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The Nano Strikes the Right Chords

By Cliff Edwards


Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good Loads of music in a small package, bright color screen

The Bad Screen prone to scratches, oddly placed headphone jack

The Bottom Line Excellent new iPod, so light that you hardly know it's there

You've no doubt seen the hilarious spoof video that's making the rounds on the Web advertising the "iPod Flea," a digital music player so small that it can hold only one song. After Apple (AAPL) released its minute iPod Shuffle last year, few were betting CEO Steve Jobs and crew could do much to top the player's gum-package size.

Enter the iPod Nano. Available in either glossy black or white versions, it's so small that pictures and billboards really don't do it justice. Since apparently the iPod mini was not mini enough, Apple decided to confront increasing competition in the digital music player space with the Nano, which at 3.5 inches long, 1.6 inches wide, and a minuscule 0.27 inch deep, looks too fragile for everyday use.

EYE-CATCHING QUALITIES. To Apple's credit, the Nano jettisons many of the problems that plagued previous iPod products. Like the Shuffle, it features solid-state flash memory in place of a hard drive, whose platter and spindle system is prone to damage when dropped. And one-upping the Shuffle, it adds a 1.5-inch LCD screen, which offers better navigation through the contents of the device. Apple will phase out the iPod mini, a move expected to make the Nano its de facto biggest seller.

As with all things Apple, getting the Nano out of the box is designed to be an aesthetic experience. On one side of the tiny container sits the Nano. I tested the 4-gigabyte versions in both white and black. Perhaps because there have been fewer all-black iPods circulating -- the U2 commemorative iPod was the only one on offer -- the black Nano is a bit more thrilling than the white version.

People also were more apt to notice the black unit when I was carrying it around. Its eye-catching qualities probably account for reports that the black is outselling the white at least three to one. In either case, the Nano comes with the standard white iPod headphones, a USB cable, and a dock adapter for folks who already own an older iPod.

SCRATCHED BUT RESILIENT. What you won't get is something to hold the player while you're on the go. For that, Apple is selling $30 armbands and a five-pack of colored rubber "Nano Tubes" to protect the player. Third-party providers have also announced a slew of Nano accessories, though few initially are on the market.

Given the lack of accessories, perhaps Apple may want to think ahead before it releases another product. Heeding the company's marketing promise of 1,000 songs in your pocket, I slipped the Nano into my pocket on a trip to New York. Taking it out on the plane, I was disappointed to see scratches on the screen just hours after getting the device out of the box. Other users have complained of similar scratches, and some have reported cracks. Apple has agreed to replace any cracked screens caused by defects.

Despite the reports and quick scratches, the Nano appears to be quite resilient. I've dropped it several times from a height of about six feet, to no apparent effect.

HEADPHONE SWITCH. Walking around using the armband with the Nano, though, presented something of a challenge. The way it works, you slip the Nano into the holder right-side up and put the armband on your bicep. Sounds simple enough.

But because the headphone jack is on the bottom of the unit, to the right, I was prone to pulling out the corded headphones while using the unit at the gym. It worked much better when I switched to $200 Bluetooth stereo headphones from Plantronics (PLT), which use a circular adapter attached to the headphone jack to wirelessly transmit music to an over-the-ear receiver.

On to the Nano itself. There's very little to say about the music. It still sounds good -- or for purists, as good as digitally compressed music can get. The color LCD screen lets you download pictures and album art like its larger, hard-drive-based cousin, but I found the tiny screen a tad small to clearly see the album image.

PASSWORD PROTECTION. As for its claims of 14 hours of battery life, it looks like Apple comes pretty close. I carried it on several three-day trips without needing a charge. To save energy, the color screen powers down -- but is not quite off -- when not in use. A quick tap of the scroll wheel brings it back to life.

Apple added a few more features to the Nano that also are worth noting. You get a new world clock that lets you look at the time in several different time zones. Looking much like the OS X interface, the clocks also darken and lighten depending on whether it's day or night.

Jobs & Co. also appear intent on making the iPod a jack of all trades with its "extras." In conjunction with the release of iTunes 5.0, the player doubles as a personal digital organizer, syncing seamlessly with Microsoft Outlook contacts and calendars on Windows-based PCs. To protect your content in case of loss or theft, the Nano adds an interesting function called screen lock, which requires a four-digit access code. If you forget the password, it unlocks the next time you sync with your computer.

LESS IS MORE. Finally, you'll probably have the coolest stopwatch on the planet with the third new iPod feature. With the many iPod users who are joggers in mind, Apple included a function that lets you keep track of your time or even lap durations. The Nano also saves the times for multiple sessions.

Is all that enough to make you want to add to your iPod collection? If you're into cool and want the Nano-only features, there's probably $250 bucks burning a hole in your pocket. For joggers and other athletes, I'd recommend the Nano as well.

Some may quibble with a price that's higher than for hard-drive iPods. But in the case of the tiny Nano, less really does give you more. I suspect the Nano will make it on a lot of holiday wish lists in short order, if they're not there already.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau

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