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9/13/2005
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Review: IPod Nano -- Small, Sleek and Superior

Apple's new iPod nano has a few problems, but overall it is a light and lovable gadget with cool features that far outweigh the annoyances.

Unlike millions, I never loved the iPod mini. The full-size iPod had evolved over just a few years to a great level of ease of use, lots of storage, and extra functions.

The iPod mini always seemed to me half formed. Its smaller hard drive didn’t store enough music relative to cost. Its scroll wheel worked differently (until the other iPods adopted it). Many peripherals wouldn’t work with it. Its case, while pretty, lacked the distinctive big iPod feel.

Of course, the market makes monkeys of reviewers, and the iPod mini certainly worked just fine from both technical and revenue perspectives. So perhaps I’ll be completely wrong about the iPod nano, as well, Apple’s latest entrant into music players that replaces the iPod mini’s slot in its product matrix. I love it, and see it as a much more logical next step in the iPod’s progression.

On the basics, the iPod nano works as expected: it has the same interface as other models with screens, plays music well, and shows good-looking thumbnail photographs. Battery life is about 14 hours. The iPod nano uses flash memory, just like the lowest-end Apple player, the iPod shuffle, which means silence and resiliency.

The nano sits neatly in the product line between the bottom and top players: the shuffle has 512 MB or 1 GB of flash storage, no display; the nano, 2 GB or 4 GB of flash storage, small display; the iPod 20 or 60 GB of hard-disk storage, big display.

Because it has a full-sized dock connector like the larger iPod, it has more in common with it than the shuffle. (Apple also has a few special edition models, like the U2 iPod and Harry Potter iPod.) The biggest difference between the iPod and iPod nano is that the nano cannot display images externally, one of the interesting selling points of newer iPods.

Of less importance is the iPod nano’s reliance on USB: it cannot be synced via FireWire, although it can be charged via FireWire. With USB 2.0 on all Mac models and all modern PCs, this is but a footnote. (Older Mac owners with USB 1.1 gripe because of the dramatically lower transfer speed; however, for 2 or 4 GB of storage, it’s a bit less of an issue than with a full-scale iPod.)

The nano weighs so little it’s hard to register when held in the hand. It’s the right size and depth to use comfortably.

The clicking scroll wheel, an innovation that spread to other models from the iPod mini, is slightly too small to scroll with real control. I consistently found that I would scroll past photos or songs, or be unable to control a gun turret in a built-in game, using the scroll wheel. I have not had this problem with any other iPod model.

The nano includes two interface extras: Timers, which function like a stopwatch, and which, when finished, are stored with the final time as an entry until deleted; and world clocks, which allow multiple time zones to be displayed on separate clock faces in the Clock menu.

In testing the nano with both Mac OS X 10.4.2 and Windows XP Service Pack 2 using the latest iTunes, QuickTime, and iPod software for both platforms, I found similar experiences. The iPod nano appears just like a regular iPod to the software.

Because the nano’s limited storage is likely less than any buyer’s music library, iTunes offers to create a special playlist that comprises what it expects is the best selection of what you’ve listened to. This is a static playlist, not a Smart Playlist, meaning you can manually edit its contents. The playlist leaves some extra space on the nano for copying photos. While music has to be stored in a specific iTunes music folder, photos can be stored in various places.

Photo transfers are controlled via Preferences within iTunes. The entire contents of the My Pictures folder under Windows or iPhoto library under Mac OS X can be copied onto a nano. Or you can choose specific folders. Podcasts, contacts, and calendars have separate synchronization options. iTunes resamples the pictures to optimize them for the nano’s screen, and you can choose to burn up storage space by including full-resolution photos. Those can only be retrieved on the desktop, not displayed; a full-sized iPod can display the full-resolution images via external video. Pictures look surprisingly good on the 176-by-132 pixel color screen.

I experienced an actual software problem with the iPod nano, a rarity for these devices. When deleting a stored Timer, the nano rebooted. When I tried to delete the Timer again, it accomplished the task without complaint. (A colleague had a similar Timer problem.)

The combination of form factor, battery life, and storage makes the iPod nano a much more natural traveling partner than the full-sized iPod, which can settle into its role as an entertainment system centerpiece.

The biggest worry I see users facing with the nano is loss: it is so small and so light, that many nano owners may remember too late, and have to rescue their players from the washing machine.

The iPod nano is available in its 2 GB model for $199 and with 4 GB for $249.

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