Apple iPod nano (Sixth-Generation) - The Square Screen and new Interface

As shiny and pleasant as the new iPod nano’s casing may be, the new screen and user interface are the parts that will generate the most discussion. With 240x240 resolution, the square screen measures under 1.25 inches per side and 1.54 inches on the diagonal, smaller than any screen since before the nano gained video capabilities in 2007. The new display has a resolution of 220 pixels per inch, which is higher than the 163ppi iPhone 3GS and its 2009 peers, and a little higher than the last three iPod nanos (204 ppi), but not as high as the new 326ppi “Retina Displays” in the iPhone 4 and new iPod touch.
Numbers aside, the dots on the iPod nano screen are plenty small, and squeeze more into a small space than ever before. The new screen’s viewing angles are nearly as impressive as the iPhone 4’s, so you can see the interface even if you’re looking at the nano on a fairly sharp off-angle. With a peak brightness level comparable to past nanos, artwork pops with color, and though both text sizes and empty space suffer by comparison with the iPhone and iPod touch, Apple has achieved some generally impressive visual compromises here.

It’s obvious after spending time with the new nano that the company’s user interface designers spent plenty of time thinking about how to make a compelling touchscreen experience for a device this small, and for the most part, they’ve succeeded—as we’ll note again later, the issue with the new nano isn’t so much what it does as what it doesn’t do. Apple has replicated the core of the iPhone and iPod touch interface with a set of swiped Home Screens that contain grids of icons—2 by 2 at most, with the ability to hold down any icon and change its location within the Home Screens. Little dots at the bottom of each screen let you know how many more screens are available to the left or right. There’s no Unlock Screen, but Apple lets you choose the nano’s wallpaper from a set of nine built-in images, without offering the option to substitute your own photos—a small disappointment.
Four Home Screens are available when you first turn on the iPod nano, and they’re largely occupied with icons devoted to items that appeared under the “Music” menus of prior iPod nanos: Playlists, Now Playing, Artists, and Genius Mixes are on the first screen, followed by Radio, Podcasts, Photos, and Settings on the second, Songs, Albums, Genres, and Composers on the third, plus Fitness and Clock alongside two blank spots on the fourth screen. Plugging in an accessory with a microphone creates a new icon called Voice Memos, replicating the long-time iPod nano voice recording feature with some small tweaks. Using iTunes to synchronize an audiobook to the iPod nano creates a sixteenth icon called Audiobooks. There’s no delete button for icons you don’t want to see; they just need to be moved onto different pages.

Giving each of these modest features its own icon may sound a little crazy, but Apple obviously took this route for two reasons: first, the icons make the iPod nano look like it has a lot of features, which it doesn’t, and they’re better than the alternative—largely white scrolling screens with black text, just like the prior iPod nanos. That’s actually what you’ll see after clicking on most of the icons, with extra white space to accommodate the imprecision that fingers introduce relative to wheel-and-button-based track selection. Only three or four title, artist, or album names appear at once on the screen, which makes for a lot of swiping through lists unless you use the miniaturized alphabetical navigation bar on the right of the screen, a godsend that actually works pretty well if your finger’s not shaking. A list-scrolling interface that’s dependent on a thin jump bar is just one of the ways in which the new interface feels practical and iOS-consistent from a design standpoint, but less than ideal as a user experience.

Another is the way that Apple has tried to work around the absence of a Home Button, which has proved more convenient and versatile over the years than most early iPhone or iPod touch adopters could have imagined. With no Home Button, the iPod nano requires you to either swipe from left to right over and over again until you return to the Home Screen, or hold down on some empty space on the otherwise packed display until the Home Screen reappears. Since the empty space changes locations from screen to screen, sometimes in the middle and sometimes near an edge, you’ll always need to hunt for a place to hold your finger. It’s this kind of bizarre inconvenience—like needing to hit the last iPod shuffle’s play/pause button three times to go back a track—that shows how Apple’s hate of buttons has recently gone too far; adding just that one button would have saved a lot of frustration.
The last major oddity in the new iPod nano’s interface is its support—or lack thereof—for multi-touch gestures. Apple has touted the nano as a “Multi-Touch” device, but in reality, its screen is too small for more than two adult fingers to do anything but sit there simultaneously, so there’s only one two-finger gesture on the device. No, it’s not “pinch to zoom,” which might have made sense for the Photos feature, but rather “turn to rotate,” which is used to spin the entire interface 90, 180, or 270 degrees so that the screen can be read in any position the nano’s in. As before, the iPod nano has an accelerometer than could have done this automatically, but Apple doesn’t use it for this purpose.

