Review: iPod nano (7th generation) combines the best of its predecessors

Along with a new iPhone and a new iPod touch, September's Apple event brought with it a new iPod nano, the first in two years. (2011 saw a notable software update for the 2010 model, but no new hardware.) As has been the case with so many iPod nano models over the years, the iPod nano (7th generation) is a dramatic re-imagining of Apple's most-popular traditional iPod. But unlike the sixth-generation iPod nano, this one is mostly an improvement over its predecessor. In fact, for most uses, it just may be the best nano yet.

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Something old, something new

When I reviewed 2010's iPod nano (sixth generation) (3.5 out of 5 rating), I was in many ways disappointed by the direction Apple had taken the iPod nano line. That model had its share of fans--indeed, thanks to its built-in clip and watch-sized body, an entire industry sprung up around the idea of using the 2010 nano as a wristwatch. But its tiny screen meant its iOS-like Multi-Touch interface was difficult to use and a step backward from physical buttons. If I were rating it today, after a couple years of use, I might give it an even lower rating than I did back in 2010.

Did Apple get similar feedback from users? The company will never tell, but the 2012 iPod nano, available only in a 16GB capacity for $149, ditches the tiny-square-with-a-clip design in favor of one closer to that of the fifth-generation model: At 3.0 inches tall, 1.6 inches tall, and an incredible two tenths of an inch thick--thinner than the plug on a 30-pin dock-connector cable--the new model is essentially as tall and wide as two sixth-generation nano models stacked on top of one another, but half as thick. At 30 grams, the new nano is 8 grams heavier than last year's model--barely noticeable in everyday use.

In that larger expanse Apple has fit a 2.5-inch (diagonal) Multi-Touch display, nearly an inch larger than the one found on the previous nano. (In terms of pixels, this year's screen is 240 by 432 pixels, compared to 240 by 240 on the previous model.) The pixel density is slightly lower this time around, at 202 pixels per inch compared to 220 for the 2010 nano, and it doesn't match the Retina displays on Apple's iOS devices, but the new display is still clear and easy to read, even for small type.

The new design's changes don't end with a larger screen. The 2012 iPod nano also takes a number of queues from the iPhone and iPod touch. The body of the nano is made of aluminum--in your choice of black, purple, blue, silver, green, yellow, pink, or (Product) Red--with smooth, rounded sides and chamfered edges at the top and bottom. The front is white plastic with a physical, iOS-style Home button. On the left-hand edge is a three-button controller (more on these controls below), and on top is a Sleep/Wake button. Apart from the squared-off corners and the lack of a camera hole on the front, the new nano looks very much like a miniature version of the new iPod touch.

Along the bottom edge of the nano are a 3.5mm headphone jack on the left and a Lightning-connector port on the right. Those wondering why Apple has switched from the older 30-pin dock connector to the Lightning connector can look to the nano for rationale: The new nano simply couldn't have accommodated the older connector. You'll also notice, between the two ports, a white-plastic area that extends slightly up the back of the nano. That plastic covers the antenna for the new nano's Bluetooth feature, discussed below.

Let's get physical

The 2012 nano's bigger display has obvious advantages for the player's touchscreen interface, which I'll talk about in a moment, but the new model also gains some much-needed physical buttons. In my review of the previous nano, I wrote, "As useful as the Multi-Touch screen can be, it's no substitute for physical playback controls when, say, the iPod is in your pocket, or when you're trying to skip tracks while running or driving." And like the previous nano, the new one comes with headphones--specifically, Apple's new EarPods--that are missing the exceptionally useful inline remote-control module. But unlike its predecessor, the new nano sports a relative abundance of physical buttons.

First, instead of a simple set of volume buttons, the new nano sports a three-button controller on the side. This controller is identical in functionality to the inline remote found on Apple's iPhone-bundled headphones (and on many third-party headphones designed for use with Apple products): It has a volume-up button at the top, a volume-down button at the bottom, and a slightly recessed playback-control button in the middle. Press this middle button once to toggle play/pause, quickly press it twice to skip forward a track, and quickly press it three times to skip back a track.

These buttons aren't quite as good as dedicated back and forward buttons, but it's easy to find any of the three buttons by feel, and for the millions of people who are familiar with Apple's three-button-remote design, it's instantly recognizable--and a welcome addition. (If you have headphones with a similar inline remote, you can continue to use that remote, as well.)

Second, there's the aforementioned Home button on the face of the iPod--another feature I specifically wished for last time around. Pressing this button once takes you from wherever you are in the interface back to the most-recent Home screen; pressing it again takes you to the first Home screen. Quickly double-pressing when listening to music takes you to the Now Playing screen, and triple-pressing at any time lets you toggle the iPod's VoiceOver accessibility feature or invert the screen colors.

If you've used an iPhone or an iPod touch, the Home button will feel familiar, and it's a huge usability improvement for the nano: Instead of having to right-swipe many times, or tap-hold on the display, to return to the Home screen, you just press the button. There's still a good amount of left-and-right swiping when navigating the nano's menus and screens, but it feels much less forced now than when it was the only way to navigate.

Multi-touch makes sense

Speaking of tapping and swiping, the biggest advantage of the 2012 nano's larger screen is that it dramatically improves upon many of the problems I had with the previous version's interface. As I wrote back in 2010:

The big question, for me, is why the nano's screen had to be so small. Given the existence of the iPod shuffle, there doesn't seem to have been a compelling need for another as-small-as-we-can-make-it iPod, and a slightly larger design would have allowed for a larger screen. For example, a rectangular nano--perhaps the same width, just a bit longer, with a screen similar in size to that of the [fifth-generation] nano--would have been considerably more useful, allowing you to view at least five items on the screen at a time, instead of three and a half, perhaps with enough room left over for more onscreen navigational aids.

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