IPod’s Latest Siblings

Grab a standard American business card. Now, get a pair of scissors and trim the long side of the card by 20%. That’s all the space you need to hold over 1,000 songs, plus audio books, podcasts and photos if you buy Apple Computer’s newest iPod model, the gorgeous and sleek iPod nano.

This latest iPod was publicly revealed yesterday at a razzle-dazzle marketing event orchestrated by Apple CEO Steve Jobs. But I have been testing a nano for the past few days, and I am smitten. It’s not only beautiful and incredibly thin, but I found it exceeds Apple’s performance claims.

iPod nano
Apple’s iPod nano

In fact, the nano has the best combination of beauty and functionality of any music player I’ve tested — including the iconic original white iPod. And it sounds great. I plan to buy one for myself this weekend, when it is due to reach stores in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Available in classic iPod white, or a lustrous black (my favorite), the nano is not only small, it’s stunningly skinny — about the thickness of five credit cards stacked on top of one another. That means it can be carried easily in even the snuggest of clothing and the smallest of purses, and worn comfortably during exercise. You could even carry it in a wallet, if you were sure you wouldn’t sit on it.

Yet the nano, which starts at $199 in the middle of the iPod range, contains key features previously available only on the largest, costliest iPods. These include a sharp color screen, the ability to display the album covers for the songs it’s playing, and the ability to store a user’s photos and display them in slide shows accompanied by music.

Also, despite its small size, the nano holds plenty of songs and can play them for a long time. The base $199 model has two gigabytes of storage, which Apple says can hold 500 songs. A second model, at $249, has four gigabytes of storage and can hold 1,000 songs, Apple claims. The company says this slip of a player somehow packs in a large enough battery to play continuously for 14 hours.

In my tests, I found that the nano’s battery lasted a bit longer than Apple claims — 14 hours and 18 minutes. And I was easily able to pack around 1,200 songs, plus a couple dozen photos, into the $249 model, because most older pop and rock tunes tend to be shorter than the notional song Apple uses to calculate capacity.

In a second test, I loaded the entire 16-hour unabridged audio version of “The Da Vinci Code” onto my test four-gigabyte nano and still had room left over for 1,128 songs, plus my 24 photos, a couple of podcast episodes and about 50 contacts copied from my computer’s address book. That’s more than enough material for most people, even if it doesn’t compare with the 15,000 songs or up to 25,000 photos that Apple says its $399 full-size iPod can hold.

Apple is also shipping some optional accessories for the nano, including colored rubber covers, called “tubes,” an armband and a desktop dock. But the coolest accessory is a $39 lanyard with earbuds built-in at the neck. I found it to be perfect not only for exercising, but for walking around with the nano.

Overall, in my tests, the iPod nano performed as advertised, or better. I found no significant flaws or downsides. The only quirks are that the headphone jack is on the bottom, because there isn’t room for it on the top; and to make room for the jack, the standard iPod connector port that hooks up to many accessories has been placed off-center. But neither of these oddities matters much. In fact, the bottom-mounted headphone jack makes the optional lanyard earbuds possible, and keeps the screen oriented properly when you’re wearing them.

Despite its small size, the nano sounded as good as any other iPod, and is packed with plenty of audio power. Plugged into my car speakers, it was able to belt out the new Fountains of Wayne rocker, “Maureen,” loudly enough to be heard perfectly, even though I was going 70 mph in a convertible with the top down.

The nano replaces the wildly popular iPod mini, which had been Apple’s smallest full-feature iPod. When the mini came out in February 2004, it seemed incredibly small and sleek compared with the original iPod, which itself seemed amazingly small compared with its competitors.

But the nano is 62% smaller than the iPod mini, is half as thick and weighs less than half as much. Yet it holds as many songs as the base model mini. The four-gigabyte nano costs $50 more than the mini of the same capacity, but it is even more stylish and easier to carry, and it includes a color screen where the mini’s was monochrome. It also displays the album title for every song you play, which the mini omitted.

This combination of small size, good battery life and healthy capacity is made possible by the fact that the nano stores its music and photos on slim, small chips called flash memory modules, instead of the hard disks used by most earlier iPods. Flash memory not only takes up less room than a hard disk does, but it uses less power and isn’t as susceptible to skipping due to motion, or damage from drops.

In fact, during my tests, I dropped the nano several times, deliberately, from a height of about 3 feet, and it didn’t miss a beat. I also wore it around my neck on the lanyard during a couple of hours of pounding treadmill exercise, and it never skipped or froze.

There are dozens of small, flash-based music players, but I haven’t seen any that combine the nano’s size and features. These features include the relatively large, 1.5 inch high-resolution color screen; Apple’s famous iPod navigation wheel; and the standard iPod connector port, which links to numerous iPod accessories. Most flash players have tiny screens that are hard to read, lousy navigation and few or no accessories.

Apple’s low-end iPod, the shuffle, which is even smaller than the nano and remains in the lineup starting at $99, is also a flash player. But it is barely a true iPod, because it lacks a screen, the scroll wheel and the connector.

In my tests, the nano synchronized perfectly with both a Mac and a Windows PC running Apple’s iTunes software, and I was able to easily buy songs from iTunes and play them on the nano.

The company introduced another flash-based player yesterday, but it’s not an iPod. It’s a phone called the ROKR, made by Motorola, that contains iPod-like software, made by Apple, for playing music. The phone, which Apple didn’t design, is chubby and lacks the iPod navigation wheel. And it holds just 100 songs. It’s essentially a huge iPod shuffle with a screen. (I’ll review the ROKR in a later column.)

Surely music-playing phones are a big part of the future of digital music, and Apple will be involved with more of them over time. But the company clearly considers the new iPod nano a much bigger deal for now. In fact, it hopes that the nano’s slender size and ample capacity will blunt the belief that people don’t want to carry a separate phone and music player.

All I can say is: It sure is small and it sure is cool.


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