Last year’s iPod Nano was Excellent. It was a big step forward for Apple, as they returned the device back to it’s roots of music player first, everything else second. Half the weight and size was dropped along with the VGA video camera, scroll wheel and video playback, replaced by a beautiful 240×240 pixel touchscreen, a simplified version of iOS, and a handheld that was smaller than a belt-buckle but larger than a watch face.

This year, Apple returned with more of the same, though perhaps too much more. This year’s upgrades to Apple’s mobile devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPod Nano) have been perceived by many as a lack of innovation, partly because of Steve Jobs’ at the time failing health. The iPhone 4S saw few improvements, the iPod Touch none at all, and the Nano remained questionable. iFixIt’s teardown of the Nano revealed that it too is the same as last year’s model, though with parts from different manufacturers.

Sorry, no return of the camera. It wouldn’t be Apple to sell new products without some changes, and just like the new iPhone 4S and iPod Touch has iOS 5, the new Nano has upgraded software, known only as Version 1.2. For this review I tested the hardware and found no differences in performance, so we’ll only touch upon the hardware briefly. For a more in-depth look at the hardware, take a look at last year’s review of the iPod Nano 6th Generation.

Last year’s iPod Nano (left) beside this year’s. They’re virtually identical

The move from versions 1.0 to 1.2 isn’t a big step, but it improves on several key areas. Firstly, the apps now take up the whole screen, one at a time. Originally four apps were visible on any one page (and in fact users can still set apps to appear that way), but the new default is to show larger icons, and only one at a time. For farsighted users who had trouble using the small screen before, small icons made the Nano too small to use. No longer.

The other major change came to fruition because people fancied the Nano a watch. While I’ve never actually seen someone wear an iPod Nano wristwatch, major electronic retailers all sell them. Apple graciously included a few watchbands for this review, and it’s very strange to wear the Nano as a watch. Apple includes 18 different watch faces, spanning from analog and digital watches to Kermit the Frog and Mickey Mouse. 18 isn’t a whole lot, and I’d like to see the ability for users to download new watch faces from iTunes, and possibly even make (and sell?) their own.

Using the Nano as a watch does solve one of the Nano’s problems, albeit partially – as a watch, it’s harder to lose. The Nano is frighteningly small. Like last year, I lost my Nano at least three times during the review process. When I used the Nano as a watch, I never lost it once. The bright green or heavyset blue bands are much easier to spot than even the glossy, reflective screen of the Nano.

Because the Nano is so easy to lose without wearing it, there is one improvement I’d like to see in future iterations: a keychain hole in the clip. It may sound counterintuitive, to place electronics on a keychain, but the Nano is small enough to fit and light and thin enough to not be in the way. The glass would have to be scratch resistant; after all, it would be in the same pocket as keys.

Back to the watch, what’s missing from the Nano is an option to set screen duration, or how long the screen remains active before automatically turning off to conserve power. There is no option to do so. Apple simply made the screen shut off after a minute. Some users may be inclined to have the Nano shut the screen off sooner or later than that, especially if wearing the Nano as a watch.This is one aspect that should be left to users to decide.

There are a few other features that Apple passed over on this second outing for the 6th gen Nano. AM radio, an internal radio antenna (instead of using headphones), iPod earbuds with a microphone, and an improved battery. Each of these would have improved the Nano significantly, but with no hardware updates none are available this time around. And each of these areas is a fault of the Nano since last year. AM radio, or even HD Radio, is an incredibly attractive feature for people who have used it. A proper radio antenna would provide for a stronger, better signal that simple earbuds or even larger headphones. Earbuds with a microphone would allow everyone to use voice commands immediately, without spending another $30 for a set of iPhone headphones. And Apple has pushed every year for more advanced batteries, but neglected a higher-capacity battery for its smalled screened device.

The Nano’s stacked beside an iPod Touch. The Nano is thinner except for the clip.

Even updating one of these things would have drastically improved the Nano. I’m still shocked that Apple doesn’t include earbuds with a microphone on all of their products at this point. Additional radio functions could be a heavier strain on the battery, and the device’s small size requires a small but powerful battery. I know Apple could have improved in this area, but compared to their other goals it’s not surprising to see no upgrade here.

On the one hand, the iPod Nano is an excellent example of how important software is, and how with strong hardware it can improve devices better than simply pushing out newer parts. However, looking back at last year’s Nano, there was very little that needed improvement. The Nano now makes a novelty watch, and is easier for older users to see, but it isn’t a significant step forward. It isn’t even truly the next generation Nano, which is why the software version didn’t jump to 2.0. No, it’s a software upgrade only, one that last year’s buyers can enjoy just the same as new purchasers.

Even considering all that, the iPod Nano is still the best handheld music player of it’s kind on the market. I would have liked to see some serious upgrades, to see the famous Apple yearly revisions, but this year that wasn’t the case. Then again, it’s still the best.

Pros:

  • Larger icons are easier to see
  • Watch feature is an interesting turn for many users
  • Everything good about it last year is still there
Cons:
  • No hardware upgrades from last year. No AM/HD radio, no internal antenna, no earbuds with a microphone
  • Watch faces are limited; no option to download/make/buy different ones
  • Still very easy to lose. No solution for keeping it safely in sight except by wearing as a watch

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★☆

Great

Bottom Line: There are a lot of things I’d have liked to see improved on the Nano, but it’s still by far the best device of it’s kind on the market.



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.