Apple's best iPod yet hates the 3rd party chargers that preceded it.
Touch screen MP3 players have been getting all the attention lately, and some would say it's unjustified. Rightfully so, I say! On the move, nothing beats the control offered by a tactile player and now that Apple's returned to the slim form factor with the iPod nano 4th gen., we can start taking them seriously again. Press on after the jump to see all the improvements the new nano has brought - and all that it's taken away!
The designs of old are the inspirations of the new. This was true for the iPod nano 2G when it ditched the scratch-prone lexan casing for the brushed aluminum of the discontinued iPod mini, and now it's true for the iPod nano 4G. Gone is the clumsily wide form factor of the 3G; all hail the return of the candy-bar shape from the 1st and 2nd generations! Why? While the ergonomics of the 3rd generation nano were intact, any gym buff will tell you that pocketability took a drastic hit. The 3G wouldn't fit in the slight pockets of gym shorts, arm bands had become too bulky, it was harder to change tracks when running, and of course let's not forget that the image of an athletic person with a fatty isn't chic. Reportedly Apple's marketing division experienced hemorrhages whilst dealing with the backlash from rabid iPod aficionados.
At 3.6" x 1.5" x .24", the 4th generation nano is more or less in line with the 2G nano of old. There's not a world's difference between the two form factors as Apple would lead you to believe, the new nano only a tad slimmer at the expense of being a hair taller. What does make a difference though, is the new aesthetics of the device. The curvature of the screen, wheel, and tapered off edges work together to paint an incredible picture of slenderness. Throw in some two-tone paint -even for the black model- and you now have an iPod that is slender and edgy, possibly even alien in origin. At this rate it won't be too long before the triPod becomes a reality.
Other notable differences from past iPod nano models include the 3G's 320x240 LCD screen rotated into a portrait layout, a slightly smaller click wheel to accommodate the new screen, and a circular hold switch made out of anodized aluminum. Oh, and that fingerprint magnet of a backing present on the 1st and 3rd generation nanos? It's been sacked again, hopefully for good this time. With the exception of protecting the silk-screened fruit logo on the back, there is no longer a need to buy a protective case for this generation of iPod. Hooray!
User Interface - More of the Same, only Better
The iPod mini perfected navigation between menu screens with its clickwheel, where scrolling through options is done by moving your thumb around a circular trackpad and pressing the center button to select an option. With the play/pause, skip, and menu buttons placed directly under the wheel, just about every function except the hold switch is at the willing command of your thumb without the need for hand contortions.
The fourth generation nano retains this configuration, and it holds three key benefits over touch screen MP3 players that get all the hype these days. First and foremost, it's a lot more durable when it comes to accidental drops on concrete. (When it comes to touch screens, nothing frustrates me more than running my finger over a scratch every time I use it.) Second, you can skip tracks easily without looking at the player while performing exercises or driving on the highway. Finally, it keeps the thumb grease on the clickwheel and off the display. I can only fault the 4G's clickwheel in two areas: it requires more pressure and is a tad more finicky for fine menu selections, and there's still no dedicated volume rocker to prevent accidental eardrum blasts.
Like the 3G nano before it, the new iPod nano has a host of menu tweaks to break away from the simple-yet-monotous menus of the past and showcase just how beautiful the color screen can be. The main menu features random thumbnails from album artwork, games, and photos loaded on the device, tucked neatly underneath the main menu and thus doing away with the distractions. Cover Flow's album navigation is alive and snappy as ever, while Album artwork still makes an appearance next to the individual albums for speedy navigation.
That's not to say the interface is exactly the same as the 3G however; there are several improvements to be found. The new portrait orientation of the 240x320 screen allows for more lines to be displayed at once, and the now playing screen reserves a huge edge-to-edge portion of screen real-estate for album artwork. Mmm, pretty. A new accelerometer unit found in the 4th generation iPod nano provides instant access to Cover Flow when turned on its side, and the shake-to-shuffle feature is a fun way to switch tracks to something random. Depending on how you use your pod though, these accelerometer functions can be either advantageous or downright annoying - occasionally activating when the iPod is set down or shifted around in a moving vehicle. Thankfully these can both be disabled if needed.
