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iPod Reviews: iPod nano 4th Generation

Apple iPod nano Fourth Generation

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Sept. 2009 Editor's note: read our review of the iPod nano fifth generation with video camera.


Reviewed by Jacob Spindel, September 2008

Previously, on “All My Nanos…”

Last time, we met the third-generation iPod nano, whose video playback capability and small size instantly made it one of the most popular citizens in all of Podville. But then came the shocking twist: When the users discovered that the third-gen nano was limited to 8 GB of storage space and also left room for improvement in its battery life, some of the users felt that the nano wasn’t adequate for their needs, while others stood by the nano, igniting a feud so bitter that a few people even relocated to the dreaded city of Zunezibar. Well, now there’s a new nano in town, and it hopes to overcome the shortcomings of its predecessor while retaining its advantages. Although some of Apple’s latest design decisions are sure to be controversial, the new nano is a slick portable media player that most of the users will certainly approve.

iPod nano

This Specs Section Is 99% Pun-Free

As many users have noted, the fourth-gen nano resembles the longer, thinner look of the first two generations of the iPod nano, rather than the shorter, fatter look of the third-gen. Specifically, it measures 3.6 inches high X 1.5 inches wide X 0.24 inches deep, whereas the third gen was 2.75 inches high X 2.06 inches wide X 0.26 inches deep, making the fourth-gen nano the thinnest iPod ever. It is lighter than the third-gen as well, weighing only 1.3 ounces (versus 1.74 ounces). The click-wheel and Dock Connector are essentially identical to other recent iPod models. It is available in nine colors, including Product Red, and in two capacities: 8 GB and 16 GB (a 4 GB version has reportedly also appeared in a few countries). The 16 GB model, which we used for our review, can hold 4,000 songs, 14,000 photos, or 8 hours of video. All of the versions use flash memory for storage.

The fourth-gen is the first nano to have an accelerometer (similarly to the iPhone), which enables it to determine which angles you are holding or rotating it at. Turning the iPod on its side while navigating the menus automatically places you in Cover Flow mode; you can also shake the nano during playback to shuffle in a new, random song. Moreover, Apple has included a new game, Maze, in which you use the accelerometer to navigate your way through (you guessed it) a series of mazes.

iPod nano

The new nano’s screen certainly looks larger than its predecessor, but Apple states that its diagonal measurement is still 2 inches, which is actually the same as that of the third-gen. In order to fit the redesign, the screen is taller and narrower than its predecessor, but its diagonal measurement, as well as its resolution of 320 x 240, remain the same.

Well, actually, a better way to state the resolution might be 240 x 320; if you’re wondering how a tall, narrow screen can possibly handle standard iPod content, you’ll have to think sideways. In fact, landscape orientation is the only way to watch video on the new nano, with the screen and the click-wheel side-by-side. You can hold it pointing in either direction (the accelerometer can make the screen flip during playback), but you cannot display video in portrait mode. Furthermore, iPod games purchased from the iTunes Store also work only in landscape mode, although the built-in games (Maze, Vortex and Klondike) have been updated so you can play them in either portrait or landscape modes.

The fourth-gen nano supports the same codecs and formats as the third-gen, including the AAC, MP3, WAV, AIFF, and Apple Lossless audio formats, as well as H.264 and MP4 videos up to a resolution of 640 x 480 and a frame rate of up to 30 frames per second.

Like all previous nanos, the fourth gen’s headphone jack is still located on the bottom edge. Since an aesthetic overhaul was one of Apple’s major focuses in designing the fourth-gen, it would’ve been nice if they had reconsidered this idea, since many Dock-based accessories are difficult or impossible to connect and use whenever you have headphones connected. Strangely, the hold switch has been relocated to the top of the nano even though the headphone jack hasn’t.

The fourth-gen nano also adds some new features for vision-impaired customers, such as an option to display the menus in an enlarged font, as well as the availability of spoken menu items. Apple has also addressed environmental concerns by ensuring that the new nanos are free of arsenic, mercury, and PVC, and that the aluminum enclosure is recyclable. (Has anyone has ever actually recycled an iPod on purpose!?)



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Geekability 2.0

So how does the latest nano fare in day-to-day usage? It’s no surprise that it’s very small and very light, so carrying it around is no problem (and it may even make your iPhone feel heavy by comparison!). The screen is also bright, clear, and easy to watch – even direct sunlight or watching the screen for an extended time don’t generally cause any problems. The storage capacity of 16 GB is a huge improvement over 8 GB, at least with my iTunes library; it is enough space to bring practically all the content you could possibly want, even if that includes a lot of video.

iPod nano

I have to admit that holding an iPod “sideways” just feels odd, even though it is not really any less convenient. The lack of portrait orientation support for videos and purchased games can still be frustrating, though, and sometimes gives the impression that Apple has not really taken full advantage of the accelerometer, instead letting much of its potential go to waste. Shake-to-shuffle and Maze are certainly fun and work well, but unless these are the only two things you ever do with your iPod, it is likely that you will eventually start wishing that the fourth-gen nano could take advantage of the accelerometer to display more content in portrait mode, even if this required downscaling the video. (iPhones currently already have many features of this type, although they ironically don’t support shake-to-shuffle as of this writing.)

Battery life is almost identical to the third-gen nano. Apple rates the lithium-ion battery as having 24 hours of audio playback, or four hours of video playback, from a single charge. However, our tests indicate that 2-3 hours of video playback is a more realistic estimate. If you plan to carry an extended battery with you, keep in mind that you will have to find one that won’t obstruct the headphone jack.


Book ‘Em, Nano

The nano family has always been famous throughout Podville for being sleek, small, light, and convenient, and the fourth-gen nano is no exception. Longtime users who may have been frustrated by the somewhat limited storage of the third-gen nano will also be happy to see that Apple has resolved this concern quite convincingly in the fourth-gen. However, Apple has not really improved on the third-gen’s “good-but-not-great” battery life, and the lack of portrait orientation was an unwise omission. So will the fourth-gen’s improvements be enough to unite the users of Podville? Will AAC find out about MP3’s lack of fidelity? And hey – who is that trying to recycle my iPod?? Stay tuned…

Pros: Sleek, lightweight design; enhanced storage capacity up to 16 GB; bright, clear screen; includes an accelerometer.

Cons: No portrait orientation for video or purchased games; battery life could still use improvement.


Price: $149 for the 8 gig and $199 for the 16 gig

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