano looks and feels so thin that it makes my iPhone look like an aircraft carrier it could land upon. That thinness really sets it apart from the hard drive based iPod Classic line, which appeals to people who want to carry a lot of content around; the low cost, simple iPod Shuffle; and the new iPod Touch, which delivers a the large multitouch and widescreen features of the iPhone. In addition to being thin, it also is the only iPod that works with the Nike+ and has a fancy stopwatch logging feature, reinforcing the sports centric role of the Nano as the ultra slim version you're supposed to wear on your arm while exercising.

Third-gen iPod nano

Apple took its existing iPod lineup and cranked out a series of significant improvements to change the game this winter. The first major update is the Nano's obvious video features and ability to play games. The second is a totally revised new user interface the Nano shares with the updated new iPod Classic. The third its its new physical form factor. That's not to say there are no flaws, odd feature omissions, limitations, or bugs. Here's a look at how the three categories of new Nano features stack up.

iPod Video Features

Back before the 5G iPod was released, everyone clamored for video playback but Apple seemed to suggest that it wasn't really that compelling of a feature. The closest one could get to iPod video playback was to flip through photos. The speed of the 4G iPod Photo in flipping through pictures suggested that real video couldn't be too far behind.

Sure enough, when video playback arrived in the 5G iPods, Apple heralded it as the new thing to have and opened up the beginning of video sales in the iTunes Store. However, the small size of the iPod's display left critics to jeer that a 2.5" screen wasn't worth squinting at. It's certainly not a cinematic experience, but for watching TV, home movies, or even ripped DVDs, the video iPods are practical for some purposes. Held at a normal reading level, the screen is as large as a regular TV set sitting across the room. It's great for catching up on a game, watching podcasts, or even watching movies during a flight.

The introduction of 5G iPod games also enlivened the iPod experience, with some being very difficult to put down. None of the iPod games were anything that might seriously worry Nintendo's DS, the current leader in handheld video games. However, for iPod users the games are an great way to kill a few moments on the train or in a waiting room. How well do videos and games work on the Nano's slightly smaller version of the standard 320 x 240 screen?

Nano Video Display

The Nano's ultra-high density 2" screen--with 204 pixels per inch--is bright and sharp, even at its default 50% brightness setting. For comparison, the iPhone's screen is 160 pixels per inch. The iPhone and iPod Touch both offer a nicer video experience with their much larger screens and double-tall 480 x 320 resolution, but the Nano does respectable video, offers a tiny version of Coverflow, and plays games, too.

The 0.5" size difference between the Nano and the earlier video playing iPods is really hard to notice; if you think the iPod's video was acceptable, you likely will find the Nano's video equally decent. If you've grown accustomed to the iPhone's display, or think the iPod is a silly way to watch TV, then the Nano obviously isn't going to do it for you. However, the Nano also does some things the iPhone does not yet, including games.

The Nano's Coverflow has a slightly slower acceleration effect than the iPhone's; with a large library of music, I could spin into grey placeholder cards for a second before the album art was loaded. I couldn't see any lag or hesitation though, and once loaded, flicking back and forth through album art is instantaneous. Clicking on an album brings up a listing of songs that can be selected, in a manner very similar to the iPhone. Of course, there's no finger flicking touchscreen satisfaction because the Nano is driven entirely by its clickwheel. It does feel natural and easy to use though, despite being spoiled by the iPhone experience over the last two months.

Third-gen iPod nano

In addition to the built-in screen, the new 3G Nano also connects to a standard TV using component cables or S-Video using the existing iPod video dock. That's another thing the iPhone can't yet do. When placed in a video dock, it simply complains that the device isn't supported. It appears that issue will be fixed on the iPhone soon, because Apple lists its iPod video cables as supporting the Touch. Until that software upgrade is rolled out, the new video Nano can act as a portable, standard definition composite video version of the Apple TV.

Besides the usual iPod Video settings that offer to direct video playback through the dock to a connected TV, the Nano also offers to adjust video output to fullscreen mode (getting rid of letterboxing bars to present a blown up view of the middle of the screen), and has a setting for turning on closed captions. That apparently would only work on iTunes purchased content that specifically supports captions. None of the content I've downloaded supports captions, and there is no standard way to add captions to video, so perhaps Apple will be announcing new accessibility features to its iTunes content in the future.

On page 2: Nano Games; and Updated iPod Menus and Applications.