iPod Photo: First Impressions

When Steve Jobs announced that the iPod Photo was available the day of its unveiling — last Tuesday — a quick check of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Apple Stores revealed that the device couldn’t be found for love nor money. Ah, but what a difference a day makes — at least for a few individuals lucky enough to track down the rare iPod Photos shipped to select stores.

My colleague, Dan Frakes, was one such individual who located a small cache of 60GB models at the new Oakridge Apple mini Stores (whose staff, Dan tells me, were amazingly helpful). Armed with a credit card and his editor’s words, “You want how many!?” ringing in his ears, he purchased two. One of them is in my possession.

Given that few of these iPods have made their way into the world, I thought I’d offer a few initial impressions. This isn’t the full review that will follow when we’ve had the time necessary to give the new iPod a thorough going over, but rather what I expected after Apple’s presentation and how this iPod has met those expectations.

Old and New

The Box

I’ve handled every iPod ever made and I noticed immediately how hefty the iPod’s box was compared to other boxes o’ iPods I’ve lifted. That extra bit of heft comes from an iPod that’s nearly as thick as the original 5GB iPod, the usual ingredients — a power supply, USB 2.0 cable, FireWire cable, Apple earbuds, and the little box of instructions (which includes, for the first time, the kind of white Apple decals that accompany a new Macintosh). The iPod Photo also includes a dock (with S-video connector along with the usual data/power connector and audio port), a case (yes, the same $39 Apple case you buy separately for other iPod models), and a heavy-duty A/V cable that features both composite video and left/right audio connections.

The Display

When lit indoors, the screen is delightfully bright. When the display dims down, however, it’s very difficult to discern what’s on the screen. Indoors I’ve successfully read the dimmed screen only by looking at it slightly off-axis. I haven’t had a chance to use it in the daylight, so reading it outdoors may be easier.

The screen looks so great when lit up that many will be tempted to disregard how little battery life they’ll get from a constantly glowing iPod. Even though color is only used to great degree in the iPod’s Play screen (when album art is present), Calendars, Games ( Solitaire is finally discernable enough to be playable), and, of course, Photo areas, all the menus look crisper thanks to the addition of color. Aiding this clarity is a taller and thinner font similar to what’s found on the mini. Oh, and the opening screen with a silver Apple logo against a black background is breathtaking.

Thumbnail images are very small — the iPod displays a 5 x 5 grid of thumbnails. Even at such a small size, you can differentiate photos if those photos are dissimilar. However, if you have variations of the same shot — you’ve taken a series of pictures with a camera’s rapid shot feature — you won’t be able to tell one image from another.

Photo Gallery

The clarity of “full sized” image depends on the brightness and composition of the shot. While my portraits photos look great — considering they are shown on a 2 inch display — it’s tough to make out the details on a couple of photos taken during one of my “gloomy landscapes under a cloudy sky” sessions.

Image in Window

The Wheel

The click wheel doesn’t seem to have the same “throw” as the fourth-generation iPod or iPod mini (meaning it doesn’t feel like it descends as far into the main unit when you press it). This makes not an iota of difference, just thought I’d mention it. And speaking of minutia, the click that the iPod emits is slightly higher pitched than the click on earlier iPods.

The wheel is very responsive, almost too responsive in the Thumbnail screen. It’s very easy to skip way past a picture that you’re trying to choose. It takes all of 30 seconds to learn to slow your thumb down to a more appropriate speed.

Expectations versus Reality

The iPod’s manual cleared up some confusion I had. For example, I assumed that if you attached a media card reader to the iPod, it would not only download pictures from the reader but also display those pictures on the iPod. Not so. The iPod stores its pictures in special thumbnail files. These files hold multiple pictures that are displayed on the iPod’s screen and an attached video output device (TV or camcorder). When you import photographs (either from a media reader or by storing the full resolution images on the iPod — an option in iTunes) those photos are stored in a Full Resolution folder inside the Photos folder that appears at the root level of the iPod.

The iPod-to-TV connection works well, though you have to be careful about the order you perform certain actions. For example, if you have a picture on the iPod’s screen and string the composite cable between the TV inputs and iPod, that picture won’t pop up on the TV. Rather, you have to make the connection and then start a slideshow by choosing a photo album and pressing Play.

The cable isn’t overly long — about five feet — so if you attach it to a TV with the expectation that you’re going to manually flip through your photos by pressing the iPod’s Forward control, be aware that on a big-screen box you’re going to feel a little too close to the action. An iPod remote control would be very welcome in this situation.

Doing Windows

I want to test this more thoroughly before coming to a final judgment, but I found this iPod to be far slower to sync on my Windows PC than on my Mac. Where it took the Mac about 30 minutes to synchronize a music library of nearly 3,000 songs, using a FireWire connection, the PC easily took twice as long. Again, these results are so far out of the norm for any other iPod that I’ve owned (and I’ve owned them all) that I really need to take another couple of turns at this.

Speaking of Windows, the manual threw a tiny scare into me when it stated:

“If you are using your iPod Photo with a Mac and want to use it with a Windows PC (or vice versa), you must restore the iPod Photo software for use with the other computer using iPod Photo Software Update[...]. You can not switch from using iPod Photo with a Mac to using it with a Windows PC (or vice versa) without erasing all data on iPod Photo.”

This has never been the case for other iPods. If you format your iPod for Windows, it mounts on a Mac and works almost exactly like an iPod formatted for the Mac (it syncs more slowly and you can’t boot from it). The same is true of the iPod Photo. Also, a Mac-formatted iPod Photo will work on a Windows PC if you have the latest version of Mediafour’s XPlay 2 (version 2.0.11) installed.

Oh, and Music

No big surprises on the sound front. When the first batch of fourth-generation iPods appeared there were some distortion problems reported. My iPod Photo exhibited no such anomalies (but then my two 4G iPods were fine too).

The Hidden Stuff

If you’re a real iPod geek you know that you can press certain button combinations to reset the iPod (the instructions for doing so are now printed on the “Don’t Steal Music” wrapper, by the way), flip the iPod into Disk Mode, and access the Diagnostic screen. There are a couple of changes here.

Reset is the same Select/Menu combination you know and love as is the follow-up command, Disk Mode (press Select/Play when you see the Apple logo). The Disk Mode screen, however, isn’t backlit and is black and white rather than color (the lettering is also smaller).

The Diagnostic screen has been completely redone (you access this by resetting the iPod and then pressing Select/Back when you see the Apple logo). I didn’t notice any particularly cool new tests on the screen but it’s better organized than in the past — offering a hierarchy of menus versus the straight single-menu structure of other iPods. Text here is smaller as well and backlighting only comes on for a couple of the tests.

More to Come

And there you have my brief tour of the new iPod Photo. Stay tuned for our judgments on how it fares after extensive testing. And don't forget to check out our photo gallery of the iPod Photo if you haven't already.

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