Review : Apple iPod nano - Third Generation

New Nano has great display, but UI marred by rough qualities

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $149, $199

The Good

  • Brilliant display and user interface.
  • Exceptional battery life.
  • Much improved game support.

The Bad

  • Initial manufacturing glitches with some units.
  • Chrome shell is a step back from 2G models.
  • Sheds some of its legacy accessory and game support.
Apple was faced with a unique dilemma when tasked with yet again remaking the iPod nano. How would it remake such a small player to support video without sacrificing the size or comfort of what was arguably its best-selling iPod of all time? In terms of hardware, the answer was surprisingly simple and works well. Software and build quality, however, may have bruised Apple's reputation, at least in the short term.

Design and build quality: a mixed bag

For Apple, the initial reception of the new iPod nano was almost unfair from the outset. A single, blurred photo led many to make fun of the player even before it was released: in more than a few cases, the nano was nicknamed the "fatboy" due to its squat look. After holding one in the hand, however, it becomes apparent that much of the concern is overblown. The new nano is considerably more elegant in person and is very easy to hold. Where the dimensions of the iPod touch make it slightly harder to hold than the iPhone, the nano's short, wide body makes it fairly easy to clutch in the hand.

Controls have also remained fairly easy to reach in spite of the larger screen and the wide dimensions. Scrolling the click wheel is still easy, if not quite as natural as with the first- and second-generation models. The decision to move the hold switch to the bottom is also a welcome move that helps unlock the iPod's controls when pulled out of a pocket, though the new switch is stiffer than before.

Nonetheless, Apple has seemingly stepped back from some of its wiser decisions. Once again, the iPod nano has returned to a chromed back that easily picks up scratches and smudges. This simply does not make sense -- it was widely, if unofficially, acknowledged that the second-generation nano's wrap-around aluminum shell was introduced to address complaints of easily scratched first-generation models. Apple ought to understand that chrome is no longer needed to associate one of its players with the iPod brand and choose its materials with some concern for their durability in the real world.

I also have an (admittedly minor) objection to Apple's choice of pastel colors beyond the silver and black options. These are obviously targeted at women. It may be an accurate reflection of Apple's market, but many women I know would rather not have such an obvious marketing push and were perfectly happy with last year's color schemes.

More worrisome is the build quality. My review iPod was one of the small but significant number of units to ship with a crooked LCD. This was not enough to be a problem with everyday use, but it was enough to be noticeable and reflects poorly on Apple's QA process. No matter how much of a rush there might be to launch products for the holidays, there should be no reason for these units to reach stores. The company has said it would replace the affected models; the effort is appreciated, but it could be little comfort to early adopters. The test model also had an initially hollow-feeling menu button, though this appeared to have resolved itself with extended use.

The new click wheel iPod user interface and media playback

The experience of the new nano is inextricably linked with the new "half-and-half" iPod interface. Some have found the split view distracting; I found it a small delight to see my album covers and photos in the menus. Most everything was subjectively as quick as it was with last year's iPods, although this may have been helped by the 1.0.1 firmware upgrade that Apple rushed out shortly after the launch of the player. No matter the speed, the interface is a boon to most of Apple's extra features. Being able to view the time or other details without jumping through an extra menu is a small but appreciated bonus.

Cover Flow, however, could probably have been scrapped from the player without much loss. The feature is far from terrible, and for users who regularly play whole albums, it could be an elegant way of choosing music that recalls the days of flipping through stacks of LPs. For most every other purpose, though, the interface is just superfluous. Scrolling through album covers is somewhat sluggish and often takes one or two seconds before artwork "pops" into view, where it would be near-instantaneous on the iPod touch.

Thankfully, the nano's crisp display almost makes up for the oversight. Quite simply, the combination of the 2-inch LCD and Apple's new interface makes for one of the best iPod displays yet for playing content. Since the resolution is the same as for the iPod classic, photos and videos are exceptionally sharp; while the player is too small to truly be comfortable for long TV shows and movies, the fine detail is perfectly suitable for music videos and podcasts. Because of the new software, the extra resolution rarely ever feels wasted. In album view, covers are always visible and make picking out an album that much easier, and more photos are on display at once in the photo library. Even the calendar and contacts are almost uncannily well-detailed.

