Apple Computer's iPod wasn't the first digital-music player on the scene, or even the first one to include a hard drive to store songs.

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Apple Computer’s iPod wasn’t the first digital-music player on the scene, or even the first one to include a hard drive to store songs. But its smooth design and small size captured people’s attention — and the market. Now, every new device that can play music is a potential “iPod killer,” adding features few people seem to want, such as built-in FM tuning and video playback.

It turns out, however, that the real iPod killer is Apple itself. Last week, the company eliminated its top-selling model, the iPod mini, and topped itself with the iPod nano, an even smaller device that becomes the new target dangled in front of the competition.

By snatching away one success and replacing it with a model that I think will be equally popular, Apple has performed quite the magic trick. It has redefined, largely through superior design, what people want in a portable music player. It’s a remarkable feat considering that the iPod nano eliminates a few of the iPod mini’s signature features, such as FireWire data synchronization, remote connector and color-case varieties, but makes up for them with a color screen, a few software additions and that wonderful new size.

The iPod nano features the same styling as the current iPod line, with a metal back, color screen, Click Wheel navigator and a front face that’s available in white or black. It’s only 1.6 inches tall and 3.5 inches wide, but the real attractions are its 1.5-ounce weight and (lack of) thickness: 0.27 inches, or, as Apple points out, the width of a No. 2 pencil. (I’m imagining Apple’s marketing bullpen stocked with all manner of objects to use for future size comparisons: “What about a shag rug? A refrigerator magnet? I know, a pencil!”)

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The $200 model includes 2 gigabytes of storage (using flash memory instead of a small hard drive, meaning that dropping it won’t risk data loss), and the $250 model includes 4 GB of storage, the same price point and capacity as the late iPod mini when it was introduced.

2 things to know

In most respects, the iPod nano performs like the full-size iPod. Sound quality is excellent, with support for several audio formats; most important, this includes Apple’s proprietary Protected AAC format used by songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store, which can’t be played back on non-Apple devices.

The familiar iPod software navigation makes it easy to locate music, thanks largely to what I believe is the least-heralded but most important interface element: the variable scrolling speed as you run your finger around the Click Wheel (a detail an Apple engineer once told me was one of the hardest parts of the iPod to nail down).

However, I should point out two things: People unfamiliar with the iPod initially press the next-song button instead of the center button to advance to menu items, a problem that goes away as you use it more; and, because of the small overall size of the iPod nano, people with larger fingers are likely to find the smaller Click Wheel a bit awkward.

Apple claims up to 14 hours of music playback per battery charge or up to four hours if you’re playing music along with a photo slide show, impressive given that the regular iPod gets about 15 hours of life with a larger battery.

Photo display a plus

The iPod nano uses the same dock connector introduced in the third-generation iPod models, but it supports only USB for data transfer and iTunes synchronization. If you own a FireWire cable from another iPod, you can use it to charge the iPod nano’s built-in battery, but not sync. This limitation also means some iPod accessories that use FireWire, such as Apple’s iPod Camera Connector or Belkin’s photo-input devices, won’t work with the nano. Most other accessories that use the dock connector should work fine.

Because the iPod nano doesn’t include the remote connector jack found on the iPod and the iPod mini, accessories such as Griffin Technology’s iTrip or iTalk won’t work. Last, unlike the current iPod color models, you won’t be able to display photos on a television or projector with the iPod nano; Apple considers that a more-advanced feature, one worth spending more for a regular iPod. Speaking of photos, I’m smitten by the capability to view pictures on the iPod nano’s sharp color screen.

Cool additions

The iPod nano sports a few features iPods don’t have: a screen lock lets you dial in a four-digit combination and prevent access (though connecting to a computer via USB overrides it), an expanded clock can track several times around the world and a stopwatch timer makes the iPod nano a better exercise companion than the iPod shuffle. I also like that if you unplug the headphones while listening to music, the iPod nano automatically pauses.

Another addition unique to the iPod nano is support for the new Lyrics field in iTunes 5, which Apple also released last week as a free download. If a song includes lyrics, pressing the center button on the iPod nano displays them (press the button repeatedly to cycle through the current play status, the scrubber bar, album art, lyrics and song rating).

To get those lyrics, download Chris J. Shull’s Get Lyrical AppleScript script (www.dougscripts.com/itunes/scripts/ss.php?sp=getlyrical) for iTunes 5. Now you can understand what your favorite artists are singing!

I’m a design geek, so when Apple releases a product this small and this wonderfully well-engineered, I’m hooked. That the iPod nano provides nearly all the features offered by the full-fledged iPod makes it all the more appealing.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.