Review: New iPod Nanos Impressive, New iPods Not So Much

Fans of Apple Computer Inc.'s (AAPL) portable music players will find the new, video-capable models of the iPod and its miniature counterpart, the Nano, clearly worth the wait.

As with previous iPods, the Nano now comes in a variety of storage capacities and colors, not just silver and black.

There's green, blue, pink and — starting last week — red, each holding 4 gigabytes of music, or roughly 1,000 songs. Silver is available in 2 GB and 4 GB configurations, and the black model holds 8 GB.

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The first thing I noticed is that the new Nano is tiny, even tinier than the first-generation models. It's so discreet, slim and light, at 1.4 ounces, that you'll want to check your pants pockets for it twice before putting them in the laundry; I sadly learned the hard way.

Owners of first-generation Nanos will be happy to see that Apple has done away with the device's shiny metal backing, which was notorious for scratching up almost as soon as it was out of the box. Now an elegant, seamless aluminum enclosure wraps around the Nano.

The battery life of the Nano is impressive. Apple rates it at 24 hours, and my own testing of an 8 GB model supported that. It charges quickly, too, powering up to 80 percent capacity in 90 minutes while hooked up to your computer using the included USB cable. A travel adapter for computer-less charging is sold separately.

The Nano's display is 40 percent brighter than the first-generation models. Song and album titles are easy to read. You can also view photos and album covers on it, but the screen is small, so don't expect to be able to see every nuance.

Priced at $149, $199 and $249, respectively, for 2 GB, 4 GB and 8 GB models, the new Nano models pack a lot of punch into a small package at a small price.

I wish I could say the same for the new iPods.

Obviously, the big draw here is the iPod's video capability, something not available in Nanos. The display, though rather small at 2.5 inches diagonally, is beautiful, crisp and 60 percent brighter than its predecessor.

However, video images tend to pixelize in areas of low contrast, probably because of the data compression necessary to squeeze video down to iPod size.

Videos — such as television episodes of "Lost" and movies like "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" — can be purchased from Apple's iTunes store.

Consumers also can convert their own video into the iPod format using iTunes, though I sometimes lost audio when I put my personal video clips on the iPod.

The iPod I tested exhibited other strange behaviors, once freezing my entire computer as I tried to sync it with my music library. It even seemed once to confuse audio with video. When I asked it to play one album, it rapidly cycled through a series of movie images instead.

Apple also revealed this week that a virus had infected a small number of the new video iPods.

No doubt Apple will be quick to smooth these kinks out of new iPods rolling off the assembly line, but it was disappointing to encounter them at all.

The new iPod's battery life is respectable, at 14 hours for music and 6.5 hours for video on the 30 GB model (it is longer for the 80 GB model). That's still greater than the first video iPods, allowing you to watch more shows and movies.

The iPods are reasonably priced at $249 for the 30 GB model and $349 for the 80 GB model, though the value is not quite as compelling as it is for the Nano.

The new Nanos and iPods share a few new features, including the ability to search for songs, artists and albums by letter — helpful when you've got 80 GB of music to browse through.

Another addition is gapless playback: no more jarring silence between tracks of albums like "Dark Side of the Moon" where the songs are meant to blend into each other.

Other features were held over from earlier iterations. Both the Nano and the iPod come with the same four dull games included on earlier models, but better games for the video iPod are available for purchase on iTunes. (Sorry Nano users, you're out of luck.)

And as with all iPod flavors, you can buy music from iTunes — and only iTunes. Copy-protected tunes from rival music services generally won't work. You can also play files ripped from your CDs using Apple's free iTunes software for Windows and Mac computers. Synching your music library is as simple as plugging in the USB cord.

Some of my favorite features are the simplest: The playback automatically pauses when the earphones are removed from the jack, so you don't miss a moment of music. The clock can keep track of multiple time zones.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all is in the earphones. Usually a cheap freebie with other portable audio devices, Apple resisted the temptation to pinch pennies here and instead gave them a complete reengineering with the new models.

The result is probably the most comfortable set of earphones I've worn, and they seem never to fall out. The sound quality is great, too, ratcheting up to teeth-rattling volume with almost no distortion.

One small disappointment with the earphones: They are still available only in white.

But that complaint is eclipsed by the many things to like about Apple's new iPods. Consumers can feel comfortable laying down their credit card for either one.

Another option is the new iPod Shuffle, which Apple is introducing this month. Barely larger than a cufflink, the Shuffle is designed to be worn, with a clip that fastens onto your clothes.

It holds only 1 GB of music and has no display, making song selection difficult. But at $79, it's attractive for people who intend to use the iPod while jogging or working out.

For my money, though, the Nano is the best bet. I went out and bought my own after my review unit's untimely end in the washing machine.