Review: iPod nano (7th generation) combines the best of its predecessors

Review: iPod nano (7th generation) combines the best of its predecessors

For most uses, it just may be the best nano yet.

Along with a new iPhone and a new iPod touch, September's Apple event brought with it a new iPod nano, the first in two years. (2011 saw a notable software update for the 2010 model, but no new hardware.) As has been the case with so many iPod nano models over the years, the iPod nano (7th generation) is a dramatic re-imagining of Apple's most-popular traditional iPod. But unlike the sixth-generation iPod nano, this one is mostly an improvement over its predecessor. In fact, for most uses, it just may be the best nano yet.

Something old, something new

When I reviewed 2010's iPod nano (sixth generation) (3.5 out of 5 rating), I was in many ways disappointed by the direction Apple had taken the iPod nano line. That model had its share of fans--indeed, thanks to its built-in clip and watch-sized body, an entire industry sprung up around the idea of using the 2010 nano as a wristwatch. But its tiny screen meant its iOS-like Multi-Touch interface was difficult to use and a step backward from physical buttons. If I were rating it today, after a couple years of use, I might give it an even lower rating than I did back in 2010.

Did Apple get similar feedback from users? The company will never tell, but the 2012 iPod nano, available only in a 16GB capacity for $149, ditches the tiny-square-with-a-clip design in favor of one closer to that of the fifth-generation model: At 3.0 inches tall, 1.6 inches tall, and an incredible two tenths of an inch thick--thinner than the plug on a 30-pin dock-connector cable--the new model is essentially as tall and wide as two sixth-generation nano models stacked on top of one another, but half as thick. At 30 grams, the new nano is 8 grams heavier than last year's model--barely noticeable in everyday use.

In that larger expanse Apple has fit a 2.5-inch (diagonal) Multi-Touch display, nearly an inch larger than the one found on the previous nano. (In terms of pixels, this year's screen is 240 by 432 pixels, compared to 240 by 240 on the previous model.) The pixel density is slightly lower this time around, at 202 pixels per inch compared to 220 for the 2010 nano, and it doesn't match the Retina displays on Apple's iOS devices, but the new display is still clear and easy to read, even for small type.

The new design's changes don't end with a larger screen. The 2012 iPod nano also takes a number of queues from the iPhone and iPod touch. The body of the nano is made of aluminum--in your choice of black, purple, blue, silver, green, yellow, pink, or (Product) Red--with smooth, rounded sides and chamfered edges at the top and bottom. The front is white plastic with a physical, iOS-style Home button. On the left-hand edge is a three-button controller (more on these controls below), and on top is a Sleep/Wake button. Apart from the squared-off corners and the lack of a camera hole on the front, the new nano looks very much like a miniature version of the new iPod touch.

Along the bottom edge of the nano are a 3.5mm headphone jack on the left and a Lightning-connector port on the right. Those wondering why Apple has switched from the older 30-pin dock connector to the Lightning connector can look to the nano for rationale: The new nano simply couldn't have accommodated the older connector. You'll also notice, between the two ports, a white-plastic area that extends slightly up the back of the nano. That plastic covers the antenna for the new nano's Bluetooth feature, discussed below.

Let's get physical

The 2012 nano's bigger display has obvious advantages for the player's touchscreen interface, which I'll talk about in a moment, but the new model also gains some much-needed physical buttons. In my review of the previous nano, I wrote, "As useful as the Multi-Touch screen can be, it's no substitute for physical playback controls when, say, the iPod is in your pocket, or when you're trying to skip tracks while running or driving." And like the previous nano, the new one comes with headphones--specifically, Apple's new EarPods--that are missing the exceptionally useful inline remote-control module. But unlike its predecessor, the new nano sports a relative abundance of physical buttons.

First, instead of a simple set of volume buttons, the new nano sports a three-button controller on the side. This controller is identical in functionality to the inline remote found on Apple's iPhone-bundled headphones (and on many third-party headphones designed for use with Apple products): It has a volume-up button at the top, a volume-down button at the bottom, and a slightly recessed playback-control button in the middle. Press this middle button once to toggle play/pause, quickly press it twice to skip forward a track, and quickly press it three times to skip back a track.

These buttons aren't quite as good as dedicated back and forward buttons, but it's easy to find any of the three buttons by feel, and for the millions of people who are familiar with Apple's three-button-remote design, it's instantly recognizable--and a welcome addition. (If you have headphones with a similar inline remote, you can continue to use that remote, as well.)

Second, there's the aforementioned Home button on the face of the iPod--another feature I specifically wished for last time around. Pressing this button once takes you from wherever you are in the interface back to the most-recent Home screen; pressing it again takes you to the first Home screen. Quickly double-pressing when listening to music takes you to the Now Playing screen, and triple-pressing at any time lets you toggle the iPod's VoiceOver accessibility feature or invert the screen colors.

