After an Apple mole leaked a picture of the somewhat chubby new iPod nano on the intertubes before the computer company's illustrious leader could make its birth announcement, some were in two minds about the upcoming device. After all, it represented a drastic departure from the previous cigar case form factor of the 2nd generation model.
Now it's out in the wild, the commotion over those initial images seems somewhat overblown, as familiarity with the wee dimensions of this 3rd generation nano has done away with early worries.
We could go on about the device's new features, particularly those only previously found on the iPhone (Cover Flow, for example, makes a welcome appearance and performs pretty well) but what we're really interested in here are the latest nano's gaming credentials.
Out of the box, the nano offers three games: iPod Quiz is essentially a general knowledge music quiz; Klondike is a rendering of the popular single-player card game; and Vortex rounds the trio off with a version of Breakout adapted around the nano's circular controller.
Whilst you are also able to purchase new games from the iTunes store, the new generation iPods are not compatible with games you may have downloaded for older models. But even biting the bullet and attempting to re-buy them is problematic as (at the time of writing) the majority of games have not yet been converted for the new hardware.
If you have played games on previous iPods then you'll be familiar with the general fare on offer here. Last year, Apple attempted to make a big splash with its arrival in the games market, which turned out to be more of a plop as the company struggled to perpetuate its initial enthusiasm. The resulting 'quality over quantity' approach, if we term it as such, has meant few gamers will be aware or interested in iPod gaming.
Which is something of a missed opportunity as many of the games on offer provide a very playable experience that includes all the features we expect from modern portable games.
Unlike its direct predecessors, the 3rd generation nano introduces a new physical form factor into the mix, though one that has not necessarily been designed with the gamer in mind. The unit's Click Wheel (although technically it no longer clicks) may be excellent at list selection and bar sliding, but it's not quite so good at supplying directional input. Being round, it simply doesn't lend itself to the rigid left/right/up/down structure of many games.
What's more, the nano's diminutive version of the wheel further accentuates this problem as anyone with anything but minute digits will find themselves mashing around, trying to get comfortable with the controls.
Playing any game with more of an action focus, such as Vertex, we quite often lost track of where our thumb was on the controller. There isn't enough of a physical border between the edge of the ring and the case to detect when we'd inadvertently slipped of the usable surface. Additionally, we found that when we sometimes needed a rapid movement in a last-ditch attempt to save the ball, the movement had not registered at all.
The wheel's button clicking mechanic also presented problems. Its minimal travel makes it hard to tell whether you've made the 'click'. This and the previous comments may seem like minor quibbles, but when you go from the nano back to the PSP's (new) D-pad or the wonderful buttons on the DS, there is a world of difference.
The final aspect of gaming on the nano to consider is the device's overall footprint. Because of its reduced height in comparison to the older model or the hard disk-based iPods, the 3rd generation nano is remarkably hard to hold. Its size suggests you should hold it in the palm of your hand and control the game with your thumb, however this proves difficult as its diminutive dimensions and sleek back mean that the poor little thing is poised to ping out of your grip like a bar of soap at inopportune moments.
As silly as it sounds, we ended up playing the games on the desk, or at least using two hands. But while that stopped us from dropping our shiny new nano on the floor, but it didn't cure the issue that the device's small size means extended play will unavoidably lead to cramping for most people.
Obviously, the nano has not been designed with the gamer in mind. The games on an iPod – any iPod – are there as a convenient distraction rather than a key feature. We wouldn't mind so much, were it not for Apple's rhetoric about entering the gaming space. Because the moment you make that kind of claim, you have to be prepared to be judged by the criteria applied to the other players in the field.
And on that basis, of course, we can hardly recommend the nano. Apple may yet fully enter the handheld space – it's going to become too large a sector for it to simply ignore – but for now gaming on the iPod only makes sense if you ignore the company's marketing trumpet. No one is going to buy the nano for the games, then, but they are a nice little bonus.