Four generations of iPod nanos compared

(February 16, 2009)

Over the last few years, I bought one specimen of all four generations of Apple’s iPod nano media player, mainly to make rePear compatible with each new model. (In fact, rePear’s main development target are iPod nanos.) Here are my thoughts about the benefits and drawbacks of each generation.

First generation

The first iPod nano was quite revolutionary when it was introduced in late 2005: It was simply the smallest and lightest MP3 player with a display back then. It took the competition years to come close to that. Apart from miniaturization, the nano was quite a standard iPod, using the same PortalPlayer family of controllers, running the same software, except that the display was smaller and the hard disk has been replaced by a bunch of flash chips. It was also the last iPod model that allowed tinkering with the firmware, like installing alternative operating systems or running demos on it ;)

Even though it’s over three years old now, the nano 1G doesn’t actually feel old, except for the low-resolution 172×132 display perhaps. The design, production values and handling is still top-notch. The aluminium-plastic casing is almost indestructible. The front, however, is quite vulnerable to scratches, but a protection foil over the display helps wonders here.

Second generation

One year later, Apple updated it’s record-selling model. The case was now (almost) fully made of aluminium, the hardware was completely replaced by the Samsung components that also powered the subsequent generations. The firmware for this and all later models was also encrypted, which put all hacking activities to a sudden end.

Even though the new hardware was almost an order of magnitude faster, the software was still almost equal to the old version; USB performance was even quite a bit lower than before. The only new feature that is really worth talking about was the search option that was painfully missing from the 1G model. The new scratch-proof case didn’t look remotely as sturdy as the one of the first nano, but it surely was much better than the average China player.

Third generation

In 2007, Apple combined the best software and feature set with the worst case design ever made: Appropriately nicknamed the »fat nano«, the 3G deviated drastically from the typical sleek iPod nano design. The firmware, however, finally put the Samsung chip’s power to good use and supported video playback, Cover Flow and even simple (software-rendered) 3D games. There was one problem with it, though: It required its the central track database file to be signed by iTunes, barring all third-party applications from putting music on the device. To my great surprise, this protection lasted much shorter than I thought – after two weeks, the first code to compute the signature hash made its way into the internet.

If I ignore the indescribably bad case design, the 3G was actually quite a good product. The only real grief was the strange power save mode that not only turned the display’s back light off, but also replaced the contents by the most meaningless thing one could display on a MP3 player: A clock. This is really a sad thing, because the display was highly reflective and well readable even without the backlight, so I’d really had preferred it to show useful things.

Fourth generation

The latest model thankfully returns to the classic iPod nano design – this is what the 3G should have been. It’s a full aluminium case with a completely curved shape, smooth like silk. The software has once again been upgraded with a completely new look of the »Now Playing« screen – but unfortunately, that’s already where the problems start. 90% of the screen are covered by album artwork, but this doesn’t leave enough room for the textual information. Artist and album title are not displayed at the same time, forcing me to look at the screen for several seconds if I want to read both. Reading the text itself is problematic, too: Usually I won’t complain about the Helvetica font used in the iPod’s UI, but in this case, it turns out to be sub-optimal. The spaces between the letters are too small; when read from a larger distance (like the usual distance between a car seat and the console where the iPod is installed) I can’t easily distinguish the letters from each other. Moreover, the display can only be read when it’s illuminated, for two reasons: First, the display isn’t reflective at all. It’s almost pitch black, so I can’t read anything without the backlight, except a light source is pointing directly at the screen (which, for the most time, it isn’t). Second, the power-save mode is entered very quickly and blanks the screen completely.

Conclusion

Even though three years have passed since its introduction, the first-generation iPod nano is still my favorite model. Except for the missing search function, it has all the features I need – Cover Flow, videos and games are nice additions, but don’t use them all that much. The 2G comes close, but for some reasons, I just don’t like it that much. The 3G doesn’t even belong to the nano family due to its inacceptable design – this is the only model which I really bought for rePear development only. The nano 4G is a good product overall, but it’s ridden by lots of small grievances that makes using it harder than it needs to be. But since my 1G is starting to die (I already witnessed it displaying the sad iPod icon), the 2G belongs to my brother and the 3G doesn’t fit into the car mount, I think I should start getting comfortable with the 4G now.

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