If you've used an iPhone or an iPod touch, the Home button will feel familiar, and it's a huge usability improvement for the nano: Instead of having to right-swipe many times, or tap-hold on the display, to return to the Home screen, you just press the button. There's still a good amount of left-and-right swiping when navigating the nano's menus and screens, but it feels much less forced now than when it was the only way to navigate.

Multi-touch makes sense

Speaking of tapping and swiping, the biggest advantage of the 2012 nano's larger screen is that it dramatically improves upon many of the problems I had with the previous version's interface. As I wrote back in 2010:

The big question, for me, is why the nano's screen had to be so small. Given the existence of the iPod shuffle, there doesn't seem to have been a compelling need for another as-small-as-we-can-make-it iPod, and a slightly larger design would have allowed for a larger screen. For example, a rectangular nano--perhaps the same width, just a bit longer, with a screen similar in size to that of the [fifth-generation] nano--would have been considerably more useful, allowing you to view at least five items on the screen at a time, instead of three and a half, perhaps with enough room left over for more onscreen navigational aids.

The new nano betters my suggestion with a screen that's even larger than that of the 2009 model. And as predicted, the bigger screen makes the 2012 nano's iOS-inspired interface much more usable. For example, instead of showing only three items in a list view, the new nano shows seven, making browsing lists much less frustrating; you now see six "app" icons on the screen at at time, rather than four; and the status-bar clock, dropped from the previous nano due to the lack of screen space, is back--you no longer have to navigate to the Clock screen to check the time.

The Now Playing screen is also much improved: Instead of a square cover-art screen with all controls overlaid--requiring multiple swipes to cycle through all the options--the new nano shows the cover art in the middle of the screen, with track info at the top and playback and volume controls at the bottom. Tap the screen once, and you get repeat, Genius, shuffle, and track-list buttons, along with a progress scrubber and, if available, lyrics. (When listening to an audiobook, the shuffle button is replaced by a playback-speed button.) Sound familiar? It's closer to the look of the iOS Music app than to last year's iPod nano interface.

(One place I would like to see Multi-Touch used that it isn't: As with the iOS Music app, you can't swipe the Now Playing screen to skip to the next or previous track. At least here there's a reason for it: You use the left-to-right swipe to return to the Home screen--although that gesture isn't strictly necessary anymore, given that the Home button does the same thing.)

Other "apps" also benefit from the larger display. The Radio screen offers a much-larger frequency display, as well as larger track info, and it's easier to access radio-playback options and special radio features (local stations, favorites, tagged songs, and recent songs). The Clock screen can show the hour, minutes, seconds, day, date, and year without looking crowded; lap times in stopwatch mode; and timer options without having to switch to a different view. The Voice Memos features shows the recording time in large digits. The Fitness (Nike+) screen shows more options at once. And while the Photos feature loses some transition options compared to the previous version, viewing photos is something you might actually do with this nano--the rectangular display means photos use nearly the full screen, and you can zoom in and out using familiar pinch gestures.

Overall, the larger screen means less swiping, less scrolling, and more information. Similarly, because more controls and options fit on each screen, I found myself frustrated much less frequently while using the nano--there were fewer times when I swiped blindly, wondering if an expected option was yet another screen away. This is what last year's nano should have been.

Oddly, while the new nano looks and feels more like an iOS device overall, its onscreen icons look much less like iOS. You can still tap-hold icons to rearrange them, but the icons themselves are now round with simple, white iconography instead of rounded-corner squares with more-realistic images. I personally don't like the shape of the new icons, but the overall interface is so much better that it feels petty to complain.

That said, there are a few options missing on this nano compared to its predecessor. For example, you no longer get the option to use larger icons. And whereas the previous iPod nano let you choose exactly which icons appeared on the Home screen--including options for sub-categories such as Playlists and Artists--the new nano doesn't let you disable icons, and it doesn't offer the option to show sub-categories. (The exceptions are icons for features that aren't always available. For example, the Voice Memos icon appears only if a microphone is connected, and the iTunes U icon appears only if you have iTunes U content synced to the player.)

The new nano also offers only six clock faces, rather than the 18 of the previous model, and the offerings aren't nearly as fun as the Mickey, Minnie, and Muppets options available on the sixth-generation nano. (On the other hand, you can now switch between clock faces right on the clock screen, rather than having to make a trip to Settings.) Finally, there are only five wallpaper options, with four of the five color-matched to your nano's own color--if you've got a pink nano, your choices are limited to one gray background and four pink ones.

But, again, it says a lot about how much better the 2012 nano's overall user experience is that my biggest complaints relate to icons and clock faces.