Would it have made more sense to use the accelerometer here, just as in the last iPod nano, plus all iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches? Maybe, maybe not. The accelerometer was most noteworthy in past nanos because of a self-explanatory feature called Shake to Shuffle, and still does that here; the awkward angles a clipped nano may take when hanging off clothes might lead the screen to rotate unnecessarily. But the idea of calling the new nano “Multi-Touch” when rotating the screen is its only multi-finger gesture seems like overaggressive marketing; the nano might be capable of more, but as is, the advanced display offers almost no benefit to end users.
One final note on changes to the iPod nano user interface regards Accessibility, the collection of features designed to make the device usable by hearing- or visually-disabled listeners. Apple has brought over a couple of features from the iPhone and iPod touch—Mono Audio and the screen color-flipping White on Black—while keeping the text-to-speech VoiceOver system, and removing others, including support for larger fonts. Between the smaller-than-iPod touch, unscalable text used on Home Screen icons and other elements of the interface, and the removal of physical track-switching and play/pause buttons, our feeling is that the sixth-generation nano is a comparatively weak choice for disabled users relative to its predecessor.


iPod Touch - A Beauty of a Player Short on Battery Life

In the hyper-competitive world of consumer electronics, it’s highly unusual for one branded product to dominate its market for years on end. Yet, that’s what Apple‘s iPod media player, now approaching its sixth anniversary, has managed to do. One reason is that it has been reinvented continuously.
The latest iPod reinvention expands the line from three models to four, priced from $79 to $399, with capacities ranging from one gigabyte (roughly 240 songs) to 160 gigabytes (up to 40,000 songs.) And that doesn’t count the iPhone, Apple’s much-hyped cellphone, which also includes a full-blown iPod.
I’ve been testing the newest member of the iPod family, the big-screen iPod touch. It’s a close cousin to the iPhone that connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi wireless networking and replaces the famous iPod click wheel with a touch screen. It starts at $299, $100 less than the iPhone but with the same eight-gigabyte capacity. There’s also a 16-gigabyte iPod touch for $399.

Like earlier iPods, the touch is elegant and capable, and works smoothly with Apple’s free iTunes software for Windows and Macintosh PCs, as well as with its computer-based online iTunes Store, which sells far more downloaded songs and TV shows than any other legal outlet.
Not only that, but the touch introduces a mobile version of the iTunes store. It’s called the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, and it allows you to buy, right on the iPod, any of six million songs for the same price you’d pay on a computer. This portable store will soon be made available on the iPhone as well.
For all its beauty and functionality, the touch has some quirks and downsides. It’s the first iPod model I’ve ever tested that fell significantly short, in my tests, of Apple’s battery-life claims. It’s also the first iPod that lacks any physical buttons for controlling music playback.

The touch looks, at first glance, like an iPhone that can’t make phone calls. It’s a handsome, thin, black rectangle with a huge 3.5-inch screen — the same size and resolution as the iPhone’s gorgeous screen. But the touch is even thinner, and a bit shorter.

Like the iPhone, the touch has just one button on its face, a Home button, which takes you to the main menu, a series of beautiful square icons. And, like the iPhone, the touch has an on/off button along the top edge. Most everything else is controlled by Apple’s new “multitouchtouch screen interface, which includes a virtual keyboard for text entry.
But unlike the iPhone, the touch lacks volume-control buttons and a button on its earbuds for pausing or skipping songs. So you have to play, pause and skip songs by touching the screen. This is made easier by a feature the iPhone lacks (so far): If you double-click the home button, music controls appear on the screen, even if the screen is turned off. Still, you can’t control your touch by touch when you’re listening to music with the device in your pocket or purse.

In my tests, music and video playback went perfectly, and so did viewing photos. The Wi-Fi functions, including the Web browser, a YouTube video viewer and the new mobile store, also worked perfectly.
The touch is missing some Internet-oriented features from the iPhone that would work well over Wi-Fi. It lacks the iPhone’s email, mapping, stock tracking and weather programs. But its keyboard has a feature the iPhone lacks: As on a BlackBerry, you can insert a period by double-clicking the space bar.
Apple says the touch was meant mainly to present typical iPod features, not to replicate the iPhone, and it included the Web browser only so users could get onto Wi-Fi to use the mobile music store in certain places that required a log-in screen.