The other major new interface feature is spoken menus, optionally enabled from within iTunes. This will utilize the host operating system's text-to-speech settings to generate individual AIFF files speaking for speaking every menu and synchronized item on the iPod. Yes, every menu, even star ratings. The synthesized quality of the speech leaves something to be desired (at no fault of the iPod team), but the fact that the speech is accompanied by smooth fade-ins with the currently playing music is a very nice touch for those with visual impairments. If Microsoft Sam's voice proves to be too annoying though, the size of the text can be increased from within the settings menu.
Like all the members of the iPod family, the 4th generation nano has support for a wide variety of DRM-free audio formats including MP3, M4A (AAC), M4P (DRM'ed AAC), WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless, and Audible v2-4. AAC support is grand due to the superior compression it offers over MP3 and the ability to play tracks purchased through the iTunes store. This can be a deciding factor between the iPod and other MP3 players on the market since only a handful of manufacturers choose to support AAC. On the other hand, Apple still has yet to support the free FLAC and OGG Vorbis codecs that iriver, Samsung, Sandisk and others do. Non-protected WMA is still at least half-way supported - iTunes will recognize the file and offer to transcode it into your format of choice, but unless you delete the original you'll end up with two copies of the same song on your hard drive.
The 4th generation nano's sound quality remains impressive, and should suit all but the most discriminatory audiophile. While better than most other stock earbuds, the headphones provided don't have a secure fit which can cause the bass to sound weak. Apple includes 22 EQ presets to pick from at the expense of battery life, but still has yet to provide a custom equalizer. Be wary of the Bass Booster preset on this one though as it's prone to clipping at moderate to high volumes.
Another new feature to the 4th generation nano is the "Genius" functionality first introduced with iTunes 8. Once enabled, this will allow you to select an individual song and generate a playlist with songs that the iTunes Store believes to go together based on the listening habits of other iTunes users. It's no Pandora, but it's usually on the mark with my own listening habits. Seeding Iron Maiden's Hallowed Be Thy Name brings up tracks from Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, Metallica, and Disturbed - nice!
The 240x320 screen handles remarkably well at displaying both still photos and video. Colors are well saturated and life-like, and there isn't any visible ghosting with moving objects such as the news ticker in The Onion's video podcasts. The accelerometer comes into play here as it instantly detects the player's orientation and adjusts the screen accordingly. Videos will only play in a landscape format with the clickwheel either to the left or right of the screen, but photos will display at any orientation, allowing them to be displayed whichever way best utilizes the screen, but there's no zooming ability. Widescreen videos are displayed in a letterbox format with black bars across the top and bottom of the screen. These bars can be removed using the Fit to Screen (fullscreen) option, but the edges of the frame will be cropped out. Don't confuse Fit to Screen with "pan and scan", as the picture is always centered no matter where the action is on frame.
iTunes will sync a number of photo formats to the iPod nano, including JPEG, BMP, TIFF, PNG, and non-animated GIFs. Photoshop Documents (PSDs) can also be automatically converted for synchronization, but only on the Macintosh platform. Video support is limited to H.264 and MPEG-4 at certain bitrates up to 30 fps at 640x480, so all the videos that you've collected over the years will need to be converted first. This isn't as big of an issue as it used to be now that the latest version of Handbrake (Mac/Win/Linux freeware!) will convert videos to an iPod compatible format from just about every file source imaginable except Real Media, including DVDs.
As if playing music, videos and photo slideshows wasn't enough, the iPod still hosts a handful of extras to double as a makeshift PDA. Calendars and Contacts can be synced automatically from iCal and the Address book on OS X, and Microsoft Outlook 2003+ on Windows. If those applications aren't your cup of tea, standard .ics and .vcal calendars along with contacts in the .vcard format may be placed onto the iPod by manually dragging these files to their respective folders on the root of the iPod within Windows Explorer or the Finder. The stopwatch, world clock, alarm and text file reader also make a return as well.
