Apple's third-generation iPod nano boasts video capability and a larger screen, vastly improving on its predecessor. It also sports a snazzy new split-screen interface, revamped graphics, and a short, squat design--though it's still slim as ever. This extremely sleek player comes in 4GB ($149) and 8GB ($199) flavors, but not 16GB as of this writing. Although some compelling alternatives are cropping up, the nano is still our favorite flash-based music player.
The iPod nano's anodized aluminum front has rounded edges and a two-inch screen, while the back is polished stainless steel, much like the first-generation nano. The player measures 2.8 x 2.1 x 0.3 inches--shorter and wider than the previous model, though roughly the same volumetrically. Apple brought the Hold switch down to the bottom of the player and thoughtfully moved the dock connector to the center of the bottom, so it looks more symmetrical when the device is sitting in a dock.
The main menus are now two-paned; the left side is for text, while the right displays panning and zooming images pulled randomly from album art, videos, and photos. In the Settings menu, you get handy graphical representations of each setting. Best of all, in Song and Album views, you can now see artist names in small lettering beneath titles.
Cover Flow is another cool addition, letting you browse by album art, but the images don't display immediately. With the most recent firmware update, Cover Flow glides quite smoothly once all the images are buffered in the nano's memory. This process took a couple of seconds on our 8GB model. We also like being able to access Shuffle mode by pressing the center select button repeatedly while a song is playing.
The sound quality on our test tracks was very good, with no audible system noise. The included earbuds aren't great, but we got excellent results by swapping in our Shure SE420 in-ear headphones. Our test videos of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Chappelle's Show were adequately smooth on the small but brilliant two-inch LCD. Colors looked realistic enough, but the sharpness was really impressive, thanks to the 204-pixel-per-inch display. We just don't see many people viewing videos for more than a half hour at a time on this device, despite the rated five hours of battery life.
The iPod nano's photo features haven't changed significantly, and it still lacks an FM tuner and voice recorder, though existing accessories for those features work fine with the new model. There are some games for the nano at the iTunes Music Store in addition to the three included with the firmware, but older games (such as those for the 5G iPod video) don't work on the latest round of iPods. Be aware that even though this nano should fit in all docks, the shorter body causes the Click Wheel to be partially obscured when the nano is sitting in some docks.
Samsung (with its stereo-Bluetooth push), Creative (bigger display), and iRiver (cool D-Click interface) all offer solid flash players--and we'd like to see how the rumored flash-based, Wi-Fi-capable Zune performs. But the Apple iPod nano is an excellent little player that has enough features, ease of use, and sex appeal to keep it ahead of the pack.
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