Technology

The iPod Nano's Big Strides


1229_nano_review
Editor's Rating: star rating

The latest version of Apple's smallest music-and-video player is simpler, speedier, and packed with smarts

Let me start by saying I loved Little Fatty, and I miss it.

The nickname was affectionately given to the last Apple iPod Nano, a device that was for me the best version. Squarish and compact, it was the third generation of the iPod Nano line and the first to support video. Released on Sept. 5, 2007, it lasted barely a year.

The new iPod Nano, now the fourth to bear that name, forsakes the squarish design in favor of a return to the lanky rectangular form that characterized the first- and second-generation Nanos, released in 2005 and 2006, respectively. The screen is two inches, measured diagonally, which is the same size as on the prior Nano but more rectangular and vertically oriented.

I've spent about two weeks with the 2008 edition, and while I like it a great deal, I would like it better if I didn't have to turn it to a horizontal position to watch video on it. Held upright, the screen is too skinny for video. Held horizontally, it gives a bit of a wide-screen appearance, suitable even at that size for watching a TV show comfortably, and it's hard to argue that video doesn't look great on the new screen.

Navigational Smarts

There is much about the device that makes up for that one admittedly mild criticism. One is a substantially improved user interface. The prior-generation Nano may have had a nice shape, but the screen was too narrow for the two columns of information presented for navigation. The new narrow, vertically oriented screen puts an end to that. There's only one column of information at a time, and a drop-down menu, invoked by holding the center button, adds some much-needed navigational smarts.

When selecting from a list of songs, you can hold down the button and see four options: Start Genius (more on that later); Add to on-the-go, which, as with previous iPods, adds a track to the on-the-go playlist; Browse Album, which lists the other songs on the same album; and Browse Artist, which provides the artist's complete song list.

The new menu significantly speeds up the process of finding things and moving from one song to another on the fly, and that's a good thing. Believe it or not, from a company known for its simple interfaces, iPods have over the years become a little complicated to operate.

This is also the second iPod Nano to support Cover Flow, the eye-popping way to shuffle through albums stored on the device. It's about the closest you can come on an iPod to flipping through a batch of records in a box. Turn the device to one side when browsing music and the feature flips on automatically, allowing you to cycle through each cover using the navigation wheel. It looks better than it did on the prior device, but as with video, I could do without the whole 90-degree shift.

Then there are the touches only Apple (AAPL) would think of, such as a 180-degree crank. When watching videos, if you flip the device around, the video automatically reorients itself. Brilliant. And a Shake feature lets you hear random songs after literally shaking the device. How fun!

Surprisingly Helpful

I expected to dislike the Genius feature, which is essentially a recommendation engine. Generally I run hot and cold on services and features that recommend a song because I like one that sounds like it or shares some similarity. Genius, however, is different. All those millions of songs Apple has sold on the iTunes store over the years has yielded a great deal of information about consumer behavior and preferences. Since using data gleaned from historical patterns of consumer behavior is so popular these days, it was only a matter of time before Apple got into the act with iTunes.

I'm currently obsessed with the song Wonderwall, a jazz piano interpretation of the Oasis song of the same name by the Brad Mehldau Trio, which I recently bought on iTunes. So I select it and hit Start Genius. Quickly I get a playlist of similar songs already on the iPod. A few of Genius' suggestions: Everybody Wants to Rule the World by the Bad Plus, another piano jazz cover of a pop hit, which I had bought some months before; Charles Mingus' Theme for Lester Young; Herbie Hancock's Survival of the Fittest; and two songs oddly appropriate for election time, Pat Metheny's Is This America and Nora Jones' My Dear Country, the latter of which I didn't even know I had.

Selecting Come Together by the Beatles, I tried Genius again. Results included Aerosmith's Walk This Way, U2's One, and Led Zeppelin's Kashmir, among others. I'm eager to experiment more with this feature in the future.

While I may miss Little Fatty, Genius is helping me get over it.

Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com.

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