Saturday, 11 September 2010

New iPod nano - first impressions: where are the buttons?

I'm loving my new clippy iPod nano, (not least because, with a post on this blog over two years ago, I may have had a hand in designing it*). However, having road tested it for a few days now, I'm realizing it is far from perfect, and I rather wish that Apple had followed the ideas in my post more closely ;)

I use nanos for one thing, and one thing only. Running. I'm obsessed with Nike+. (I'm already at Black Level, which means I've clocked up over 3,100 miles). So I've put in quite a few hours of nano road testing in my time (385 hours, according to Nike+).

The nano has always been the only device really suited to using with Nike+. As any serious runners will know, iPhone and iPod touch are just too big, heavy and cumbersome. I had been hoping that Apple would integrate the Nike+ receiver into the new nano. This was not to be, and as you'll see from the picture above, it doesn't look pretty to plug the large receiver into this diminutive new nano. (No surprise they don't show you this image on

The great thing about the previous nano was the click wheel. It meant that you could pause and resume your workout without even needing to look at the display. Just let your thumb work its way to the bottom of the wheel and press. Equally, if you didn't like the song that was playing, you could cue the next song without any need to interrupt your run. And because of the complex combination of clicks and swipes required to end a workout, there was no risk of doing so prematurely.

Sadly, with the new touch screen nano, things are very different. Pausing a workout involves pressing a button to activate the display, waiting a couple of seconds for the screen to come on, and then looking at the display to locate a virtual button (because it's not a real button, you can't find where it is without looking). Resuming the workout involves looking at the display again, because the resume button is located quite closely to the end workout button - if you're not careful, you'll ruin your workout data with a careless tap.

All this matters, because when you're working out, you want to focus on what you're doing (running) not be fiddling with a gadget. Great user interfaces just seem to disappear, so that they enable you to perform the task without even thinking about it. The previous nano was like that. The new one will have runners fiddling on the sidewalk to pause their workout as they wait for the lights to change at a crossing.

It is ironic that in the same keynote where Apple was forced to eat humble pie and reinstate buttons to the shuffle, (effectively rolling back to the previous, much loved, design), they have taken buttons away from the nano.

In my original post, proposing a touch-screen shuffle, I positioned it as a shuffle rather than a fully fledged nano for precisely this reason - a nano needs buttons. Furthermore, the simple swipe and tap gestures I proposed did not require the user to look at the display when performing them, since they didn't involve precisely positioned virtual buttons. For what it's worth, I still think this would have been a better way to go.

On the positive side, the new nano is a great form factor for running, and the clip turns out the be very robust, and perfectly adequate for keeping the nano secure during an intensive run. My advice for next year would be for Apple to introduce four buttons around the bezel of the display. Then they'd have a practically perfect Nike+ companion.

* Note: I'm not saying I really think Apple took the new nano design from this blog - but I like the flatter myself with the idea that it could have influenced them.

Having used the new nano for a couple more weeks, I have more bad news to report. The clip is not as robust as I had previously thought, and has come detached more than once while I've been running. Fortunately, the ear bud cable has saved it from hitting the floor so far. Secondly, when the touch sensitive display brushes against damp clothes (which happens a lot when you're running), it is sometimes triggered accidentally - which can result in jumping between audio tracks (mildly annoying) and prematurely ending workouts (extremely annoying).

Sorry to say, but I've given up on my 6th gen nano. I really wanted to like it, but from tomorrow, I'll be switching back to my 5th gen version. As a point of interest, the 5th gen nano had two useful Nike+ features that have been removed from the 6th gen model: a month-to-view calendar, highlighting which days you worked out on, and a graphing feature that is actually better than the one on It'll be nice to have those features back again.

If you're thinking of getting a nano to use with Nike+, I recommend you try and find a 5th gen model - it's the best nano for working out that Apple ever made.


  1. I agree with you...I like the idea but once I don't think its very usuable for running and changing things on it. I actually (for the first time ever) returned mine after a few days use and bought the new shuffle instead.

  2. Question - if it actually did the things you suggest for the Nike functionality, do you think you'd wear it as a wristwatch while running?

  3. Hi Scott. I use Nike's Sportsband as well (for club runs and competitive races where iPods are forbidden). The Sportsband is wrist-based, and the user interface works extremely well, once you get used to it, since it's easier to look at the display when it's on your wrist.

    Not sure about a wrist-based iPod though, since cable management would be a problem. Also, if the iPod has buttons, there's no need to look at it when you're running. The Nike+ app has a good voice interface anyway.

  4. “iPod nano” is a really beautiful product when they release the new model, people will be surprised with the new features. I’d definitely buy it immediately!