iPod nano Packs a Punch

Apple's third-generation nano adds high-quality video to enhance the already popular music player

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Beautiful video and music in a tiny package

The Bad: Could have used more internal storage capacity given the new emphasis on video

The Bottom Line: The nano is the most popular iPod of them all and should remain so

From the moment the first one was launched in 2005, I never really liked Apples iPod nano line, favoring instead the bulkier, hard-drive equipped portion of the iPod family. I have a lot of music, and I dont like to think about which bit Im going to leave at home on any given day. Moods switch, and one minute Im in the mood for some John Mayer, and the next I need a shot of John Coltrane or an obscure Van Morrison bootleg.

So I stuck with my 40-gigabyte iPod—until a year ago. That was when, on a lark, I decided to buy a second-generation nano with just 8 GB of memory. Already weighed down by a cell phone and a Blackberry (RIMM), the tiny nano compared favorably with its heftier sibling. It quickly became my main iPod, and I started using the larger one less.

Picture perfect

Now it all makes sense to me why the nano has, in two short years, become the most popular iPod. Apple (AAPL) doesnt break out figures on the mix of sales, but educated guesses suggest that nanos account for about half of all iPods sold.

The latest edition of the nano, unveiled in September, was overshadowed by the launch of iPod touch, a new line with Wi-Fi and a wide-screen display. Nevertheless this third-generation nano sports some impressive enhancements, starting with a video-capable screen.

Being the most popular member of the iPod team clearly made video a must. Yet given its size, you might think the notion of watching video on it silly. The nano's screen measures just 2 inches diagonally, which is half an inch smaller than the display on the iPod classic, and not much more than half the size of the 3.5 inch screen on the touch.

But small has its advantages, and I've been pleasantly surprised after a few weeks of watching videos on the nano that I am barely aware of the screen size. The image quality is gorgeous, especially with animated fare like Japanese anime. Its bright enough and clear enough that the size matters less, which is the point. The screen density—the number of pixels crammed into each square inch of screen space—is the highest of any iPod that Apple has ever shipped, and the end result shows it.

Quality sound

In fact, compared with larger iPods, the new nano makes it easier to sneak a quick video break. I found myself watching Comedy Centrals South Park during a break in the action at work. Seriously. Just try it. Since it's so small, there's a better-than-average chance the boss won't see it if he or she happens by while you're watching.

The model I tried had 8 GB of storage capacity, which is enough to hold eight hours of video, though I dont think my aging eyes could watch it for quite that long. But if you cram it with video, there won't be much room for music. So if you're intent on toting around gobs of both audio and video content, you may be better off with the 160-GB capacity of the latest iPod classic.

Beyond size and storage considerations, the nano sounds as good as any iPod. The chips responsible for playback are the same as those in the classic, so forget any notion that a smaller device might be inferior in terms of sound quality. The fidelity is as good as ever. And browsing albums on the screen with Apple's Coverflow—a special effect that makes the covers look like they're whizzing by as you scroll through them —is incredibly cool, though I found I didnt use it much. Its better on the iPhones touch screen.

Music vs. video

Measuring 2.75 inches tall, 2.06 inches wide, and about a quarter of an inch thick, this nano is slightly wider than its predecessor, but shorter and narrower. I actually had trouble finding it in a pocket amid my office ID card, ATM card, and wad of cash. A few times I thought I had forgotten it only to find it later.

Given the choice, I would have tolerated a thicker unit for a little more flash memory. Since the iPod touch maxes out at 16 GB, I would have liked to see the nano go that high as well. At $149 for a 4-GB model and $199 for 8 GB, the nano is fairly priced. But I would be willing to pay more, say $250, for one with more storage.

Clearly, the addition of video to the mix of media I carry around forces the unpleasant choice that intermittently drives me back to my spacious, hard-drive based iPod. But for sheer multimedia portability it's hard to beat the new nano.

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