The return of video

Of course, the larger screen also has other benefits. Primary among them--as you might suspect given the roughly 16:9 aspect ratio--is that the nano line has regained the capability to play video, and the new model's screen and iOS-like interface make it the best video-watching nano yet. To be perfectly clear, this isn't saying a lot, as the screen is still too small for anything more than occasional video viewing. But it works in a pinch, and my kids didn't complain when watching Wall-E for the 17th time. (The new nano doesn't support video-out to a TV, for either video or photos.)

According to Apple, the new nano supports H.264 and MPEG--4 video at sizes up to 720 by 576 pixels at 30 frames per second with AAC-LC audio up to 256 Kbps and 48kHz; Stereo audio in supported .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats. For H.264, the player supports Baseline, Main, and High-Profile level 3.0; for MPEG--4, you can use up to 2.5 Mbps, Simple Profile. I synced several compatible videos to the new nano and had no problems playing them. If you manually sync incompatible videos to the nano, they appear in the Videos screen, but when you try to play them, you see a black screen and then the nano reverts back to the Home screen.

This is the first video-playing iPod nano with Multi-Touch, and the feature makes working with videos a much better experience than with older video-playing nano models. For example, tap once on the screen and you see an iOS-like overlay with controls for adjusting the volume, scrubbing through the video, and accessing a chapter menu. You can also double-tap to zoom in and out: When watching a 16:9 widescreen movie with the nano oriented horizontally, you can either view at full width (which results in thin letterboxing at the top and bottom) or zoom in to fill the screen vertically (and chop off a bit of the left and right sides). Overall, the new nano's Videos feature is much like the Videos app in iOS.

In terms of quality, the new nano's screen isn't quite as sharp as the higher-density (but smaller) screen on the 2010 iPod nano, but its much larger size more than makes up for the slight difference in clarity. Color accuracy isn't great, but it's close enough for casual watching. When viewing video in landscape orientation, off-angle performance is good in the vertical plane, though it's not nearly as good on the horizontal plane--especially from the side opposite the Home button.

You won't want to watch a lot of video on the iPod nano, and you certainly won't buy a nano just because it can play video, but it's nice that the option is there. And you can be sure that if Apple hadn't included the feature, given the new screen size and dimensions, people would have complained.

Bluetooth wireless...

Those who loved the previous nano's built-in clip, especially for exercise use, will certainly lament its loss in the new model. But I predict that many of those same people will be won over by one of the 2012 nano's biggest fitness-related additions: Bluetooth. (Yes, finally.) Specifically, the nano has gained Bluetooth 4.0 with LE (low energy) for connecting wirelessly to Bluetooth A2DP headphones and speakers as well as to Nike+ sensors and Bluetooth heart-rate monitors. (If your headphones or speakers include AVRCP-compatible controls, you can use those buttons to control playback.)

Pairing Bluetooth headphones or speakers is a simple process. You tap the Settings icon on the nano's screen, tap Bluetooth, and then turn Bluetooth on if it isn't already. When the name of your headphones or speakers appears in the list, tap it, and enter a pairing code if necessary. (In my testing, most didn't require a code, and those that did used 0000.) Your headphones or speakers then appear as Connected in the Bluetooth screen. The process is, again, nearly identical to the way you pair with Bluetooth devices in iOS. You switch between Bluetooth output and the built-in headphone jack by tapping a little Bluetooth icon on the Now Playing screen and then choosing either iPod or the Bluetooth device's name.

I tested the new nano with a handful of Bluetooth headphones and speakers, and all paired immediately. Over several days of testing, I didn't hear any dropouts or static. (I wasn't able to test the new nano with a Bluetooth heart-rate monitor.) I was also impressed by the nano's Bluetooth range, as I was able to listen through Bluetooth headphones from over 20 feet away. Note that one drawback of Bluetooth headphones and speakers is that you can't use them when listening to the nano's FM radio, as the radio requires wired headphones--it uses the headphone cable as an FM antenna--and connecting wired headphones switches audio output from Bluetooth to the headphone jack.

...but no Wi-Fi

On the other hand, the new nano doesn't get the other common form of wireless communication: Wi-Fi. Just a couple short years ago, I wouldn't have mentioned this as a drawback, but with Apple's recent emphasis on cloud features, and especially considering that many Apple customers have iTunes Match accounts that make their music accessible from anywhere with an Internet connection, Wi-Fi would be a handy feature in the iPod nano: Forget to sync your updated workout playlist? If your gym has free Wi-Fi, you could just access your iTunes Match account to download the latest track additions. It's possible the Wi-Fi circuitry and antennas couldn't fit in the nano's wafer-thin body, or that adding Wi-Fi would have impacted the player's battery life considerably, or that adding Wi-Fi would bring the nano one step closer to the iPod touch. But I think a wireless data connection of some sort is the obvious next step for the nano and other dedicated media players. Next year?

