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

Physical Features

The 3G Nano ships with a USB to dock connector cable, iconic iPod style earbuds, and a custom fit plastic tray for use with a universal iPod dock. It happily fits into any iPod dock without really needing the tray, including the iPhone dock. The new Nano is so skinny that it floats in the iPhone dock like its taking a bath. Incidentally, the Nano also easily squeezes into a jeans' change pocket, in case you want to dramatically recreate Steve Jobs' unveiling of the original Nano to impress your friends and family.

The Nano's headphone jack is on the bottom of the unit next to the dock connector, just like the previous Nanos. The new Nano doesn’t have a recessed headphone jack like the iPhone, so it doesn’t have any problem with third party headphones using a short, right angle jack.

The hold switch has moved from the top edge to the bottom as well. Rather than being a plastic slider, it appears to be a more rugged looking metal slide switch. The colored front side of the Nano folds down over the bottom panel surrounding the switch and two connectors. Incidentally, the Nano will also work with the iPhone's headphones, although it lacks the fourth conductor required to make any use of the mic or its click-to-skip button.

Third-gen iPod nano

The 3G Nano comes in a 4 GB silvery white version, or an 8 GB model in a variety of colors: soft charcoal black, pastel minty green, turquoise blue, and a (Product)RED version that looks like a metallic maroon. All of the new colors are slightly darker and more serious looking than the previous palette for the iPod Nanos, although the blue and green versions seem very feminine.

With a color anodized metal finish on the front and a polished metal back, the new Nano looks a lot like the earlier iPods, albeit in a much smaller form factor. That means the back will mark up quickly as the previous iPods did, showing every nick and every fingerprint. The iPhone has a textured back that does not scratch or smear as easily, although it is possible to ding up its chrome rim around the screen.

Third-gen iPod nano

However, the Nano's screen appears to have the same glass face of the iPhone. I could not scratch it using a headphone jack or a coin; that was easy to do with the softer plastic coating on the earlier iPods. It appears Apple has suitably nailed the complaints of scratched up iPod displays.

Third-gen iPod nano

It's quite amazing to think that the tiny new 3G Nano has nearly twice the storage of the original 5GB iPod, despite using Flash RAM rather than a hard drive. Next to a 2003 3G iPod, the new 3G Nano is about as thick as the 3G's white face layer, about a quarter the thickness overall. It's hard to believe how fast iPods are shrinking, even while Apple piles on new software features.

Where could the battery be in this thing? Apple gives an ideal rating of 24 hours of music playback. I left it playing for 16 hours straight on a full charge, and it reported being half full the next day. Use of the screen--whether for watching video or playing games--eats up the battery dramatically faster. Apple gives a 5 hour rating for playing video. I also noticed that plugging in the Nike+ adapter caused the battery remaining indicator to dive from 80% to about 50%, indicating that it too helps eat up battery.

That being the case, 5 hours of video playback is very reasonable. In mixed use, expect the Nano to easily last all day. It recharges quickly, picking up a full charge in just an hour or so when connected to a computer via USB.

The new Nano’s Nike+ functionality gives it a unique combination of features that will appeal to lots of users, even many who already have an iPhone. In fact, with the $100 rebate Apple offered to early iPhone adopters, a new Nano might be popular among iPhone users who suddenly found themselves $100 richer simply for picking Apple's smartphone over the more expensive alternatives.

Third-gen iPod nano

Third-gen iPod nano

Syncing and Software Issues

When plugged into an iTunes equipped PC, the screen displays a dock connector cable icon and clearly indicates that it needs to be ejected before being unplugged; earlier models weren't so clear. While syncing, it displays the iSync "chasing arrows" icon; sync can be canceled from iTunes. Once the sync completes, the Nano goes into ready mode displaying its animated menus and can be unplugged without ejecting. If disk mode is manually activated, the Nano has to be ejected before being unplugged.

At first sync, iTunes said my new Nano was corrupt and suggested that I reset it. It then downloaded the Nano 1.0 software and reinstalled it. I bought this model before the units even went on display in the Apple Store, so my early version may have lacked the final version of the Nano software.

Even so, I noticed a number of minor visual blemishes. Sometimes a control would draw improperly for a moment, and once the stopwatch overwrote the numbers in the display. Such bugs stick out because the iPod software is typically almost flawless. It appears Apple worked very hard to push out the Nano software in time for the event, and a software update should address those errors.

I didn't run into any serious flaws that impacted usability, and the glitches were about as common as the first few weeks on the iPhone. Given that Apple released two updates for the iPhone within its first two months which addressed its occasional glitches, it appears that any minor flaws in the Nano software will also be ironed out quickly.

After downloading the new Nano 1.0 software and resetting the Nano, iTunes created a Nano Playlist and selected 1500 songs from my library to sync over. I manually turned on syncing of Calendar and Contact data, Videos, Photos, and Games. Like the iPhone and other iPods, the syncing in iTunes is easy to configure. The only real syncing problem I found was that games didn't sync because mine weren't compatible.

That incompatibility also suggests that the new Nano and the revised iPod Classic both use a significantly newer firmware and operating environment compared to the 5G and 5.5G iPods dating back into 2005. The entirely new menus with animated graphics with subtle drop shadows and slide in transitions--and the use of Coverflow--suggest Apple may have adapted more of its Leopard graphics libraries for use on the iPods. Whether Apple is porting its core technologies to the lower end of the iPod range or simply imitating them, it helps to make the new iPods feel more like a cohesive part of the iPhone and Mac family. No doubt the move to Leopard at the end of the month will also help usher in a tighter range of interface familiarity.

The first sync typically takes the longest, particularly if its configured to copy over a full 8 GB of content. I had plugged it into the USB port on the back of a Cinema Display, and received a useful warning that the port I was using was the slower USB 1.0; ejecting and plugging it into a USB 2.0 jack made syncing much faster.

I synced photos, movies, podcasts, and hours of music without any problems, found playback of video problem-free. I was particularly impressed with the photo TV out function, but playing video to the TV is also a great feature, potentially replacing the Apple TV for users of TVs that lack any component video inputs or an HDMI connector.

On page 5: Video Conspiracy!; and The Wrap Up.