How my 2006 iPod Nano is getting me through lockdown

Getty Images / Kieran Walsh

When the lockdown was first announced and everyone quickly began looking for small home comforts to keep us entertained, some turned to Netflix while others invested hours in the Nintendo Switch. For me, there was only one thing that could help me navigate these dark times: my 14-year-old iPod Nano.

I was given the second generation iPod as a gift for my 23rd birthday in 2006. Until that point, I had never used an MP3 player before, having been welded to my Sony Discman. As the years passed, though, I turned to my still-shiny blue iPod for long walks, gym workouts and lazy Sunday listening sessions. During this past month spent revisiting books and comfort watching old films, it has proved a reliable companion for self-isolation and working from home. In fact, it feels custom-made for life under lockdown, given that it’s filled with 2,000 of my favourite songs.

I take the Nano out with me during my government-sanctioned daily walk through my neighbourhood. My husband occasionally joins me but we usually take separate trips so that we each get some alone time. I’m also quite content to leave my iPhone at home as a means of escape from the horrific daily news cycle and mindless social media scrolling. Since my current mood seems to alternate between curiously zen and highly agitated, the music I play during my walks varies widely. Air’s Moon Safari is my current go-to ‘old’ album; Rihanna, Daft Punk and Metallica are all on heavy rotation.

When it comes to audio, I’m not completely stuck in the ‘00s. I own a mixture of the old and new: multi-room Panasonic speakers, Jabra wireless earbuds. I do use Spotify to discover new music but, like a lot of people, my attempts to group and organise albums to my liking have always failed as a result of its heavy focus on playlists.

While I’m always playing around with the AV settings on my TV and MacBook, I have zero interest in changing my iPod’s settings in any way. I’m impressed by the many hacks and mods still going, involving everything from Pac-Man games to scratchless screens, but I’ve never bothered with any of them. The UI, audio settings and even the wallpaper has remained virtually identical throughout the years – which is exactly how I like it.

I won’t pretend for a second that all the albums on there are critical masterpieces. It’s hard to say why I feel so much more comfortable listening to guilty pleasures and old classics by Mika, Celine Dion and Avril Lavigne on the iPod; it might be the sheer accessibility of the playful, low stakes design or simply the habit I’ve formed over a decade and a half.

One of the reasons I hold this particular tech object so dear is because it was given to me by a relative, who has since died and is very much missed. It’s a simple way for me to remember their generosity and kind nature. I am still able to upload tracks on to the player but I prefer to keep it as a time capsule, playing albums that evoke memories of that time in my early twenties when I moved from Bournemouth to south London.

Aesthetics were, of course, one of key drivers behind the iPod Nano’s initial success. While the first version, released in 2005, was available in black or white, later generations were available in flashy pink, blue and lime green, ostensibly to allow iPod owners to express their personality. The metallic aqua shade of my own device? Cheerful yet placid.

I felt the beloved iPod Classic was somewhat clunky looking while the Nano was tiny but powerful (for the time) with a colour screen and Apple’s trademark click wheel. It’s easy to forget now but the original genius of this was that skipping or pausing a track didn’t require you to remove the device from your pocket – a godsend when travelling on a packed tube.

Don’t forget, the Nano sold 14 million units over 2005’s festive period alone. It continued for seven generations and, according to Apple, comfortably outsold other iPod models throughout most of its lifecycle. Many of the upgrades, such as being able to double-click the home button, were incorporated into the iPod Touch. Although I owned a Touch for a while, I ended up missing the more compact model. The iPod Nano was finally discontinued in 2017, having had no significant updates since 2012, and there’s no current iOS support.

Since so much of this device’s appeal is tied to nostalgia, it made me wonder what it would actually be like to listen to brand new music on it. Dua Lipa’s new album Future Nostalgia felt appropriate so I downloaded it from iTunes and listened to it in its entirety on my iPod.

Actually opening up iTunes and using it to buy an album felt like stepping back in time. The process felt odd, annoying and time-consuming, mainly down to its notoriously clunky interface. I’ve never enjoyed using iTunes, but it was always a necessary evil for iPod owners. Back in 2006, iTunes did at least have some relevance to youth culture, but now – unlike the hardware – it feels very outdated and stale.

The Dua Lipa album is perfect for dancing around the living room in my pyjamas, but the listening experience felt lacking somehow. It wasn’t quite as jarring as it could have been, given that many of the tracks were influenced by the same type of 80s pop and 90s dance that fills my iPod. It’s hard to put my finger on why I didn’t enjoy listening to the album on this device but it felt strange and uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s just that I turn to my iPod for familiarity, and even nostalgia-fuelled new music can’t provide that. When 2020 hits inevitably become my new earworms, it’s possible I’ll feel differently.

In the meantime, I’m trying to look forward to a time when I can venture out to hear live music in busy, noisy venues again. My love for the iPod Nano though, my most cherished piece of obsolete tech, will endure for years after the lockdown ends.

Retrograde is a regular column in which WIRED staff and contributors write about the tech they’ve lived with for years and refuse to upgrade. Read about still playing the Dreamcast here.

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