The dimensions of the new nano vary drastically from its predecessors. The unit measures 2.8 by 2.1 by 0.3 inches, with rounded edges and a brushed metallic matte finish that is quite sleek. While I'm not put off by the wider shape, it might strike some people as a step in the wrong direction, particularly because you can no longer purchase the long and narrow, video-less version. If you liked the look of the old nano, too bad my friend—it's gone.
Every member of the new iPod line needs the iTunes 7.4 update in order to load music, videos, and podcasts. Even though the updates are geared towards the iPhone and the new iPod touch, the nano is no exception to this rule. (Indeed, I had to wait for Apple to update its site with the 7.4 download before writing this review).
Loading the nano is as simple as it's ever been. Just sync with iTunes 7.4 or manually load the player. You'll notice new icons for the familiar Do Not Disconnect screen and various others messages that appear when the nano is connected to your PC or Mac. File support for the nano offers no surprises. For audio, it plays AAC (16 to 320 kbps)—including, obviously, DRM and DRM-free tracks from iTunes; MP3 (all bitrates, including VBR); Audible files; AIFF; and WAV. If you have WMA files in your music collection, loading them into iTunes automatically converts them to AAC, so while there's no compatibility, there is at least a workaround. Video support is the typical Apple array: H.264 and MPEG-4. My test suite included both store-bought and, uh, not store-bought MP4 files—all loaded and played without a hitch.
Most of the actual options within the menu system have not changed, but graphics and some menu navigation have. The new main menu has a split screen, dividing the space equally between the familiar iPod menu lists on the left and a moving image of an album cover on the right. When not playing a tune, the main menu will show a variety of album covers that are loaded on to the player, zoomed in on specific spots and slowly floating by. It's a nice look.
The main new addition to the music menu is Cover Flow, the cool graphic effect that lets users scroll through music libraries by thumbing through a horizontal array of album covers. Anyone who has played with an iPhone or iPod touch will have to get used to the fact that, unlike those devices, the nano has no touchscreen and therefore scrolling is done with the wheel, which is decidedly less sexy. I don't like the nano's white screen background either. I also noticed that the flow of the covers doesn't, well, flow like it does on the other devices, occasionally tripping up. Cover Flow maybe be graceful on the Phone and in iTunes, but on the nano, it's a bit of a let down, especially without the touchscreen. Often, gray album covers with question marks on them appear if you scroll through the menu too quickly—waiting a moment will refresh the covers with the actual album art. There is, however, still a little fun to be had scrolling through your album covers, selecting one, and watching it flip over to reveal the available tracks—it's just not a seamless experience like on the iPhone.
Once I upgraded my earbuds to my trusty Shure SE210 earphones, the player sounded great. As always, there are EQ presets but no customizable EQ settings. Since I usually choose to leave my EQ flat to begin with, this never presents a problem for me. Of course I can understand that some folks will be annoyed by that lack of a real EQ. I mean how hard can it be to let people choose how much bass they want, like Samsung, Sony, and several other manufacturers do? Those looking for more control in this realm may want to consider Sony's new video Walkman. Though the screen and interface can't compare to the nano's, it's perfect for people that want to control 5 bands of EQ, as well as some low-end boost.
There's also a great new black-on-gray screensaver that pops up on the nano's screen once music has been playing for awhile—a simple time, battery, and function (play or pause) display that is easily visible, though it uses very little power.
Video looks amazing on the nano. You can choose to watch in full screen or widescreen, though most will prefer the latter. Apple claims the LCD is 65 percent brighter than the previous nano, and after adjusting the new Brightness setting from the default 50 percent to 100 percent, you can see what Apple is talking about. Comparing the two devices, the screens definitely look different, with the larger new nano display able to convey complex colors more gracefully. The screen maintains the same 320 by 240 pixel resolution as the video iPods (now called classics), but since it is 0.5 inches smaller, everything appears sharper. Watching an episode of "The Office" was pure joy, and the gaming graphics also shine. I must mention one annoyance here. Why, oh why, did NBC and iTunes part ways? What good is my nano if I can't watch "The Office" on it anymore? Boo hiss.
The home screen for the Photo menu is also wonderful—we have a split screen here again, but instead of floating album covers, floating photos from your library are displayed. The thumbnail menu is easy to scroll though as usual, and setting up slideshows is pretty much the same, as well. Putting your photos on shuffle and listening to good music never gets old. A Podcast menu has been added to the main menu, and if the show has graphics, they will display in the right side of the split-screen.
The Extras menu is now enhanced with new simple graphics, not unlike icons for OS X. The graphics rest on the right side of the split screen, where most imagery on the player rests. Probably the greatest advance in the Extras section is the inclusion of better games. Plain old Solitare has been ditched in favor of a souped-up version (Klondike), and Vortex, and iQuiz are also in the mix. (A Sudoku game from EA is on the way). The games flaunt the player's large screen and high pixel count, and more are available from iTunes once you upgrade to 7.4.
The battery life for the nano is rated at 24 hours for audio and five hours for video playback. While our audio rundown test yielded a battery life of 24 hours and six minutes, the video test yielded just three hours and 23 minutes.
Earlier this summer, iriver stepped up the game for portable flash video players with the sexy and user-friendly clix gen 2. Meanwhile, Samsung recently released a quality non-video flash player, the YP-U3, at a far lower price point than the non-video nano. In other words, with such excellent new products on the market, Apple was practicallby forced to make a flash player with video capabilities or a much lower price tag. Naysayers didn't know how Apple would pull off a widescreen on their signature tiny and thin device, but they have been silenced. Sure, Cover Flow seems a little superfluous and jumpy on the screen, but make no mistake: this is the best-designed flash video player on the market in this price range.
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