Toybox: Fourth-generation iPod nano - cute but not compelling

4G nano not nearly as dramatic an upgrade as the 3G nano, but the new version has some great new features

It would have been tough for Apple to top last year's release of the third-generation iPod nano, and, sure enough, the fourth-generation (4G) iPod nano isn't nearly as dramatic an upgrade as the 3G nano. But, nevertheless, the new version has some great new features: more storage, for the same price; and a new design — albeit one that looks quite familiar.

The new iPod nano gives you 8GB or 16GB of skip-free flash memory for NZ$249 or $329, respectively. Apple has also made each model available in nine different colours.

However, the most obvious change is the shape. At just 1.5 inches wide and 0.24 inches thick, but 3.6 inches tall, the new nano evokes the first two iPod nanos, rather than the last short-and-wide model. But the shape makes it feel even thinner: the body, made of a single piece of anodized aluminium, is curved in front and back, resulting in an oval shape that tapers to fractionally thin edges. Thankfully, the nano's screen — now made of glass — curves significantly only at the left and right edges; the rest is relatively flat, to reduce glare.

The 4G nano's vertical screen is actually identical in size and resolution to that of its predecessor, at two inches (diagonal), 320-by-240 pixels, and 204 pixels per inch; it's simply been rotated 90 degrees.

Although the vertical screen is great for browsing long menus, most video is wider than it is tall. So, the new nano plays all video sideways — you rotate the player 90 degrees in either direction to watch. Either direction? Indeed: Apple has added an accelerometer, which senses the nano's orientation and adjusts the display accordingly.

Another use of the accelerometer is shake-to-shuffle: while listening to music, giving the iPod nano a vigorous shake switches to Shuffle Songs mode and skips you to a random track. Subsequent shakes skip to a new track.

Thankfully, Apple has designed this feature to require a forceful shake. Running with the nano attached to my arm didn't jar the player enough to activate the feature.

Perhaps the most highly touted new feature is an on-iPod version of Genius, iTunes 8's playlist-creation and music-recommendation system. Once you've set up Genius in iTunes, it syncs its Genius data to your iPod.

Considerably under-hyped is the new Spoken Word Menus feature, which actually "reads aloud" as you browse the iPod's menus, offering nearly complete navigation even if you can't see the screen — it’s designed for those with vision issues.

Apple claims the 4G nano offers 24 hours of battery life for audio listening, and four hours for video watching.

To test audio-playback time, I played, on repeat mode, a 1,007-track playlist of 128kbps AAC tracks — the nano actually played for 32.5 hours.

To test video-playback time, I used a playlist that repeated a feature-length movie. With volume and brightness set to their respective mid-points, the new nano played for just over five hours.

On the topic of power, a minor hardware change in the new nano is likely to bite those with older iPod accessories — the 4G nano can’t charge via FireWire. It requires a USB for both charging and syncing.

Aesthetic changes aside, the fourth-generation iPod nano isn't the dramatic overhaul last year's nano was. If you've already got a 3G nano, the 4G model's new features may not be compelling enough to get you to upgrade.

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