But it seems ridiculous to me to sell a powerful device with Wi-Fi and a huge screen, and to leave out things like an email program, even though you can use Web-based email programs. I assume Apple was concerned that the less costly touch might compete too much with the iPhone if it had these features. In fact, if somebody can jam a voice-over-Internet capability into the iPod touch, it might be more of a threat to the iPhone, which is tethered to a single cellphone carrier, AT&T.
The company claims that the touch can play music for up to 22 hours and video for up to five hours on a single battery charge, even with Wi-Fi turned on. But in my tests, using factory settings, music playback lasted just under 17 hours and video playback lasted just over four hours. Nearly every other iPod I’ve tested, including the new Nano, handily beat Apple’s battery claims.
Also, some early iPod touch units have had defective screens, where images appeared too dark. Apple says this problem affected a small number of units and is being remedied. My two test units displayed beautiful images.
Despite these downsides, the touch is a great media player, and the iPod remains the best end-to-end portable solution for playing and purchasing music and video.


Inside the Apple iPod Design Triumph

Steve Jobs is recognizably the top cheerleader for Apple's products. And the inventor of such hyperbole as "insanely great" has not abandoned that characteristic for the company's iPod MP3 player.

"With iPod, Apple has invented a whole new category of digital music player that lets you put your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go," the Apple CEO said when he introduced the product in October 2001. "With iPod, listening to music will never be the same again."

Although no one could accuse Apple, let alone Jobs, of being shy about product promotion, it's a different story when it comes to its engineering and building processes. The company has always been tighter lipped than the Pentagon when it comes to releasing design chain details.

But that hasn't prevented some companies from satisfying their curiosity about what's inside the advanced MP3 player. Some serious reverse engineering and discussion within the electronics industry unearthed unusual details of Apple's development process.

It turns out that much of the underlying iPod design was performed by outside companies. The Cupertino folk haven't given up on their heritage of design excellence—they're just bowing to some inevitable directions in consumer electronics by borrowing from established experts linked together for what may be the first design chain for the iPod.

A Unique Design Chain Approach
Realizing that the MP3 market was still in its infancy, Apple developed a layered design chain tuned for an early-stage market to create the iPod. Even more unusual for Apple, it relied on a platform and reference design created by a third party, PortalPlayer, of Santa Clara, Calif. Founded in 1999, PortalPlayer has a stellar cast of Silicon Valley executives and investors, including renowned venture capitalist Gordon Campbell.

PortalPlayer had developed a base platform for a variety of audio systems, including portable digital music devices, general audio systems and streaming audio receivers. It appears that Apple picked PortalPlayer because its design expertise yielded the highest quality of sound, according to industry sources.

Because of the unusually restrictive nondisclosure agreements in place among Apple, PortalPlayer and other members of the sub-design chain, key officials were not able to directly comment on their work with Apple. However, some members of the subchain provided Electronics Design Chain Magazine with a glimpse inside the iPod core.

Once Apple and PortalPlayer became design chain partners, PortalPlayer then selected other design chain members and managed the design process. Four key criteria were behind the selection of other members of the design chain, none unusual for a consumer electronics product:
• highest quality sound
• off-the-shelf components
• cost
• time to market
Under the Hood
The trail to find iPod's design chain starts with some reverse engineering of the device by Portelligent Inc., an Austin, Texas, firm providing product and technology intelligence for consumer electronics companies.

"First and foremost, the product was elegantly designed in classic Apple fashion," says David Carey, president of Portelligent. "They did product design from the outside in." Carey says the company had a vision of what the player should be and what it should look like. The subsequent design parameters were dictated by its appearance and form factor.

That outside-in perspective helped determine a number of the components, including the planar lithium battery from Sony and the 1.8-inch Toshiba hard drive, which is the only company presently manufacturing that form factor. The essential units—battery, hard drive and circuit board—are layered, one atop the next.

"It was very thoughtful layering and nesting of the components mechanically," Carey adds. "There's not a lot of unused volume inside [the iPod]."

The rest of the device uses a dedicated MP3 decoder and controller chip from PortalPlayer, a Wolfson Microelectronics Ltd. stereo digital-to-analog converter, a flash memory chip from Sharp Electronics Corp., a Texas Instruments 1394 firewire interface controller, and a power management and battery charging IC from Linear Technologies Inc.

What Apple conspicuously did not do is use an ASIC or other custom chip to integrate all the functions it needed onto one piece of silicon, which would have presumably saved space and battery life.

"Like with many of the systems being done today, it has time-to-market and risk-management issues," Carey notes. When a company moves to a custom system-on-chip, "you run the risk of a design flaw, and it's far cheaper to buy the best [components]."

PortalPlayer's vice president for marketing, Michael Maia, can't publicly disclose why Apple and PortalPlayer decided not to use an ASIC or discuss other aspects of the iPod design, but his description of a generic systems customer in the marketplace could be considered applicable to Apple.

