While the late 2010 iPod touch is almost a no-brainer, its stable mates--the new iPod shuffle and iPod nano--are more of a mixed bag. Each is highly portable, and perhaps even smaller than is necessary. And each is unequivocally beautiful and minimalist in the way that all Apple hardware products are beautiful and minimalist.

Sadly, and unlike the iPod touch, neither is best of breed. With the iPod shuffle, yes, Apple has thankfully returned the clickwheel from two years ago, once again providing some semblance of on-the-go, no-look controls that provide real feedback. So it's ideal again for those that want to listen to audio (and have simple needs) when working out. If you do need a screen but it a very portable, workout-friendly package, Apple provides the new iPod nano, which isn't really a nano at all but is rather now a big iPod shuffle ... with a screen. But it's a touch screen, which is ridiculous on a device that's the size of a cracker, and while it looks somewhat like iOS ... it's not.

Compromises abound with Apple's new entries in the low end of the portable media player market.

iPod shuffle 5G

Apple released the first generation iPod shuffle back in late 2005, and I actually really liked it despite the lack of a screen. It was the type of device that could hold only a single playlist, so it was really simple and arguably ideal for jogging or working out. Over time, of course, Apple mucked around with the shuffle, turning the screen-less device into a hard-to-control mess. It first went to a tiny, tiny design in 2006, necessitating a separate docking station (i.e. something else to lose) for PC sync. But in early 2009, out of band with its normal iPod release schedule, Apple completely ruined the shuffle, introducing a control-less design that was even tinier than its predecessor. It, too, required a separate losable cable for sync and relied on VoiceOver cues to function, thanks to the removal of the physical controls. Please.

Apple iPod shuffle and iPod nano (Late 2010)
The new iPod shuffle, with sync cable.

 

Well, it's 2006 all over again: Apple has "redesigned" the iPod shuffle and now it's almost exactly like the version from four years, with a prominent click wheel controller back on its front where God intended. This is vastly preferable to the voice-only silliness that Apple subjected its poorest customers to for the past two years, but a curious reversal for the company. (Not unprecedented, however. After foisting the "fat boy" iPod nano on customers in late 2007, it returned to the previous, 2006, design in 2008.)

Apple iPod shuffle and iPod nano (Late 2010)
Four generations of iPod shuffle compared: 4th gen (top, black), 5th gen (blue), 2nd/3rd gen (silver), and first gen (white).

Of course, we're talking about Apple here, so the new shuffle is even smaller than the 2006/7 versions, and instead of a mini dock, it utilizes the same mic-to-USB mini-cable for sync that the previous, voice-only models used. That's fine, though a pop-out USB connector would be vastly superior and impossible to lose.

Overall, there isn't much to say about the shuffle, as usual. It's a great deal for most consumers, at least those with simple, audio-only needs, and comes with a great price tag, just $50 for 2 GB of storage.

iPod nano 5G

Previous iPod nanos were jack of all trades devices, offering a myriad of functionality. But this year's model is an interesting retreat from previous nanos. Now, it's mostly a music-only device. The new nano loses the video playback, camera, and video capture support from the previous version. It is now, as noted earlier, essentially an iPod shuffle with a screen. And maybe that's the point: Apple customers who want a full-featured device now have just one choice, the iPod touch. Fortunately, it's a good one.

Physically, the nano is surprisingly small, roughly twice the size of the shuffle and about the dimensions of a cracker, though thicker. It's got a completely touch-based UI, which is interesting though not so useful on such a tiny screen. And it's not running the iOS system that's found in Apple's iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad, so there's no App Store compatibility.

Apple iPod shuffle and iPod nano (Late 2010)
The new iPod nano, with packaging.

Because of the touch screen, the iPod nano is no longer ideal as an in-pocket player. That's because there's no tactile feedback for volume/song changes. So you're going to have to start a playlist going, lock it, and then put it away. Any changes will require looking at, and touching, the screen.

The screen, though only 1.5-inches across, is decent. It can display just four iOS-type icons at a time, and it supports a number of touch and multi-touch gestures. For example, you can swipe left and right to see another screen of icons, and a left swipe is usually the "back" equivalent. Touch and hold is used to return to home screen or, on an individual icon, to rearrange icons. And you can actually rotate the display using two fingers, so that the screen is always "correct" depending on how it's clipped on your clothes. That's a neat touch.

Apple iPod shuffle and iPod nano (Late 2010)
The new nano (green) and shuffle (blue) compared.

While the nano is mostly about audio--it supports music and podcasts, of course, but also has an FM radio and a built-in pedometer--it can also display photo slideshows. This is slightly less than thrilling because of the tiny screen. But the radio and pedometer (and support for the extra-cost Nike + iPad kit) make the nano an ideal workout companion, assuming you don't mind setting it to play and then leaving it alone.

The iPod nano is reasonably priced. An 8 GB model is $150, while the 16 GB version is a better deal at $180.