This, that, and the other thing

The nano continues to offer a slew of minor features that are sure to be used heavily by certain people and completely ignored by others--but that taken together make the nano an impressively well-rounded gadget. As with all recent nano models, the latest version offers a voice-recording feature. You can still use the nano as a flash drive by checking the Enable Disk Use box when connected to iTunes. A built-in pedometer tracks your steps and distance when walking, and the seventh-generation nano supports Nike+ and NikeFuel for tracking your workouts when paired with a Nike+ sensor or a Bluetooth-enabled heart-rate monitor. (As with the iPod touch, you don't need an iPod-attached dongle to connect to the sensor--the sensor can pair directly with the nano.)

As mentioned above, the nano continues to offer an FM tuner for listening to the radio (or for listening to broadcast audio from the TVs at many gyms). In my testing, the new nano seemed to get slightly better reception than the previous generation. It offers the same RDS (Radio Data System) display and the same capability to pause live radio for up to 15 minutes, skip back in 30-second increments, skip forward in 10- or 30-second increments, scrub through buffered audio, and tag songs for latter syncing and purchasing through iTunes.

Apple claims the new nano offers up to 30 hours of music playback on a full charge (the longest ever for an iPod nano) or up to 3.5 hours of video playback (shorter than the fifth-generation nano's claimed 5 hours). Apple also says you can charge the nano to 80-percent capacity in only 1.5 hours; it takes 3 hours to get a full charge. I've spent much of the past few days connecting and disconnecting the new nano to and from various computers, so I haven't yet had a chance to do any controlled battery-life testing.

Looking back two generations, compared to the 2009 iPod nano, the latest model is missing a video camera and a built-in speaker, but given the downright poor quality of those features, they weren't a big loss with the 2010 model and I don't lament their omission here. Other iPod features that still haven't found their way back from 2010 elimination include games, alarms, and information syncing (notes, calendars, contacts). Again, with the possible exceptions of alarms and games--and possibly not even those--I think it's safe to say that these features weren't widely used.

Finally, the audio buffs out there are surely curious about how the new nano sounds (and they're cursing me under their breath that audio quality has been relegated to "finally" status). The iPod nano isn't an audiophile gadget, so I didn't treat it as such. But I did test the new nano over several days with a range of headphones, including several higher-end models that work well with low-power headphone outputs. Overall, I found no glaring issues with sound quality. Compared to the 2010 iPod nano, I noticed only very minor differences when comparing the same uncompressed music tracks played through the same headphones. The new model seemed to sound ever-so-slightly clearer with slightly better bass response, but the differences were small enough that I can't make a definitive claim.

In terms of audio formats, Apple says the iPod nano supports AAC (8 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (tracks purchased from the iTunes Store), AIFF, Apple Lossless, Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX, and AAX+), HE-AAC, MP3 (8 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, and WAV.

Bottom line

Those who loved the previous iPod nano's built-in clip and square shape--especially folks who used the nano as a clip-on workout companion or a makeshift wristwatch--will lament the latest model's taller, clipless design. But as handy (or, if you will, hands-free) that clip was--and for many people it might be useful enough for Apple to consider a similar product separate from the nano line--dropping it let Apple make the new iPod nano remarkably thin and light. In addition, the larger screen and physical buttons dramatically improve the nano's usability, and the addition of Bluetooth functionality is a big win for active use. Clip aside, it feels like this is what last year's iPod nano wanted to be: Familiar, but better in almost way than the one before it.

This year's model, in fact, addresses most of the major complaints I had about the sixth-generation iPod, taking what was good about that model and incorporating features and design elements from both Apple's iOS devices and the 2009 iPod nano. The results is, in my opinion, the best iPod nano yet--as long as you don't want to wear it on your wrist or clip it to your workout clothes. It's still missing a few features present in older models, and Wi-Fi--along with iTunes Match--would truly set the nano apart from other media players on the market, but the 2012 iPod nano is an impressive device that's easier to use than any nano before it.

That said, the big question facing the iPod nano line these days is a simple one: Why? If you've got an iPhone or an iPod touch (or a similar non-iOS smartphone), you've already got a solid music-listening device, and there's a good chance you carry that device with you most of the time. If you don't already have such a device, for $50 more ($199) you can get the previous-generation iPod touch which, though not as small, is more capable in every way. At $99, the nano would be easy to recommend, but at $149, it's a tougher sell. If you're looking for a dedicated media player to save your smartphone's battery for calls and apps, or if you want something smaller and lighter while working out, or if you've got a child who just wants a media player, the nano is a solid choice. But the iPod touch is encroaching on the nano's territory, and the days when you needed a separate iPod are fading fast.

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