"There's a range of customers out there, from an OEM that does all its own design internally to the right-hand side that do all their design through ODMs [original design manufacturers] in Asia," Maia says. "There are guys in the middle who may specify the product down to the semiconductor level and then have the ODM build it."

PortalPlayer decided to develop a reference model for a high-quality portable audio player based on a standard product design strategy. It developed a series of designs that enabled customization, and at the same time provided a stable environment, thereby eliminating the need to start design from scratch.

PortalPlayer's Winning Relationships
Part of PortalPlayer's design chain strategy is to offer development tools as well as to form relationships with third parties that offer other capabilities. The result is a series of reference designs for different applications along with roadmaps for current and future application capabilities.

"Customers can get access to that, and in that, we work very closely with select partners that we have carefully chosen for a host of reasons," says Maia. "Wolfson [for example] has what our minds and ears tell us are excellent quality codecs."

In addition, "Wolfson has excellent quality technology and a good price point," he notes. As a result, PortalPlayer and Wolfson Microelectronics became design chain partners for the audio player reference design.

The design process was a matter of a few months of iterative loops. PortalPlayer would use the Wolfson silicon in a prototype circuit, then go back to the Edinburgh, United Kingdom, company with any problems. "Once you've tried the device, we can hone in on the issues," says Julian Hayes, vice president of marketing at Wolfson. "We're fairly expert at solving problems these days."

PortalPlayer selected Linear Technologies of New York City for the power management because its technology is leading edge and also because there were preexisting ties between upper management of the two companies.

But PortalPlayer had to develop a working relationship with TI, a competitor in other areas, because Apple insisted that the Dallas-based company provide the 1394 chip.

The flash memory from Sharp, of Mahwah, N.J., shows a different relationship, as PortalPlayer considers itself "agnostic" when it comes to memory chip vendors.

Risk Reduction

Using a platform like PortalPlayer's, in which systems are designed and chip designs verified, offers fewer worries to a company that is in a rush to market. With the design chain approach it has taken, Apple avoided the technical challenges of integrating DRAM and logic processes.

"To do everything in one part is a complex, risky and potentially costly alternative to integration of available components at the electronic assembly level," Carey says. Certainly, custom work can offer cost reductions in large volume, but there are two countering considerations for a company like Apple.

One would be volume, according to Mike Paxton, senior analyst of converging markets and technologies at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based In-Stat/MDR.
"If you listen to Steve Jobs, he said they sold 125,000 in the fourth quarter [of 2001], which is impressive," given that the iPod only began to ship in October, Paxton says. By checking that figure against discussions with component suppliers, he decided that it was probably accurate. But while such sales, if kept constant for an entire year, would make Apple the second- or third-largest MP3 player manufacturer worldwide, the volume is small compared to more common uses of custom chips.

In addition, the IC costs for a device like the iPod won't dominate Apple's bill of materials. Carey estimates that the hard drive is at least 50 percent of the expense, so the advantage of bringing design in house or working with a single chip vendor instead of a more extensive design chain using a variety of outside suppliers is reduced.

The other consideration is the typical trade-off when doing custom work: flexibility in design and vendor selection versus the potentially low volumes and relatively high unit prices.

All for One
Apple's design chain relied on off-the-shelf components integrated in an elegant way. Even critical pieces such as the digital-to-analog converters (DAC) are off-the-shelf discrete devices. The DAC "is a standard component that was designed for Wolfson for portable music players," says Hayes. The Toshiba drive is another standard part.

"With iPod, Apple has invented a whole new category of digital music player that lets you put your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go." Steve Jobs, Apple Computer

Where the value rapidly accumulates is in the intelligent coordination among the vendors and integration of their products. The combination and linkage of the DAC to other components is where the PortalPlayer-Wolfson design chain provided real worth. "There's a lot of embedded stuff" inside the design, says Hayes. "It has some fairly complex DSP algorithms to enable the features of the products that Apple may or may not be taking advantage of."

Apple and PortalPlayer also relied on other key design chain partners. While the Toshiba drive, for example, uses a standard AT interface, the connector is a custom design. And it appears Apple relied on Toshiba for guidance about heat dissipation and shock tolerance.

The nondisclosure agreement between Apple and Toshiba precludes the disk drive maker from describing its design chain role. However, a source close to the design chain says Toshiba did contribute to the overall design.

Don't Count Apple Out

It would be a huge mistake to assume that all the design work happened elsewhere and that Apple had no substantial input. A reference design is far from having a finished product, even electronically. The ultimate circuit design was still Apple's, as far as any outsider can tell.