If there is a fault with the screen, it would be that Apple is late to introduce one this useful. More than a few device makers have already rolled out small, pocketable players with reasonable video quality. Sony in particular hit on a small success with its A810 video Walkman player -- in fact, it shares virtually the same LCD panel. Having used both, however, the iPod trumps its rival if just through a sleeker control system.

Battery life and extras

Estimates from Cupertino for the iPod's battery life have become increasingly conservative over the years; for the third-generation nano, however, the claims are bordering on the pessimistic. Apple officially lists the same 24-hour battery life as for the second-generation nano, which itself often outperformed its own claims. My test unit lasted for an exceptional 31.5 hours -- seven and a half hours beyond the official target, even with mild use of the battery-draining Cover Flow and periodically triggering the backlight. This is not out of line with some of the better portable players in shops, but it might just set a record for such a small player with a large screen. Video playback was not an option for the battery test; all the same, the five hours of rated time is more a buffer to allow a mix of video and music than two movies back-to-back.

One other, greatly appreciated bonus is advanced game support. Apple's games before the fifth-generation iPod, and now the third-generation iPod nano, were rarely attention-grabbing enough to be entertaining for more than a few minutes. With the much improved visuals and gameplay, the nano lasts through longer (though not extended) sessions and is less likely to run dry, since new games are and will be available on the iTunes Store soon. The copies of iQuiz, Klondike Solitaire, and Vortex are effectively stand-ins for the old Music Quiz, Solitaire, and Brick games of the past; nonetheless, I much preferred the newer titles to their ancestors.

There is one significant catch that may sour the deal for some: games made for the fifth-generation iPod are incompatible with the new models. This leaves any truly avid iPod gamer out on a limb if they invested money in the titles. For now, Apple also offers no obvious upgrade path. Most games have yet to be ported over to the new platform, and those that are will cost an additional $5 each. The practice sets a dangerous precedent for Apple's game catalog; undoubtedly, at least a few prospective iPod gamers may now be afraid to buy into the ecosystem knowing that Apple may cut off support without warning.

Accessories fare better, though these too have a catch. Nike+iPod, the Radio Remote, and most other official Apple accessories will work and get a sleeker interface in the process. Many audio-only accessories from third-party companies work as well. Video accessories tell a very different tale, however. Apple now requires a special chip inside any cable or docking peripheral for its newest iPods to output video. This will not be a major obstacle for buyers who have never had a fifth-generation iPod, but could be frustrating to converts hoping to bring legacy video-capable accessories to the new device. Apple likely needed the chip to allow the iPhone and newer iPods to dock without shutting down their wireless modes; even so, the change strikes me as a calculated move to spur accessory sales and boost profits from licensing hardware.

Final words

The best vantage point from which to see the new iPod nano is that of a newcomer. If you have never owned an iPod before or have been holding on to an aging model for a long time, the nano tends to impress fairly quickly with its controls, its dimensions, and certainly the extra-sharp display. Pricing is also near-perfect: some will be disappointed to learn that there is no 16GB model (ostensibly to drive users to the 80GB iPod classic), but at $199 for 8GB the nano is on a level playing field with Creative, Sony, and most of its obvious challengers.

Long-time fans will have to approach the third generation much more cautiously. Too many of their existing peripherals and software will just stop working. Those who have had their iPods for years and know how badly scratched some iPods can get may also want to reconsider the new model unless they already plan to get a protective case, which somewhat defeats the point of the nano's reduced size. Quality is also a problem, at least for the earliest adopters. How long crooked LCDs will remain in stores is unclear, but if you find yourself particularly sensitive to these sorts of minor glitches, it would be best to wait a few weeks until Apple can guarantee the quality that should have been present from the outset.

Still, if you can clear these roadblocks, the Nano is still one of the most enjoyable flash music players around -- particularly for joggers or space-conscious travelers. It just needs a manufacturer with more respect for the design philosophies that worked so well in the past.