Several years ago, "Saturday Night Live"'s Fred Armisen did a Steve Jobs send-up involving ridiculously minute iPods, culminating in the "iPod Invisa": too small to actually see, but when you drop it, it floats. We are almost there.
The new iPod Nano is Apple's most daring entry in this latest round of product releases. The revision on the line actually subtracts as much as it adds to the feature set. In a tech culture ruled by feature wars and piles of unused extras, I have to say that Apple's addition by subtraction approach takes some balls. Video playback, external audio and the camera have been ditched, but now we get a touch screen that is itself barely a thumb-and-a half wide. I have to admit that when I opened the Fedex box with the new model staring out from a clear plastic cube the size of a plum. I had to laugh. It is a touch screen with a clip-on back. The Nano looks like a small part that fell off a real gadget. It is an "SNL" skit.
And it works. This is a great instance of form following function and engineers pushing the design coolness but staying on the safe side of usability. If this model is aimed at the runner like my partner and gym rat like me, then they hit the bulls-eye. I never bought into the previous two gens of Nano because the long shape and video recording capabilities were irrelevant to my use case: working-out. I have used the third gen for years now just by slipping it into my pocket and letting the earbud wires thread up my torso. The downside of the older Nano was that it had to be locked in order to prevent inadvertent click-wheel actions, and basics like volume control and track advances required unlocking the phone and then trying to navigate via click wheel with fingers that were sometime trembling from the last weight set.
The physical design of this sixth-generation Nano seems to have working-out in mind, which makes me wonder how well the last generation succeeded in penetrating the Flip pocket video market it was aiming at. Brilliantly, the design adds rather than subtracts external buttons despite the touch screen interface: volume and hold. These are precisely what you need to handle the inevitable volume disparities among podcasts, for instance, or quick access to track advance. Tap the hold button and the playback display is topmost on the iPod screen, so you are one tap away from advance or repeat.
The big fat clip that occupies the entire back of the new Nano works exactly as I had hoped. Now I can clip the thing to a sleeve arm or the base of my workout T-shirt so that changing a song or a setting is as easy as flipping it towards me.
Swipes rather than wheel navigation brings you through several screens of more granular control or detail of playback. Despite the limited screen real estate and the need to drill into multiple menus to get things done, you generally are no more than a couple of back-swipes from your home screen. The screen changes orientation fairly well when you rotate two fingers, but it works best if you start at the corners of the display. And as we continue to find, strong resolution and color depth trump size. The photos I transferred over to the Nano were fully visible in decent detail. The one-step zoom generally was good enough to optimize some photos. This screen does not have the incredible snappiness of the current iPhone 4, to be sure. And it can become virtually invisible at a hard angle.
Overall, the Nano is a great little unit that maps perfectly against my use case. I am guessing that Apple has someone like me in mind, the guy who had no use for the last two generations of Nanos but who saw immediately the advantages of this design to the fitness environment. I can imagine people with greater ambitions for their portable music player hating this thing. It is deliberately targeted at someone who is ready to trade robust functionality for quick usability and minimal clutter.
But like the iPhone 4, the Nano is another one of Apple's steps toward the too-precious gadget.
"How are you going to keep from dropping it in the wash?" my partner asked when she saw it dangling from my shirt edge. All too true. Now I have another valuable Apple product to worry about. The Nano is so light it is easy to imagine losing it without knowing it. And of course I have a history of such things. My first iPhone got through wash, rinse and spin cycles before I realized that it had been laundered. So my partner and daughter both take side bets on how I will destroy the next gadget I covet. Apple keeps making these things look ever more like divine concept designs. Yes, they are wizards of design, but at what point does the design become almost off-putting?
Likewise, the iPhone 4 is jewel-like in its glossy beauty. I know I am not alone in having to change my habit of pocketing a cell phone -- because, as a result, I find the glassy smoothness a bother to use day after day. The flat front and back actually get in the way of little things, like knowing which side of the phone will face you when you pull it halfway out of your pocket to do a quick check. Even though I have protected the screen of every iPhone I have owned before it, I couldn't find the right screen protector in time to keep the new 4 from getting scratched simply from being put into my always-empty pocket.
Hardened glass, my ass. Scratch-proof against anything but pocket lint.