Last year's release of the iPod nano, a successor to the iPod mini, was a watershed moment for Apple Computer. An almost perfect digital device, the iPod nano took Apple style to its logical conclusion with an unbelievably small and thin form factor, a gorgeous color screen, and excellent battery life. Along with Microsoft's Xbox 360, the nano was the gotta-have-it gadget of the 2005 holiday selling season.

Alas, the original iPod nano was not perfect. Most notably, the nano was scratch-tacular. Mine scratched within the first hour I had it: I stuck it in soft jeans pocket, left to meet some friends, pulled it out of my pocket, and sat there awestruck as I discovered that it was already mussed up. What's amazing about this--to me, anyway--is that I was already well aware at how easily iPods get scratched, so I really babied the thing. But there was nothing I could do about it: The original nano would scratch badly if you just looked at it funny, as evidenced by the lawsuits that arose out of this issue.

The scratching problem was made all the more problematic by the fact that Apple didn't ship even an el-cheapo carrying case for the nano in the box with the device (though it later did rectify that), and there were no Apple or third party nano cases available for almost two months. So anyone who bought a nano on day one--like I did--ultimately got screwed. Apple was so excited to get this thing out the door that it apparently never considered the problems it would cause by not having an add-on market in place at launch.

Scratching aside, the nano was--and still is--a beautiful device. I liked it so much, in fact, that I also bought a white one for my wife, though by that time enough cases and other protective accessories had appeared that we didn't need to worry about scratching it per se.

Over the ensuing months, rumors circulated that Apple was going to replace the iPod's sleek case with an aluminum version similar to that used with the iPod mini, and that the company would offer an 8 GB version to the high end of the iPod mini line. These rumors, as it turns out, were all true.

Enter the second generation nano

At a special "Showtime" event earlier this month, Apple unveiled a number of new digital media products, all of which are built around its iTunes 7 and iTunes Store online service, which now offers an amazing array of content, including music, audio books, TV shows, music videos, podcasts and video podcasts, and Hollywood movies. At the event, Apple CEO Steve Jobs also unveiled the company's latest iteration of iPod devices. There are slightly updated iPods (sometimes called iPod with video; these are the full-sized iPods), a radically different iPod shuffle (which I'll review when it arrives in November), and new, second generation iPod nanos.

The new iPod nano is similar in size and shape to the previous nano, and it retains the odd, off-centered iPod Dock Connector on its bottom, next to the headphone jack. Confusingly, the new nano is available in three "trim" levels, each of which comes in a few different colors. For $149, you can grab a 2 GB version in a silver case. In the middle of the lineup is a 4 GB version, which costs $199 and is available in silver, green, blue, and pink. At the top of the heap is the new 8 GB nano. This unit is available only in black and costs $249.

A couple of comments on the selection: First, prices are lower this time around. With the previous generation, $249 netted only 4 GB of storage, so that's a nice improvement. Given how vocal I've been about Apple overcharging for iPods, I think it's fair to now admit that iPod pricing, finally, is in line with what I'd expect for these kinds of devices.

Second, I don't understand why people who want to buy the most expensive nano are limited to black. I like the black nano, but I suspect a lot of people will want a more customized experience, and Apple should make all the color variations available at the high end. Obviously.

The version I purchased was a green 4 GB unit. Compared to the previous nano, the new version is just a bit and thinner, very light, and the outer casing is pleasingly cool to the touch. The scroll wheel is made of white plastic, so it's easy to feel your way around the device without having to look at it. And yes, Apple has solved the previous nano's only major problem: Thanks to the aluminum shell, the new nano is no longer scratch-happy. Yippee.

Compared to the iPod with video, the iPod nano is smaller all around, and that may be a problem for people with large hands (like me). That is, the nano's scroll wheel is small enough that it's easy to press onto two different controls at the same time (say, the middle Select button and the Fast Forward button on the scroll wheel). I've had to adopt a lighter touch to use the device reliably. Since I have freakishly large hands, however, I won't hold that against Apple: I suspect most people will have no issues using the nano's controls.

The screen is tiny, too, as before, but is now noticeably brighter. Despite its small size, the nano's screen is easily read thanks to its clean font and good contrast.

One issue that potential nano owners should be aware of is that many of the best features of the iTunes Store are not available. More specifically, the nano is primarily a music (well, audio) device. Yes, Apple does allow you to synchronize photos with the nano (though wanting to do so is debatable because of the small screen). But the movies, TV shows, video podcasts, and iPod games that Apple is currently touting will not work with the nano. They are designed specifically for the larger screen on the iPod with video.

The nano isn't without its additions, however. There are built-in games like Brick, Music Quiz, Parachute, and Solitaire (only the iTunes Store-bought games are not available), a nice built-in stopwatch, contacts and calendar synchronization options, and the availability of a separate Nike+iPod package that lets you combine Nike running shoes with a special hardware device and your iPod nano to provide a complete workout solution.

The nano's unique size makes it a natural for the gym, and it's proven to be an able companion, like its predecessor, on my daily turns on the elliptical trainer. Apple sells a new version of its iPod nano lanyard, which attaches to the device's iPod Dock Connector: The nano hangs upside down and you can use the integrated ear pods to listen to music as you go. I'm not a big fan of ear buds, and Apple's have always been noticeably bad, but the new versions that are included with the new nano are actually pretty nice. Instead of pull-on foam bud covers, the new versions feature an integrated rubber ring. They're better sounding, for one, but they also feel better in the ear.

From a battery life perspective, the nano is fantastic. I haven't done a full range of tests yet, but Apple has bumped the official single charge lifetime to 24 hours, which puts the nano on par with the best the competition has to offer. Certainly, I've never been able to drain the thing in even the longest listening sessions.

Synchronizing with the PC

The new iPod nano requires iTunes 7 or newer, though it curiously doesn't come with the software, thanks to its new super-small packaging. Don't consider that a cheap move on Apple's part, however: iTunes is updated so often that a CD-based installer would just be out of date by the time you bought it anyway.

What's new this time around is that iTunes also handles the iPod management duties that used to be relegated to a separate iPod Updater application. That means that iTunes is now, quite logically, your one-stop-shop for all your iPod activities. And thankfully, Apple has moved its iPod configuration tools out of a hard-to-find preferences dialog and put them front and center in the iTunes UI itself. When you connect an iPod nano to the PC via the included USB cable, iTunes jumps to life and sets up synchronization. You can automatically sync with your entire media library, if its small enough. Otherwise, iTunes will create an automatic sync playlist. Or you can manually tell it which playlists and other content you'd like to sync.

As described in my iTunes 7 review, the new iPod management interface is graphical, beautiful, and highly useable. With the nano, you'll see sections like Summary (overview of what's on the nano, its firmware version, and various sync options), Music (for determining which songs and playlists will be copied to the device), Podcasts, Photos, and Contacts (which actually handles both contacts and calendar).

Conclusions

The second generation iPod nano is the best small-sized portable media player on the market today, and it builds on the excellence of its predecessor by fixing the scratching problem that marred previous versions while improving the battery life, providing a rainbow selection of colors from which to choose, and offering a lower price. Is the iPod nano perfect? Nothing ever is, but the nano comes as close as is imaginable given its small form factor. If you're looking for a companion at the gym, while running, during a commute, or on a plane, you could do a heck of a lot worse than the iPod nano. It's unlikely, however, that you could do any better. Highly recommended.