In some ways, the iPod nano is Apple's most difficult child. Not because it's a bad product, on the contrary, it's a great idea, sensibly priced and with the all the features you might reasonably want in a basic MP3 player. What's more, it sells well too. The problem seems to have been that Apple just can't decide on what form factor the nano should be.
It's gone from tall and thin, to short and fat and even had a spell as an upmarket Shuffle with a full-colour, high-resolution screen. But now, Apple has returned to the shape it's used most over the years - tall and thin.
There's little doubt that the iPod nano is a great music player - Apple has perfected it over a good many years - but the question is, does anyone want a "dumb" MP3 player these days, or are they all about iPhones and iPod Touches?
The iPod nano might be one of Apple's oldest products, but the firm seems to have kept learning with each new release. It seems a bit daft to say, but this nano is the best yet, and that is, in large part, thanks to the new design.
The seventh-generation nano is really like a tiny iPod touch in design. There's the all-dominating screen on the front, that home button - the icon is round, unlike the iPhone/iPod Touch where it's square. On the left-hand side, there's a volume control but this button does more than just volume, it's also able to speak the track name if you press and hold the middle. A short press pauses or resumes the track while a double click advances to the next track.
The idea behind this multi-function button is that it can be used while you're exercising. You simply hold the nano in your hand, and there are all the key controls ready and waiting. And, as with most recent iPods, you can give it a shake to shuffle in a random track.
On the bottom of the iPod are both the proprietary Lightning port, and the standard headphone jack. Users of previous iPods could bemoan the new Lightning socket, but honestly, when you see the thing, you can't help but think Apple has done the right thing. It makes the old port look idiotic, and the new design should last for a long time to come.
As with the iPod Touch, Apple throws in a pair of its EarPods. These are a massive improvement on the old Apple headphones. They are, however, still white, which we despise. They are comfortable, but also a bit leaky, and prone to fall out when you exercise. They are also very bass-heavy, which will suit some, but not all. Overall though, they're not a bad inclusion, and are easily as good as headphones that cost twice as much.
That's right, having removed it in the last generation, the new nano has some pretty hefty video playback credentials. It can show you 720 x 576 resolution video, at 30fps with no drama.
On the nano's tiny screen, that's more than enough quality, and although the screen is a little on the small size, it's fine for the occasional movie trailer, home movie, or perhaps a TV show. To be honest though, video will kill your battery really quickly, so we can't see ourselves using it much. We loaded on a movie from iTunes though, and crucially it looked great. So if you're very bored, it could help the situation.
But, honestly, we're more excited about the FM radio. For a very long time, people who didn't like Apple would always chuckle at the fact the firm seemed incapable of putting a radio chip in its MP3 players. In fact, Apple was probably right not to bother, because those small radio chips were never really much good. But, something has changed, because the FM radio in the nano is phenomenally good.
We test the radios in a lot of mobile phones, and across the board they have improved enormously over the past few years. But we've yet to hear any as clear and interference-free as the nano. That's a surprise too, because it still uses the headphone cable as an antenna. And, so thorough is our testing, that we've used it in both London and New York, and it works equally well in both places.
As a bonus, Apple also lets you rewind live radio by 15 minutes - assuming you've had it on and running for that long, or you can jump back to live playback at any time. It's a simple enough system, but it works well enough for us to use it. And, in all honestly, use it over almost any other portable FM radio we've seen.
We've tested the nano with the Apple EarPods, our own reference Phonak headphones and some new Sennheisers. Three different sets of cans, and three different listening experiences.
Overall though, the nano is a lovely sounding MP3 player. If we had to criticise, we think it's a little bass heavy, but it's quite marginal if that really is the case. There is tonnes of detail in all the various music we tested: we heard country FM radio in New York, and heavy Euro-dance in London. All sounded great to us.
We do urge caution with the EQ though. As with the iPod Touch, these settings are pretty poor. There's no manual option, and while it doesn't matter for most things, there's always some time where you're going to fancy a bass kick, or a tweak to the mids. Android does this quite well, but has its own set of faults too.
There's plenty of power too, and we never felt like there wasn't a bit more oomph if we needed it. It is worth remembering that too much volume for too long is bad, but everyone likes a nice loud session every now and then.
It's worth giving Apple a bit of extra credit here, because its accessibility for people with visual impairment is very good. There's the option to invert the colours, if you need too and the menus can all be spoken to you as well. If you have hearing problems in one ear, there's also the option to send the audio from both channels to just one earpiece.
These additions may not help everyone, but they make a little bit of a difference. Plus, Apple is one of very few manufacturers that takes accessibility seriously, and for that, they should be praised.
No apps here
Because the iPod nano isn't an iOS device, there's no access to the Apple store's comprehensive app library. To be honest, this is less of a problem than you might think. As the device doesn't have Wi-Fi, most apps would be pointless, perhaps bar a few games. But making the nano and iOS device would almost certainly push the processor and power requirements too high to maintain the device's small size.
What you do get are some Apple features. For example, there's a dedicated podcasts area now, which syncs to your iTunes podcast library. It's not essential, but it's sort of nice to have them ring fenced.
You can also store photos on the iPod, so there's a dedicated button to get straight to those, which match the Video and Music menu items. There's a clock too, which also has a stopwatch and countdown timer too. These could be handy if you're working out, but perhaps not as useful as the Nike+ or "Fitness" option.
Here, you can keep track of your workouts. There are two possible options, either walking or running, and the iPod has everything it needs for monitoring. There's a pedometer too, which means you don't need the Nike+ shoe widget either. Everything you do, in terms of walking and running can be recorded, and synced back to Nike.com. There is also the option to use a heart rate monitor, should you be very in to monitoring stats, plus, you can use the Nike+ shoe thing, should you wish.
If you want to record voice memos, that's possible, but you need to connect some headphones with a microphone first. When you do, a little icon magically appears on the second app screen. It's quite cool, and almost James Bondy in its secrecy!
Here's where the lack of apps, Wi-Fi and a petite screen all start to make a difference. The iPod nano will last a quoted 30 hours for audio according to Apple. We've been using the thing quite a bit, and leaving it on and wandering off. It's done well. We can't claim to have clocked up 30 hours yet, but we can't honestly see that being far off the number.
Bear in mind though, using the nano to watch video will kill the battery quickly, and using Bluetooth will speed up the consumption too, although only by a modest amount.
The nano has always been a popular MP3 player. It's cheap enough to make it a spontaneous purchase and have wide appeal to people who aren't necessarily heavily into technology. The multitude of colours is nice, and you'll certainly find one you like. Plus, it's tiny, and has a very decent capacity.
We like the sound too, it's clear and clean. The EQ settings are, honestly, not up to much. For this reason, we suggest you find headphones with a sound profile you like, and use them with the iPod EQ off. This is by far the best way to listen.
The iPod isn't "cheap" but it's not expensive either. It's a device that you might buy on a whim, or give to a friend for Christmas, but whoever ends up with it, they will end up adoring this capable and brilliant-sounding device.