Games play a very important role on the 4th generation iPod - they give you something to do when you're stuck in a waiting room. The iPod nano 4G comes with three of them: Klondike solitaire, Maze, and Vortex. Klondike is self-explanatory, so I won't go into that. Maze is your classic get-the-marble-in-the-hole game, and makes fine use of the accelerometer as the primary controls for moving that marble around. The difficulty increases with each level, and with 30 levels to complete you should be well occupied for a long time. Vortex is a spin on the classic Breakout game included as an easter-egg on the first iPod. The object is still to clear all the bricks on each level, but now there are powerups to be had, plus the playing field has been changed to a 3D pipe where bricks can vanish into the walls for interesting combos.
Each of these games supports multiple orientations using the accelerometer and come with their own selection of music in case you get tired of your own collection, but what's truly awesome is that there are more games to be had from the iTunes Store. At the time of this writing, there are 46 games to choose from at $5 a pop, with many household names that you'll instantly recognize along with a few indie titles. Curiously enough, there's also three Kaplan titles for SAT preparation in reading, writing and math. While video previews are available for all the selections, unfortunately there are no demos to be had.
Accessories and Compatibility
Paired with the Apple Universal Dock, Apple Composite AV Cable, or Apple Component AV Cable - each with a MSRP of $49 - the iPod nano can output to a TV with minimal hassle. TV output quality is on par with DVDs, the video processor limiting playback resolution to 480p (NTSC) and 576p (PAL) dependent on the video source. Older video iPod video accessories such as the Sonic Impact Video 55 and Memorex iFlip will not work with the 4th generation nano's docking connector though, as more often than not they do not have the authentication chip that Apple began mandating back in 2007.
What you're more likely to encounter however, are licensed "Made for iPod" accessories that refuse to charge the 4th generation iPod nano. This is because Apple has removed the ability to charge over the Firewire pins in the docking connector. It's not too surprising since Apple no longer includes Firewire ports on its Macbook line of laptops, but that still doesn't explain Apple's willingness to frustrate manufacturers and consumers by breaking compatibility with the plethora of licensed accessories already on the market.
Voice recording is back with a vengeance. Should you shell out for a $30 headset with in-line microphone or a microphone accessory that uses the dock connector, you'll find that recordings are now saved in the Apple Lossless format as opposed to WAV. Recordings through a headset will be mono while the dock connector will record in stereo, both of which use a 44.1 kHz sampling rate. Chapter markers can be inserted into the recording by pressing the center button. While Apple Lossless doesn't have as high a compatibility rate as WAV does, since it is supported by Quicktime and VLC you won't have any difficulty in finding some way of playing it another computer and it's always possible to convert it to WAV or MP3 later on within iTunes. There is one nagging question that continues to bug me though: why doesn't Apple include a built-in microphone?!
Apple gave the 4th generation nano official battery ratings of 24 hours for audio playback and 5 hours for video. As with past reviews, I found these to be sorely underrated. A whopping 29 hours, 42 minutes was squeezed out of the 4G with 2/3 volume, minimal user interaction, and a selection of MP3s encoded between 128 and 224 kbps. Looping a DVD Rip of Iron Man encoded using Handbrake's iPod setting produced a playback time of 4 hours, 50 minutes with default brightness. Frequent road trippers will need to invest in a *working* charging accessory though, as the battery is not user-replaceable. This also means that heavy users will need to invest in a new battery a couple years down the road, either having Apple perform the replacement or doing it yourself if you're feeling gutsy with a soldering iron.
Return of slim form factor
Decent sound quality
"Genius" recommendation system
Excellent screen and video quality
Large selection of games
Accelerometer works well in games and video
Roughly 30 hours battery life
No firewire breaks support for many 3rd party chargers
No built-in microphone
No OGG Vorbis or FLAC support
The iPod nano 4G is easily Apple's best iPod yet. Audio and video playback was superb and the vibrant ghost-free quality offered by the 240x320 screen is absolutely stunning. Although the clickwheel is slightly more finicky than previous generation devices, its tactile navigation augmented by simple hierarchical menus and the accelerometer make for the best user interface I've had the pleasure of dealing with, bar none. Best of all, the slim form factor is back, baby! Of course, every player has room for improvement and the 4G nano is no exception: charging with a wealth of 3rd party accessories is now defective by design, there's no built-in microphone, and there's still no support for the FLAC or OGG formats. These issues aside, the new nano makes for a great first MP3 player or even an upgrade over an existing one, but there aren't enough improvements to warrant upgrading from the 3rd generation nano.