"The value is putting it all together and optimizing the design to eek out the best performance, get the best power utilization, the best audio performance," says Wolfson's Hayes. "That is not a trivial task by any means. Sometimes it's very difficult in a cost constrained [situation] and small form factor to get the performance." Factors that can influence the final sound can be the circuit board layout, the circuit design itself, the handling of the power supply and the overall implementation.

"It's a combination of all those things that create that high-quality performance," Hayes adds.

In his opinion, and in that of many reviewers, Apple hit a home run. "Certainly I think it's about the best audio quality we've come across for that type of product in the marketplace in terms of intrinsic audio quality and delivered audio quality," Hayes says.

Then there is the user interface design, which has received strong reviews for the implementation of a 1394 interface for music downloads so fast that it could make your head spin. And it's easy to use.

"It's a fantastic user interface," emphasizes Hayes. "It's by far and away the best user interface of any product of this type. It sets it apart from any of the other comparable MP3 players of its ilk."

Choosing a development platform allowed Apple to focus on its true genius for form factors and user interfaces. "Those two are Apple's strengths," says Vinay Asgekar, director of research for semiconductor and high tech at Boston-based AMR Research. "Apple knows how to make a high-tech product consumer friendly. That has been its core strength from the introduction of the Apple Macintosh. That could be its strategy for iPod."

Troubled Waters
With all the positives, is there a down side?

"Managing that activity [among multiple partners] becomes extremely difficult," says Asgekar, as projects become harder to coordinate. "You have to make sure your supplier's development and marketing roadmaps match up with your development and marketing roadmaps."

While PortalPlayer's Maia is restricted from discussing how Apple managed its iPod design chain, he was able to describe how systems houses in general work with the audio subsection designer. A drawback for Apple, and other systems houses relying on reference designs, is protection of its product and market space. When fundamental parts of the design are done by others, there is an almost certainty that competitors will eventually ship products using the same basic technology. Obviously, a company like PortalPlayer makes the same silicon, firmware, tools and reference designs available to many other companies.

While PortalPlayer provides designs on an exclusive basis for some customers, Maia hints that the guts of the iPod may appear in other devices soon. So although Apple has been the first of PortalPlayer's customers to ship products using the platform, many more are slated to introduce their own offerings by this summer.

No doubt subsequent versions of the iPod will yield a revised design chain as different components and optimizations are discovered and needed. But for now, Apple's first design chain strategy and product have been a success.


Erik Sherman writes about business and technology for such publications as Newsweek, US News and Technology Review. Reach him at esherman@designchain.com.

Apple iPod nano Deals

I was blown away by Apple’s latest iPod, the "nano". It’s a super-tiny device yet comes with a color LCD screen and clickwheel. There’s two versions, the 2gb (about 500 songs) or 4gb (about 1,000 songs). These things are as slim as a #2 yellow pencil and smaller even than the now discontinued iPod Minis. Oh! and they also include the photo features and other features currently only available on the nano.

I already own a 20Gb/click wheel model, and need more space than offered on the nano, but I’m very tempted to get one as a second unit. The color screens are gorgeous and being able to carry around some photos, tunes and my contacts in such a tiny form factor is appealing. I predict this new addition to the iPod family will be very popular with kids and teens.
I just got an offer by email from MacMall with some down and dirty pricing on these new pods:
iPod nano 2Gb - $194 - with free shipping, free transmitter and free engraving
iPod nano 4Gb - $244 - with free shipping, free transmitter and free engraving

Other features of the iPod nano:
Apple Click Wheel
• Holds up to 1,000 songs and full-color album art
• 1.5-inch (diagonal) color LCD with LED backlight
• Syncs iPod-viewable photos in JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, PSD (Mac only) and PNG formats
• Completely skip-free playback
• Holds up to 25,000 photos
• Works with Mac OS X or Windows 2000/XP
• Charges and syncs via USB
• Up to 14 hours of battery life

iPod AirPlay FM Transmitter

I finally bought an FM Transmitter for my 20Gb 4G iPod. After much research I settled on the XtremeMac Airplay (see mini review at AirPlay iPod FM Transmitter Review).

While not as sleek as the Griffin iTrip (which fits on top of iPods so well), it’s way easier to use (thanks to the illuminated LED tuner) and offers slightly clearer reception than the iTrip.
XtremeMac Airplay FM Transmitter

The Airplay iPod FM Transmitter is compatible with the following iPods:

* The new iPod with color display (20GB,60GB)
* iPod photo
* iPod U2
* iPod mini
* 4th Generation iPod with Click Wheel
* 3rd Generation iPod with touch wheel and buttons