iPod Nano hands-on: Taller, thinner, pricey

The seventh-generation Apple iPod Nano is a fun, cute, capable MP3 player. With it, you can take virtually all of your iTunes media on the go — your music, videos, audiobooks, podcasts, and even photos.

Priced at $149 and outfitted with 16GB of storage, the iPod Nano offers plenty of bang for your buck, especially if you’re looking for something lightweight and simple to use. But with the 16GB iPod Touch out there for $199, and the iPod Shuffle available for just $49, the Nano’s compromise between the two isn’t very compelling.

The Nano has seen some radical design changes over the years. This time around, Apple has fashioned it to look and behave like a tiny iPod Touch. It has a 2.5-inch touch screen, complete with a small home button beneath it and a volume rocker switch on the left edge. A sleep/wake button is located on the top edge, while a headphone jack and Lightning port are found on the bottom edge. The back of the Nano is a single piece of colored aluminum (six colors are available) that gives way to a glass panel on the front.

The whole thing measures 3 inches tall, 1.5 inches wide, and an impossibly skinny 0.21 inch thick. It looks comically small in an adult hand — like an iPhone made for a teddy bear. But to my surprise, the touch-screen controls are just large enough to work well with full-size fingers. Apple was smart enough not to squeeze in any features that require an onscreen keyboard or small buttons or menus.

The most significant success in the Nano’s design is a unique volume rocker design on the side that includes a center button that works as a Play/Pause and also functions for VoiceOver navigation, similar to the iPod Shuffle. With some practice, you can use this button to browse your music collection without even setting eyes on the screen.

That said, one of the frustrating misses with the iPod Nano is that Apple neglected to bundle headphones with an integrated remote, which would have made it possible to quickly play, pause, and browse through music right from the headphone cable. It’s one of those extras Apple tosses in with the iPhone, but omits with iPods even though they are all compatible with headphone remotes. It’s a frustrating omission, but I guess it saves Apple a few nickels.

The included headphones are Apple’s EarPod design, which I personally prefer to the older earbud-style headphones, though not by much. The all-plastic design of the EarPods hurts my ears during extended listening and the sound quality is still humble.

The iPod Nano retains all of the software capabilities of last year’s clip-on model, including dedicated menus for music, Podcasts, Clock, Radio, Audiobooks, iTunes U, Photos, Fitness, and Settings. The big new features of the seventh-generation Nano are the reintroduction of video playback, and the addition of wireless Bluetooth audio.

As with any of Apple’s iPods, you’ll need to load your media using Apple’s iTunes software on your PC or Mac. Fortunately, iTunes is widely regarded as the best program around for organizing and syncing your media. It’s the powerhouse behind the iPhone, the iPad, and every iPod ever sold. For the uninitiated, iTunes can be a beast of program to navigate, but once you learn your way around, routinely syncing your iPod Nano is a mostly automatic process.

Once you’ve loaded up some media on the iPod Nano, poking through the touch-screen interface is pretty straightforward. The whole thing is like a lobotomized version of iOS. You get big icons for all features, which you can tap and hold to rearrange to your liking. If you ever find yourself deep in a menu, you can always return to the home screen with a press of the home button.

The iPod Nano has plenty to brag about. For a device that’s hardly larger than a credit card, it’s a marvel of engineering that can play video, track your fitness, and play hours of music. Apple promises 30 hours of audio-only playback and up to 3.5 hours of video playback, which is a near-miracle given how small this product is.

But if there’s one disappointment to brace yourself for, it’s the screen quality. After dazzling us with a Retina Display on the iPhone and then a larger Retina Display for the third-generation iPad, Apple has raised our expectations when it comes to screen quality. The Nano’s screen packs a decent 240×432 pixel resolution, but the viewing angles aren’t great and it’s pretty easy to pick out the grid of pixels if you’re looking for it.

Final thoughts
The seventh-generation iPod Nano is a fine product, but I’m not entirely sure who it’s for. For fitness types, the physical controls, simplicity, and clip-on design, and $49 price of the iPod Shuffle would be the preferred road to travel.

And for those enticed by the Nano’s wireless Bluetooth audio, video playback, and integrated fitness tracking, the 16GB base model of the iPod Touch is out there for $199, just $50 more than the iPod Nano. And for that $50, you get the entire world of iOS, Wi-Fi, AirPlay, FaceTime, games, and apps. It seems a more-than-justifiable expense to jump up to the Touch. The Nano is smaller, and arguably cuter, but the Touch is in another league when it comes to features.

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