I recently bought a space gray iPod nano. It wasn't even on display here at the local Apple Store in Los Angeles; I had to ask an employee to retrieve one from the back; he responded with a raised eyebrow.
I was going to explain that I'd finally given up my car, am now taking mass transit, and just want a device to listen to music on. I could have told him I'd owned a couple of iPod models between 2001 and 2012 and found them to be pretty decent music players.
Instead, I just reiterated my request. "I'd like an iPod nano, please."
He asked if I would instead be interested in the vast array of shiny, newer, and much more expensive Apple gadgets on display. But I didn't want an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, or even an iPod touch.
I shook my head, and he still looked baffled. I finally said streaming music on my current smartphone (a Galaxy Note 5) drains the battery and I have 2,000-plus tracks locked to an old iTunes account. He nodded, realized this would be a swift sale, and disappeared to dig one out. I sat down to wait and eavesdrop on the various Genius Bar tutorials.
When the iPod nano arrived, I was shocked at how, well, nano it is. It's two-thirds the dimensions of a driver's license and doesn't weigh much more than a box of matches. I had a nice pang of nostalgia at the classic user interface while unboxing, though there's really not much to unbox.
Oh dear. Not so fast. One thing I'd forgotten about Apple is it likes to keep you locked into the ecosystem. The iPod nano requires connecting to a compatible device to sync with the iTunes platform; it won't do so remotely over Wi-Fi. Apple doesn't even provide a wall socket charger in the small hard plastic case, just a USB connector, headphones, and a paper-based set-up guide.
Luckily, I have a graveyard tech drawer at home. I rummaged around and found an old iPod charger, but I wasn't sure my abandoned Mac laptop could cope with a sync. Last year, I quit my MacBook Air for a Samsung Chromebook—a bold decision I'm still happy with. But the iPod couldn't talk to the Chromebook, so I pulled out the old Mac laptop.
A bit of fiddling and a (labored) upgrade to macOS Sierra and iTunes 12 later, and I was in business. Before connecting the iPod nano, I removed the sort of embarrassing tracks that were all the rage a decade ago, stripped out previous movies and TV episode purchases (the screen is too small and my nano only has 16GB of space, after all), and subscribed to my favorite podcast: BBC Radio 5's Kermode and Mayo's Film Review. I did the sync and it worked beautifully.
On LA's Metro Expo Line, halfway between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica, I went down memory lane with my old playlists. I remembered that 2009 layover in Lisbon airport, with my feet up on the wheelie Samsonite, sourcing tracks to keep me company on the journey back to the US.
There was one I didn't remember, at first, called "BERLIN." It turned out to be the playlist I'd had on repeat during the six-hour train ride from The Netherlands to Germany. Border control guards stormed the train looking for undocumented immigrants as I was listening to Fade to Grey by Visage. It all came flooding back.
I found long-forgotten mixtapes from friends, both to celebrate (birthdays, career successes, moving across the world) or commiserate (firings, heartbreak, and post-surgery). When I first flew to Beijing, I'd asked my colleagues to send me links so I could buy what was in the People's Republic of China "Top 20." They made me a playlist for the trip and sent it via file transfer. Co-workers abroad made me playlists before I went to meet them on business travel trips to Latin America and Seoul.
These playlists are why I wanted an iPod nano; nothing more complex or advanced. I just wanted the music: chosen by me, or music given to me, by people who get me. I've tried various streaming services and I'm not a big fan of the algorithm as DJ in its current state of play.
Is there anything I don't like about the iPod nano? Yes. There's no search function or back button. The start screen isn't customizable, so I can't remove the icons I don't want, like fitness, live radio, and photos. Plus, I really hate Apple's Earpods, though that's easy enough to fix.
Still, considering the nano cost less than $150, I feel churlish complaining. I just wanted something to play music on, and that's exactly—no more, no less—what it does. I swipe my Metro "Tap" card, put my phone on silent, select a playlist, and slip into aural bliss. Sometimes single-purpose retro tech is all you need.