With its latest model, Apple has finally fixed the iPod Nano. The 5th and 6th-generation MP3 players were a radical rethink that didn't work all that well; Apple tossed the click wheel design that the first four Nano generations used, and replaced it with a tiny, square screen that was too small to view or control comfortably. The 7th-generation Nano (£129 direct, 16GB) fixes this problem with another full-scale redesign that includes a larger, sharper touchscreen. It's also feather light, yet sturdy feeling, has an improved interface, and comes with better-sounding Apple EarPods.
Design, screen, and interface
The sleek iPod Nano measures 39.6 x 5.4 x 76.5mm (WxDxH), and weighs just 31 grams. It's thin and light, yet its aluminium enclosure feels solid and secure. The left panel sports a three-button rocker that controls volume, with the centre button acting as a hardware Play/Pause control (you also can control the Nano via its touchscreen). The top edge holds an oval-shaped Sleep/Wake button, while the new, compact Lightning Connector and standard 3.5mm headphone jack are on opposite corners of the bottom panel. All buttons work with precision and have a nice click to them.
About that Lightning Connector: It's nice and small, and works with either side facing up, which is convenient. But it means all existing accessories on the market – chargers, speaker docks, car stereo docks, and so on – no longer work, at least not without a £25 adapter. It's something to be aware of.
The iPod Nano comes in eight colours: Dark grey, silver, purple, pink, yellow, green, blue, and red. All have a two-tone colour scheme with a white front face, with the exception of the dark grey model, which features a black front panel. I'm not as much of a fan of the white panel, because it looks like some inexpensive MP3 player clones I've seen; I prefer the older, all-metal Nanos (particularly the 4th-generation model). The back panel of each iPod Nano is entirely metal, at least.
The 2.5in capacitive touchscreen offers a 432 x 240 resolution, which gives it a pixel density of 202ppi. The multi-touch display looks bright and colourful for an MP3 player, certainly. But it isn't as vibrant as the 1136 x 640-pixel display on the iPod Touch, and viewing angles are merely okay.
The screen is roomy enough to show seven songs or albums in a list at once, now, which is a major improvement over the tiny, cramped screen on the previous Nano. It also displays tiny album art thumbnails next to each album name, and a larger one during playback. You can invert the menu colours, if you prefer white text on a black background.
Another improvement: Apple brought back the hardware Home button right below the screen. It greatly simplifies navigation, and honestly, the bottom edge gives you a neat place to hold the device; it's just an easier design to work with than the square one. You still swipe to the left to go back a screen, as there's no Back button, but that's how iPhones work, too.
Audio and video performance
D/A converters in Apple's iPods typically sound excellent; the new iPod Nano's audio jack sounded virtually identical through the bundled EarPods as an iPhone 4 and an iPhone 5 did with the same track. As for the EarPods themselves, they're not high-end earphones, but they sound much better than the tinny old Apple earbuds – which, granted, isn't saying much. Still, the EarPods actually have some perceptible bass response, which is usually missing from plastic earbud designs that don't create a seal in the way in-ear, rubber-tipped models do.
Out of the box, the iPod Nano offers a pleasant, if not high-end music listening experience, and you can always upgrade to better earphones. There aren't any in-line volume, pause, or track skip controls like there are on the EarPods bundled with the iPhone, though.
For software controls, you get the usual iPod features like a volume limiter to protect your hearing, Sound Check (which evens out the level of tracks from different albums so the volume doesn't jump up and down too much), and a crossfade option from one track to the next. The new Nano still supports VoiceOver, which reads out commands to you in the EarPods so you don't have to look at the screen. There's still a lack of EQ options, though. The iPod Nano features the same bunch of EQ presets iPods have had for years, but there's still no customisable graphic equaliser, or even simple bass and treble controls. Purists may sneer, but many people enjoy futzing with them, depending on their tastes in music and how a given song was recorded.
For audio, the Nano plays AAC, MP3, Audible, Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV, but not FLAC or OGG files. For video, H.264 and MPEG-4 files at up to 720 x 576 resolution are fair game, which the device transcodes on the fly at up to 30 frames per second. There's also a built-in accelerometer, which lets you watch videos in landscape mode with a proper 16:9 aspect ratio; tap the screen and you can search ahead or behind with the on-screen controls. I watched an episode of The Wire, which played smoothly and looked bright, but it also looked small to the point of being humorous. Still, it was actually watchable.
The iPod Nano also displays photo slideshows, assuming they're in JPEG format and you sync them manually from iTunes, and you can pinch-zoom individual snapshots. But you still can't record video like you could with the 4th-generation iPod Nano, which is unfortunate.
For syncing media, the iPod Nano still works with iTunes 10 on the desktop via the included charging and sync cable. There's no Wi-Fi, so there's no wireless syncing capability the way there is with the iPod Touch. You also can't buy music or movies from the iTunes Store on the device itself, nor can you stream music directly from your iCloud account. All of this makes sense in terms of existing generations of the iPod Nano, but it does show how the world has moved on a bit, in terms of what's possible with today's portable media players.
Other features and battery life
There's a built-in pedometer app that allows for Nike+ integration right out of the box. Having a pedometer handy is fun; you enter your height and weight, tell it if you're walking or running, and off you go. You can program workout playlists, and the Nano will talk to you while you walk in seven languages. There's also an FM tuner as before, although now it offers a live pause option with search capability, thanks to a 15 minute memory buffer.
The iPod Nano supports stereo Bluetooth 4.0 streaming for the first time, so you can listen over wireless headphones or pair the player with a compatible car stereo. I tested the iPod Nano with a pair of Plantronics BackBeat Go stereo Bluetooth headphones and they sounded fine.
Apple rates the battery at 30 hours of continuous music playback, which is six hours more than last year's model. Last time around, we got an excellent 26 hours in our battery test, which was slightly more than promised. But this new Nano lasted a stellar 33 hours and 17 minutes on a single charge, which is truly impressive for such a small and light device.
At £129, the iPod Nano is still £40 less expensive than the £169 base model iPod Touch, which is also a year old; the new iPod Touch Apple introduced with this iPod Nano now starts at £249 for 32GB. This pricing scheme makes the iPod Nano an ideal choice for anyone who wants to keep their music separate from their mobile phone, or wants an extra device to use in the gym, the car, or in a speaker dock. Just bear in mind that you'll need to pick up a £25 Lightning to 30-Pin adapter for existing docks, at least until new Lighting-ready models start to appear.
And there are competitors: The Sony W Series Walkman builds a 2GB MP3 player right into a pair of earphones. It sounds great and is much cheaper than the iPod Nano – you can pick one up for £40 – if you don't mind the design and its reduced capabilities.
The iPod Shuffle is still available and is a solid music-focused budget option, also priced at £40, although we've never been huge fans since it lacks an LCD. And the SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip is again priced around £40, but offers a screen and expandable storage. However, its small 1.1in screen can't display video, it doesn't support wireless Bluetooth headphones, it comes with poor-sounding earbuds, and it doesn't have any fitness app capability.
All told, if you're looking for a top-notch MP3 player with a great design, plenty of flash storage, and an oversized colour touchscreen – and you have the means – the iPod Nano reigns supreme once again.