Last week, my iPod Nano (6th generation) stopped working since its power button got stuck and failed to do anything to activate the machine. I rushed out, and got myself a replacement player in the form of an Apple iPod Nano 7th generation. I must admit that I have not found any alternative to an iPod paired with iTunes when it comes to a plain stand-alone audio player. After the utter disappointment that the 6th gen nano was, the 7th gen turned out to be surprisingly good and might even be almost up to the standards of the near-perfect 3rd generation.
I am one of those people who think that a smartphone is way too big to be used as a music player, and also quite an inappropriate device for that purpose. I use my music player daily – to make the biking and walking involved in my commute into useful time spent listening to podcasts, as well as when I go to gym and when traveling. Imperceptibly low weight, ease of use, and the ability to control it with one hand without looking at it are the primary requirements, along with long battery life.
In my opinion, there are a few functions that you need to be able access very quickly on a audio player. Basically, you need physical buttons for them. Volume adjust and pause-play are the most important ones, while next track is secondary but nice to have. The buttons and click wheel on my old 3rd gen iPod Nano did it perfectly, but unfortunately it gave up after some five years of daily use. I got the 6th gen for free and gave it a try after the 3rd gen gave up. If I had paid for it, I would have been quite upset, as it was a total disaster in the usability department. On the 6th gen, there was no button to pause! Stopping play required fishing out the device from the jacket pocket where it was hiding, clicking the power button to unlock the screen, looking at the screen to find the pause icon, and putting a finger on it. Ridiculous. Apple kind of fixed this by making a double-tap on the power button do the job, but why not have a dedicated button for that in the first place? After all, this was an audio player with a very particular purpose in mind. Doing things with double-taps on buttons is not exactly discoverable or a good affordance, rather reminding me of the classic digital watches of the 1980s where you had to remember various button combos and long and short presses to access various functions. I would have hoped we had come further than that, but instead we seem to be going backwards in usability.
In all aspects, the 7th generation iPod nano fixes what was broken with the 6th generation and makes the iPod Nano into a really nice audio player again. ArsTechnica proclaimed it was disappointing when it launched in October 2012, but to me it is good to stick to the basics. That is what I want and need.
On the 7th gen, there are dedicated volume adjustment buttons, with a pause-play button between them. This combo button works very well, and is large enough to avoid mistakes. The power button locks the screen and avoids inadvertently changing what is playing (as well as saving power). I can put this thing in a pocket, and just reach in there and make it pause without having to look at it at all.
The addition of an iPhone-style home button is actually very welcome. On the 6th gen, you were constantly trying to swipe right to get back up the menu tree, something actually very annoying. On this device, you click the button and then I can dive down into music or podcasts directly. Much easier to navigate.The touch screen is now big enough to make sense, and navigation works very well even in long lists (I still think the old scroll wheel was a superior design, as it let your finger stay attached to the device to scroll, much more ergonomic and faster).
The physical dimensions of this iPod are sufficiently small to make it work as a daily companion and when out running. Here is a comparison with my older iPods:
It is also a very thin device, almost credit-card thin. Doing away with the useless clip of the 6th gen was a good move. You can also see the volume and pause-play button clearly from this angle.
I have not really stress-tested the device yet. The 6th gen nano tended to exhibit all kinds of odd behavior when hit with sweat in the gym, such as rotating its screen spontaneously and changing from playing podcasts to playing music spontaneously. I also had it start speaking various playlists to me while taking a morning run on Tel Aviv beaches attached to a headset with a broken control button (guess it got confusing signals from humidity and heat and short-circuited electronics). It also remains to see how well it works through a nordic winter, not usually the strongest suite for touch screens.
Overall, the device has potential to be a long-term companion.
I just hope that once this one gives up, I can find another pure audio player to take its place. It seems that they are disappearing from the market as a genre, as people use smartphones or small tablets or iPod touches instead. For me, a smartphone is not an appropriate replacement for a pure-play audio player.
Phones are just too large and heavy. When running, I do not want to carry a huge blob around.
Quick access to core functions is also an issue on phones. To access a function like pause or track change, I need to do something like pull up the phone from a pocket, click button to power on screen, type in my password, and then access player buttons (no phone I have seen recently have dedicated hardware buttons for anything except volume adjustment). And yes, using a proper password and fast auto-locking is a requirement on a smartphone in order to secure company and confidential data on the phone. The phone is first and foremost a tool for work. In general, a touchscreen is brilliant in that you can multitask any number of interfaces on the same surface, but it also totally sucks as a quick-access tool as there is no way for your fingers to find the buttons without looking. The current popular aesthetic of avoiding physical buttons works for things you do while looking at the device, but fails for things you want to do without looking at it.
Battery life is another benefit from having a separate audio player. I want to be able to listen to things even when traveling long distances, without impacting the battery on my phone (which is a real issue with current smartphones), and without being without an audio player if the phone battery runs out. Separate pools of energy for separate tasks.
Another interesting issue is just how I listen to audio. When showing people my new iPod, the first question has been if it supports Spotify, or why I need it given that Spotify exists. Interesting. Spotify really has had a huge impact in how people access music, that much is clear. But it does not solve any problem that I have. I looked into it, tested it, and found that it was useless.
First of all. My primary use case is listening to podcasts, so that I can learn things while traveling or working out. Spotify does not seem to have much of a point there.
Secondly, when I listen to things tends to be exactly when Internet access is least likely to be successful. On a commuter train full of smartphone users, the networks tend to be pretty congested. Inside an airplane, it does not exist. When traveling abroad, it is not exactly common that mobile access to data is either available or affordable (try paying 10 USD per megabyte in Russia, or watch the poor speed a European phone gets out of the networks in parts of the US). So, I would have to use offline files anyway, negating the online on-demand advantage of something like Spotify (judging from this thread, I am not alone in wanting offline access to work).
Third, Spotify does not let me set up my own metadata for music files. I have spent quite some time making sure it is consistent and with the information I want from my library of files on my computer. Not being able to edit it is just unthinkable. It is not clear to me how to mesh what is available over Spotify with my 15-year-old library of music that includes some really odd and rare stuff that is not on Spotify at all.
Fourth, it means putting audio into the same energy pool as web surfing, email, and phone calls. Not a desirable behavior.
Fifth, it is pretty expensive. 100 SEK per month for premium works out to the equivalent of one average CD per month… I do not buy that much music. Compared to buying a million albums it is very cheap, but that is not how I think about and interact with music. I am like Steve Jobs, I have a collection of music. That I own, not rent.
Sixth, there is the clear risk of anything becoming unavailable at any point in time due to things like legal disagreements, companies going out of business, or crossing a border into another country where Spotify has a different set of agreements in place (i.e., the music industry is still its own biggest enemy).
So, while Spotify is great for a lot of things, like “sharing” music (they are doing the world a real service, right there) and just finding some particular track someone is asking for, it just does not work for my use cases from my life.