I am old enough to remember the wonder that was the new Sony Walkman personal cassette player. I clearly recall walking down the street in Clinton, NY while listening to a friend’s borrowed Walkman, and marveling at the experience of carrying around my own personal soundtrack. Listening to it lent a hyper-real aspect to everything before my eyes… it was almost trippy. The Walkman was one of the first mass-market products that allowed people to place a bubble around themselves; by shutting off your ears to the outside world, you’re insulated in the comfortable cocoon of your own music choices. Cut to many years later, and you can’t pass through any city or town street, shopping mall, train platform, gym, or grocery store without seeing those telltale white cords hanging from people’s ears — and oftentimes the listener’s hands are texting. It’s almost as if people can’t just chill to the music anymore — all of these “digital lifestyle” options out there encourage multitasking in what used to be downtime.
I’ve got absolutely no use for texting, but I still enjoy plugging into my own personal soundtrack now and then. I just bought the new iPod nano, after having dropped my old one and rendered it useless. This latest generation nano has an all-new design, for the first time featuring multi-touch controls and a roughly 1.5 by 1.5 inch clip-on body. I wore it yesterday at the gym while using the treadmill, and I’ve got to say I think the design geniuses at Apple have actually made the iPod too small. I know past generations of the iPod shuffle have been smaller, but they didn’t seem too small because they were clearly meant for limited listening use – not much space there for tons of songs – and also in their favor were the actual physical buttons that you could use while running/walking/whatever. One needed only to reach down and feel where the cord came into the unit, and from there touch the “forward” or “back” or “volume up/down” area. Simple. But the new nano dispenses with most of the physical buttons in favor of the more jazzy touch-screen and a “shake” function to shuffle to the next tune. This shaking business is a little silly, and I felt a bit foolish trying to administer the proper amount of shaking in order to get the tune to skip to the next selection. It also shuffled itself on me a few times while I was running, without my go-ahead. I learned that this shake function can be deactivated, thankfully.
I think the 2nd generation-and-up nanos were the perfect size… up until this present version. Previously, it had a pleasing shape and weight – you could hold it in your hand and it felt good: lighter than a pack of cards, but not so light as to seem inconsequential. Controls could be used without having to look at the iPod… and unless you’re using the shake-to-shuffle function on the new version, you’ll have to look at the screen and touch/tap your way to the next song. But here’s the thing: it’s so small you have to use two hands to hold the unit and tap the unit. I guess you could get a wriststrap and free up a hand that way, but I always liked just slipping the nano in my pants pocket or clipping it on the waist of my pants. If you wear it on your wrist, then you’ve got the cord swinging around between your wrist and your ears, and that can be annoying.
Will Apple go smaller still? Is smaller always better? I don’t think so. I think Apple just bypassed the sweet-spot of size vs.weight vs.functionality with the new nano. That said, it is really really cool to have 16 gigabytes of listening pleasure in so small a package. It’s not quite the flying-car of the future that I dreamed about as a kid, but it’s an impressive product in its own way, one that we would have been slack-jawed to see 30 years ago. (So why do I feel a little silly using it? )