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After weeks of rumors of a more-colorful iPod, Apple turned conjecture into cold, hard fact by unwrapping the iPod photo—the first of its portable music players to offer a color screen and the ability to display digital pictures and album art. Available in two configurations—a $499, 40GB model and a $599, 60GB version—these new iPods feature new graphics capabilities, as well as increased playtime and the power to project video to a television via a composite or S-Video cable.

These iPods, while pricey, are a solid step forward in the evolution of the device. Though your budget might not allow for an iPod photo, you’ll want one just seconds after holding it in your hand.

In Full Color

As you might expect, the iPod photo’s greatest enhancement is its 65,536-color display. Though all the colors are included primarily for the purpose of showing photos (you can fit as many as 30,000 on the device), the display brightens everything about the iPod. Menus are easier to read, red calendar events really stand out, and Solitaire finally offers cards distinguishable enough to make the game playable. Even with their backlights on, other iPods look positively drab in comparison.

When backlighting isn’t switched on, however, the iPod photo’s display can be difficult to read indoors unless it’s exposed to direct light. Its display is far easier to read outdoors.

All This and More

Save for its graphic capabilities and color screen, the iPod photo is a fourth-generation iPod. It sports the same Click Wheel controller and ports as the most recent monochrome iPods and iPod minis. And like Apple’s other current iPods, it supports FireWire and USB 2.0 connections on both a Mac running Mac OS X 10.2.8 and later and a PC running Windows 2000 or XP.

Inside the box, you’ll find everything typically packed with a new iPod, plus a few extra items: an iPod carrying case; a five-foot AV cable for connecting the iPod to a television; and a special dock that includes not only the usual audio-out port but also data and power connectors, as well as an S-Video port for projecting higher-quality video to a television when the iPod is placed in its dock. (An S-Video cable is not included.)

The iPod photo also behaves similarly to a fourth-generation iPod, but it has some minor usability enhancements those iPods don’t. For example, song, artist, or album entries that don’t fit on one of the iPod photo’s screens scroll across the screen in ticker-tape fashion. And this isn’t just on the Now Playing screen: it’s in the Artists, Albums, and Songs screens, too.

Big Battery Charge

A more-significant improvement is the iPod photo’s ability to hold a charge longer than other iPods. Where other iPods can play music continuously for up to 8, 10, or 12 hours (depending on the iPod model), Apple boasts that the iPod photo offers 15 hours of continuous music playtime and 5 hours of slide show play. (This 5-hour figure applies to slide shows you play on the iPod’s screen with the device’s TV Out option turned off.)

My 60GB iPod photo played music for 16 hours and 10 minutes and, after a full recharge, displayed a repeating slide show for 5 hours and 39 minutes. This was under ideal conditions—meaning that I fully charged the iPod, pressed play, and turned off the backlight, EQ, and Sound Check options. However, with the iPod photo connected to a television, the slide show playback time dipped dramatically—offering just 2 hours of continuous play.

Photo Prowess

The iPod photo displays thumbnails of your photos on a five-by-five grid, as well as full-screen images that take up most of the iPod’s two-inch diagonal display. The display in this grid view is crisp enough that you can distinguish dissimilar images—one image of a flower, another of a bird, and yet another of your grandmother. However, if the grid has several similar shots taken with a digital camera’s rapid-fire feature, you’ll have little success picking out exactly the image you want.

Picture navigation is a breeze. Use the scroll wheel to quickly advance through the album, which puts a yellow selection box around each photo. To move back and forward through an album one image at a time, press the back and forward buttons on the iPod’s Click Wheel.

Displaying a slide show on the display or on your TV is just as straightforward. Pick a photo album in the Photos screen, and press Play to begin the slide show.

Nearly Picture Perfect

The iPod photo’s photo synchronization and playback schemes are also intuitive. Simply connect the iPod to your computer, fire up iTunes 4.7 or later, open the iPod preference pane (now available within iTunes: Preferences), click on the Photos tab, and tell iTunes where to keep your pictures. And you can synchronize the iPod to your iPhoto Library (the entire thing or just selected albums) or to any folder on your computer.

When iTunes synchronizes your pictures for use on the iPod, it converts them to a format compatible with the iPod rather than copying the original photos to the device. Though my test images were saved at a lower resolution than my original photos, they still looked great on my Sony television. iTunes also offers the option to copy original images to the iPod, but if you do this, the iPod won’t display the images or project them to a television. Rather, this option exists as a convenient way to transport images.

This required photo-conversion process within iTunes is where expectations and reality part company. With a name like iPod photo, some expected that when you loaded pictures on the iPod by other means (via a card reader, for example) those pictures would be viewable on the iPod. Regrettably, this isn’t the case. Pictures can be viewed on the iPod photo only after they’ve been processed by iTunes. Potential buyers should be aware that the iPod photo isn’t meant to be a tool for photographers who want to preview pictures in the field.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

Is the iPod photo the right iPod for you? If the size of your music collection overwhelms lower-capacity iPods, if you care to easily cart tens of thousands of digital pictures with you, if you want to display those pictures on a television without having to lug along a computer, or if you simply have an appreciation for beautiful design (and can afford to indulge that appreciation), you’ll find the $100 to $200 price increase justified. If you can make do with a lower-capacity music player and are happy to flash your photos with your cell phone or PDA, Apple has plenty of other iPod models that will please you.

iPod photo
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