A few weeks ago, Apple released the update to their smallest digital media player ever to have a screen, the iPod nano. The device stands as a radical departure from the previous members of the iPod nano family (and the iPod mini before it), substituting a tiny touch screen for Apple’s hallmark “click wheel” as a navigation method. The Mines Bookstore was gracious enough to loan me one last week, so I could find out for myself whether Apple’s newest form factor is a workable one.
First off, the positives of the device. It is small almost beyond belief. Second, its capacitive touch screen, slightly more than an inch square, is responsive. Third, the build quality of the device is top-notch. Apple is marketing the new nano to people wanting an exercise-friendly music player with a screen and, from a size and build quality perspective, this device works for that role. That said, the nano is small enough that a watch-style form factor would be quite interesting. In fact, one vendor has already created a watch band into which the nano can clip.
Compared to the previous generation, the new iPod nano drops voice recording, video playback, gaming, and video camera features. However, the pedometer and FM radio stick around. Otherwise, the system is standard iPod fare including music, photos, “Genius Mixes,” and a shake-to-shuffle feature that works… sometimes. Syncing with Apple’s iTunes software is simple enough, though you will need the new iTunes 10 to do anything with the new nano, and songs transferred to the player very quickly over the iPod USB sync cable.
The negatives of this device come from putting form over function. Honestly, the device feels like Apple user experience engineers were given the device in its current form and told, “Make a user interface that works well on this device. You cannot change the hardware you were given.” As a result, the nano suffers greatly on the user experience front. The UI feels somewhat like that of the iPod touch or iPhone, with multiple pages of icons arranged in a 2×2 grid for access to the player’s functions. However, the “Home” button of the iPhone, iPad, and iTouch is replaced with the left-swipe, one of the few gestures that works well on such a small screen. When it comes to actually tapping items onscreen, the whole situation gets even more iffy. Despite being probably the finest-grained capacitive touch screen in existence, the iPod nano’s UI elements are simply too small to navigate without giving the device your full attention. The device may be fine for using while running, but forget about trying to change tracks while keeping pace; it simply cannot be done.
To Apple’s credit, volume buttons and a sleep/wake button are still very much in hardware, lining the top edge of the device. However, these buttons are slightly harder to press than they should be, and the volume control does not allow for the quick volume changes that were easy on a click wheel based device.
Going back to Apple’s feature omissions for a minute, the iPod nano feels like a deliberate upsell for the iPod touch at this point, whereas the previous generation of the player actually included features that the iTouch did not, most notably the FM radio (still included on the new nano) and the video camera (now available on the iPod touch). I would go so far as to say that the new nano is angling for a companion position to the iPod touch, albeit a $149-$179 companion position depending on the capacity (8GB or 16GB) that you decide to buy. If you want to watch videos, the nano can no longer do that; its square screen would be a poor viewing area anyway. If you want to quickly navigate a larger music collection, the nano’s touch optimization means that you will get frustrated rather quickly; only four artists are viewable onscreen at any given time, compared with over a dozen on the previous generation nano. Video recording on the previous-generation device was a bit of a gimmick, but the feature did exist and quality was surprisingly good. Audio recording was less of a gimmick, yet it too is gone with this iteration, despite the fact that its presence was useful and its quality high.
I will make an unsolicited prediction about the current-generation iPod nano: it will be phased out in favor of something similar to, but slightly more compact than, the previous version of the product line the next time an iPod revision is in order. Apple did it with the flop that was the third-generation, button-less iPod shuffle and they will do the same thing with their latest example of function-follows-form design by developing a music player that eschews features and ease of use in favor of having the smallest widely-used multi-touch screen in the world.
As always, comments, critiques and discussions are welcomed. Drop me an e-mail at email@example.com or comment on the online version of this article if you have something to say.