Much of the initial coverage of the new iPod Photo has understandably focused on its photo functionality (which I can tell you from firsthand experience is quite cool). But for many users, other details — hardware changes, tech specs, and accessory compatibility — are also important. Read on for some tech tidbits and compatibility notes.
If you’re wondering about the hardware differences between the current 4G (Click Wheel) iPods and the iPod Photo, here’s the skinny: The most obvious difference is the iPod Photo’s color screen. Although it’s the same size as the standard iPod’s screen (2 inches), it displays 65,536 colors in all their backlit glory. And it’s surprisingly clear and bright, making it easy to view photos on the iPod — and even to differentiate between them when in browse mode (which shows thumbnails of the photos in an album in a 5 x 5 grid).
Another major change is that the new iPod Photo extends battery life to up to 15 hours, as compared to 12 hours for 4G iPods and 8 hours for the iPod mini. Our “best scenario” tests (meaning that we fully charged the iPod and had it shuffle songs until the battery ran out) revealed that the iPod Photo is capable of even longer playtime. In those test the iPod played music continuously for 16 hours and 10 minutes. Apple also claims that the iPod Photo can display a continuously playing slideshow for up to 5 hours. Again, it erred on the conservative side. In our tests, a slideshow played for 5 hours and 39 minutes. Note that in this test the slideshow played on the iPod’s screen and TV Out was set to off. With TV Out on, the iPod played for only two hours before running out of power.
Oddly enough, the iPod Photo does this while reducing the size of the built-in memory buffer: According to Apple’s Tech Specs page, the 4G iPod provides “up to 25 minutes” of skip protection, whereas the iPod Photo provides only 17 minutes. A longer skip protection time usually means a larger memory buffer, which means the iPod can store more music in the buffer, which means it has to spin up the hard drive less frequently. In other words, more skip protection usually also means longer battery life. When you also consider the color screen, which should require more power, it’s especially surprising that the iPod Photo offers longer battery life. Yet our tests prove that Apple has indeed extended playtime.
The other significant, though not obvious, difference is that the iPod Photo uses a special headphone jack that can also output video. It does this via a multi-purpose AV cable that breaks out into three RCA connectors: composite video and left/right audio.
(In case you’re wondering about the “guts” of the iPod Photo, iPoding — which bravely disassembled a 60GB iPod Photo — reports that it uses the same Portal Player chip used in the previous [4G] iPods. That chip already supported video output, so it looks like Apple simply took advantage of that functionality.)
Given the myriad accessories available for the iPod — more than the available accoutrements for all other digital music players combined — one of the most common questions being asked is what effect the changes in the iPod Photo will have on accessory compatibility. The good news is that iPod Photo models are very similar to the standard 40GB 4th-generation iPods: All the jacks and ports are the same and function identically. However, the new models are slightly thicker (.69 inches versus .57 inches, or a difference of approximately 1.5mm) than the previous 40GB. (They’re also .2 ounces heavier, not that this matters for the sake of our discussion.)
Which accessories are affected by this change in size? I spent some time trying my iPod Photo with a good number of popular iPod accessories, and here’s what I found:
“Top” accessories Any accessory that connects directly to the iPod’s headphone and/or remote jacks — such as Griffin’s iTrip and iTalk, Belkin’s Microphone Adapter, Ten Technology’s naviPod, and any headphone or transmitter that uses the headphone jack — should work fine with the iPod Photo.
“Bottom” accessories The dock connector on the bottom of the iPod Photo should be compatible with adapters and cables that work with the 4G iPods, such as SendStation’s Pocket Dock series, Sik’s imp and din, dock connector-based chargers from companies like Incase and Belkin, and iPod battery packs from Belkin and BTI (although the latter depend on cases/clips that may not fit properly — see the next item).
Cases Due to its slightly thicker size, case compatibility is hit-or-miss. Those cases that stretch — such as the innumerable “skin” cases and any cases with elastic sides (like the excellent Covertec flipcase ) — as well as those that by design have a bit of “wiggle room” (like Matias’ iPod Armor), should be able to accommodate the iPod Photo. Rigid, form-fitting cases like Contour Design’s new iSee and Showcase are unfortunately not compatible — you’ll have to wait for updated versions from the manufacturers.
“Dock” accessories A number of iPod accessories use a docking mechanism that works much like the iPod’s own dock base: You slip the iPod into the dock slot to get audio, power, and data in and out of the iPod. Like cases, these accessories are among those most affected by the iPod Photo’s thicker size; unfortunately, because these accessories tend to be among the priciest of the player’s custom add-ons, incompatibility is much more significant here.
I’ve tried the iPod Photo with some of our favorite “dockable” speaker systems: JBL’s On Stage, Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM3, and Bose’s SoundDock. Regrettably, despite being only 1.5mm thicker, the new iPod is too big for any of them to fit well. In the case of the iM3, the iPod doesn’t fit at all, even if you use just the bare dock slot without any of the included iPod-model-specific adapters. The On Stage is a bit better — you can force the iPod Photo into the dock slot if you’re determined — but I didn’t feel comfortable with the amount of force necessary to get it to work. Bose’s SoundDock seems to fare the best here, with its relatively open dock base; hopefully the company will provide an updated adapter that fits the iPod Photo. I also tried the new model with my favorite FM transmitter, the Sonnet PodFreq, which is designed like a hard plastic case; unfortunately, the iPod Photo is too thick to fit here, as well.
Part of the problem is that many manufacturers (understandably) have made their products fit the largest iPod shipping at the time of the products’ release and then included adapters to fit smaller models — in other words, they didn’t anticipate a physically bigger iPod being released so soon after the 4G models. But even some of those manufacturers that planned ahead — such as JBL, which left a substantial bit of extra space in the On Stage’s dock slot — have been foiled. In previous generations of iPods, differences in thickness were largely found in the silver back section; the white front was more or less the same thickness, meaning the dock connector on the bottom of the iPod has always been approximately the same distance from the front of the unit. But with the iPod Photo, Apple has made the white front significantly thicker than previous generations, so the dock connector itself is in a different relative location. So, for example, even though JBL’s On Stage has plenty of extra space in its dock slot, the actual dock connector is too close to the front of the slot for the iPod Photo to fit.
I’m anxious to see how these manufacturers address this issue. Will they revise their products entirely and offer new, iPod Photo-compatible, versions? Or will they come up with some sort of adapter or riser that lets the iPod Photo sit above the actual dock slot? Time will tell.
Over the next few months, you can expect to see many new accessories as vendors revise their product lines to fit the new iPod Photo. We’ll keep you in the loop about these changes through our news section, and we’ll be updating our Product Guide with many, many more products and the latest in product compatibility.