iPod nano, second generation
A friend who is moving to a new apartment asked me to take delivery on his second-generation iPod nano. The (PRODUCT)RED Special Edition, no less. What was I going to say, no?
Chapter two of the iPod nano story comes with enough plot twists to please the most avid Apple slave. It starts with the packaging, formerly a sleekly blank cardboard box with the Apple logo and little else, now a clear plastic coffin the size of a thickish cell phone. As a result, the software CD has been omitted, and iTunes must be downloaded. There is still no supplied power adapter—it's a $29 accessory. The player charges via USB when connected to a computer.
The player's outline has changed from the round corners of yore to round sides with flat top and bottom edges. Thickness has dropped from .27 inches to .26, a minor point, but a point of honor, perhaps. The finish has gone from lustrous (but easily scratchable) polycarbonate to an aluminum matte. For my own part, I love my first-gen nano just as it is, network of fine Levis-induced scratches and all, but the new finish is an apt response to just criticism. The aluminum covers front and back, replacing the formerly stainless steel back.
Perhaps the most immediately noticeable difference is the selection of new colors. In addition to the red special edition, they include green, blue, pink, black, and silver—a noteworthy replacement for original-iPod white.
Screen size has not increased. It's still 1.5 inches—really, who would want a physically larger nano? If you want to watch movies or TV shows, you're better off with the iPod video (in Apple terminology, simply the iPod). The FM tuner, supplied with some competing devices, is optional here; voice recording is a new option for the second-generation nano. Battery life has seen a significant increase from 14 hours to 24.
The value proposition has improved, with the addition of a new 8GB model, and everything else costing $50 less. (Another way to look at it, Apple's product manager suggests, is that capacity has doubled across all price points.) The 2GB silver-only model sells for a new low of $149. For $199, you can get any of the 4GB models in all colors except black. That color is reserved for Apple's first 8GB nano, $249. Whether or not Apple was influenced by competition, any of them is a great buy. If you buy the red one, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that Apple has donated $10 to bring medication to AIDS victims in Africa. Its capacity is 4GB only.
Functionally, the iPod clickwheel interface is still the champion of its genre. Any person of average intelligence can figure out how to use it within a few minutes. That's a good thing, since Apple still doesn't provide much of an instruction manual, though there is extensive and well-designed online support. The only thing I've ever had to Google my way out of when I got my first iPod was the powering-down command (hold down play/pause).
Apple keeps the new nano inside the tall, stony digital-rights-management walls built for the first iPod. Purchases from the iTunes Store (formerly the iTunes Music Store) are encoded in the Dolby-developed AAC format, with Apple FairPlay DRM. They will play only on an iPod and cannot be transferred to other portable devices (unless you acquire one of the many cheatware programs floating around the net). WMA-DRM files bought from other stores will not play on the iPod, although iTunes willingly converts WMA without DRM to AAC.
CDs can be ripped to various codecs, either lossy and efficient (AAC, MP3) or lossless and less efficient (Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV). The iPod also supports the Audible e-book format. I've set iTunes to rip only in MP3, allowing me to move the files from my hard drive to any device. A lot of the stuff on my iPod was ripped to MP3 in the Windows Media Player (in many cases, retaining the surface noise of the original LPs).
The biggest operational changes are not in the device itself but in the software. New to iTunes version 7 is gapless playback, which allows tracks to flow into one another when they've been mastered that way on the original CD. Configuration options formerly limited to the player (syncing, podcasts, etc.) can now be managed through the Mac/PC software. In the list view, album covers are juxtaposed with tracks (very cool).
I have two ongoing complaints about iTunes. One is that the font appears somewhat small on my 1024 by 1280 monitor, even after I've upsized it in the preferences menu. Some elements, like the file-edit-view menu, cannot be upsized at all. Also, while CDs ripped in iTunes show up in Windows' My Music folder, the iPod itself does not show up as a drive in Windows. You have to open iTunes to add tracks to the player, even if you're just dragging and dropping MP3s with no DRM.
Still, the sound is sterling, even when fed into a high-end audio system. I've got the player plugged into my Onix desktop amp and Era Design 4 speakers even as I type this. The player has a cleaner midrange than the soundcard in my PC, and lags only a little behind my Rotel Special Edition CD player. At least one reviewer has referred to lightweight bass, but the level coming from my Pinnacle SubSonic seems on the mark—never judge the audio quality of anything through earbuds. For portable use, you won't get the best performance of which the nano is capable unless you upgrade the supplied earbuds to better ones from, say, Shure—or better yet, a pair of real headphones like the legendary Grado SR60.
Hey, I couldn't care less what Steve Jobs thinks of me. I never bought the Apple myth. My latest computer purchase is a Lenovo ThinkPad. But I'm struck by how few reviewers have given this product the out-and-out rave reviews it deserves. Do critics dribble faint praise because we need to feel superior to the hermit of Cupertino? Do we assume Apple's infernal marketing machine doesn't need any help from us? Has a whole bunch of critical gushers from major reviewers escaped my attention? I wonder.
Well, by any standard, the second-generation iPod nano is a great product: brilliantly designed, fabulous ear candy, lovely to look at, a pleasure to use, just plain fun. The 24-hour battery life is a good reason to upgrade all by itself, especially if you do a lot of traveling.
Prices: $149 (2GB), $199 (4GB), $249 (8GB).
Postscript: Since this review was posted, the red iPod—reportedly selling heavily in the 4GB version—is now available in an 8GB version.
Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.