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

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The new nano betters my suggestion with a screen that's even larger than that of the 2009 model. And as predicted, the bigger screen makes the 2012 nano's iOS-inspired interface much more usable. For example, instead of showing only three items in a list view, the new nano shows seven, making browsing lists much less frustrating; you now see six "app" icons on the screen at at time, rather than four; and the status-bar clock, dropped from the previous nano due to the lack of screen space, is back--you no longer have to navigate to the Clock screen to check the time.

The Now Playing screen is also much improved: Instead of a square cover-art screen with all controls overlaid--requiring multiple swipes to cycle through all the options--the new nano shows the cover art in the middle of the screen, with track info at the top and playback and volume controls at the bottom. Tap the screen once, and you get repeat, Genius, shuffle, and track-list buttons, along with a progress scrubber and, if available, lyrics. (When listening to an audiobook, the shuffle button is replaced by a playback-speed button.) Sound familiar? It's closer to the look of the iOS Music app than to last year's iPod nano interface.

(One place I would like to see Multi-Touch used that it isn't: As with the iOS Music app, you can't swipe the Now Playing screen to skip to the next or previous track. At least here there's a reason for it: You use the left-to-right swipe to return to the Home screen--although that gesture isn't strictly necessary anymore, given that the Home button does the same thing.)

Other "apps" also benefit from the larger display. The Radio screen offers a much-larger frequency display, as well as larger track info, and it's easier to access radio-playback options and special radio features (local stations, favorites, tagged songs, and recent songs). The Clock screen can show the hour, minutes, seconds, day, date, and year without looking crowded; lap times in stopwatch mode; and timer options without having to switch to a different view. The Voice Memos features shows the recording time in large digits. The Fitness (Nike+) screen shows more options at once. And while the Photos feature loses some transition options compared to the previous version, viewing photos is something you might actually do with this nano--the rectangular display means photos use nearly the full screen, and you can zoom in and out using familiar pinch gestures.

Overall, the larger screen means less swiping, less scrolling, and more information. Similarly, because more controls and options fit on each screen, I found myself frustrated much less frequently while using the nano--there were fewer times when I swiped blindly, wondering if an expected option was yet another screen away. This is what last year's nano should have been.

Oddly, while the new nano looks and feels more like an iOS device overall, its onscreen icons look much less like iOS. You can still tap-hold icons to rearrange them, but the icons themselves are now round with simple, white iconography instead of rounded-corner squares with more-realistic images. I personally don't like the shape of the new icons, but the overall interface is so much better that it feels petty to complain.

That said, there are a few options missing on this nano compared to its predecessor. For example, you no longer get the option to use larger icons. And whereas the previous iPod nano let you choose exactly which icons appeared on the Home screen--including options for sub-categories such as Playlists and Artists--the new nano doesn't let you disable icons, and it doesn't offer the option to show sub-categories. (The exceptions are icons for features that aren't always available. For example, the Voice Memos icon appears only if a microphone is connected, and the iTunes U icon appears only if you have iTunes U content synced to the player.)

The new nano also offers only six clock faces, rather than the 18 of the previous model, and the offerings aren't nearly as fun as the Mickey, Minnie, and Muppets options available on the sixth-generation nano. (On the other hand, you can now switch between clock faces right on the clock screen, rather than having to make a trip to Settings.) Finally, there are only five wallpaper options, with four of the five color-matched to your nano's own color--if you've got a pink nano, your choices are limited to one gray background and four pink ones.

But, again, it says a lot about how much better the 2012 nano's overall user experience is that my biggest complaints relate to icons and clock faces.

The return of video

Of course, the larger screen also has other benefits. Primary among them--as you might suspect given the roughly 16:9 aspect ratio--is that the nano line has regained the capability to play video, and the new model's screen and iOS-like interface make it the best video-watching nano yet. To be perfectly clear, this isn't saying a lot, as the screen is still too small for anything more than occasional video viewing. But it works in a pinch, and my kids didn't complain when watching Wall-E for the 17th time. (The new nano doesn't support video-out to a TV, for either video or photos.)

According to Apple, the new nano supports H.264 and MPEG--4 video at sizes up to 720 by 576 pixels at 30 frames per second with AAC-LC audio up to 256 Kbps and 48kHz; Stereo audio in supported .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats. For H.264, the player supports Baseline, Main, and High-Profile level 3.0; for MPEG--4, you can use up to 2.5 Mbps, Simple Profile. I synced several compatible videos to the new nano and had no problems playing them. If you manually sync incompatible videos to the nano, they appear in the Videos screen, but when you try to play them, you see a black screen and then the nano reverts back to the Home screen.

This is the first video-playing iPod nano with Multi-Touch, and the feature makes working with videos a much better experience than with older video-playing nano models. For example, tap once on the screen and you see an iOS-like overlay with controls for adjusting the volume, scrubbing through the video, and accessing a chapter menu. You can also double-tap to zoom in and out: When watching a 16:9 widescreen movie with the nano oriented horizontally, you can either view at full width (which results in thin letterboxing at the top and bottom) or zoom in to fill the screen vertically (and chop off a bit of the left and right sides). Overall, the new nano's Videos feature is much like the Videos app in iOS.

In terms of quality, the new nano's screen isn't quite as sharp as the higher-density (but smaller) screen on the 2010 iPod nano, but its much larger size more than makes up for the slight difference in clarity. Color accuracy isn't great, but it's close enough for casual watching. When viewing video in landscape orientation, off-angle performance is good in the vertical plane, though it's not nearly as good on the horizontal plane--especially from the side opposite the Home button.

You won't want to watch a lot of video on the iPod nano, and you certainly won't buy a nano just because it can play video, but it's nice that the option is there. And you can be sure that if Apple hadn't included the feature, given the new screen size and dimensions, people would have complained.

Bluetooth wireless...

Those who loved the previous nano's built-in clip, especially for exercise use, will certainly lament its loss in the new model. But I predict that many of those same people will be won over by one of the 2012 nano's biggest fitness-related additions: Bluetooth. (Yes, finally.) Specifically, the nano has gained Bluetooth 4.0 with LE (low energy) for connecting wirelessly to Bluetooth A2DP headphones and speakers as well as to Nike+ sensors and Bluetooth heart-rate monitors. (If your headphones or speakers include AVRCP-compatible controls, you can use those buttons to control playback.)

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