After weeks of rumors that hinted at 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 $500 40GB model and a $600 60GB version—these new iPods feature not only new graphic capabilities, but 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 pocketbook might not allow, you’ll want it scant seconds after holding one in your hand.
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 as today’s iPod and iPod mini, includes an identical dock port on the bottom for power and connectivity, and bears a headphone port, remote connector, and hold switch on the top. Like today’s “standard” iPods, it supports FireWire and USB 2.0 connections on both a Mac running Mac OS X 10.2.8 and a PC running Windows 2000 or XP.
Inside the box you’ll find everything typically packed with a new iPod—FireWire and USB 2.0 cables, a power adapter, Apple’s white earbuds with two sets of foam covers, and a CD that includes Mac and Windows versions of iTunes 4.7 and the latest iPod software updater. Also tucked inside are a few extra items—an iPod Carrying Case, a 5-foot A/V cable for connecting the iPod to a television, and a special dock that includes not only the usual data/power connector and audio out port, but an S-video port for projecting higher-quality video to a television when the iPod is placed in the dock. (An S-video cable is not included.)
The iPod Photo also behaves similarly to a fourth-generation iPod. Like its audio-only counterpart, the iPod Photo will charge via USB 2.0 or FireWire, can boot a Macintosh computer (a feature not supported by the iPod mini), and—via Apple’s iSync—can be used to synchronize contacts and calendars between a Mac and the iPod. Likewise, an iPod Photo formatted for a Windows PC will mount on a Macintosh and behave almost exactly like an iPod formatted for the Mac (save for the inability to install the Mac OS on a Windows-formatted iPod.)
I say similarly because the iPod Photo does offer some minor usability enhancements not found on other iPods. For example, if a track, album, or artist entry doesn’t fit on a monochrome iPod’s screen, the entry is cut short and ends with an ellipsis (Mary Chapin Carp…, for example). Entries that don’t fit on one of the iPod Photo’s screens (an entry in the Artists or Songs screen, for example), scroll across the screen in ticker-tape fashion when selected. And thanks to the new Photos menu item, pictures you download from a media card via Belkin’s Media Reader for iPod now appear at the bottom of the Photos screen rather than mixed in with the other items in the Extras screen.
Large and In 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 slideshow play. (This 5-hour figure applies to slideshows played on the iPod’s screen with the device’s TV Out option turned off.)
Under ideal conditions—meaning that I fully charged the iPod, pressed play, and turned off backlighting, EQ, and Sound Check—my 60GB iPod Photo played music for 16 hours and 10 minutes and, after a full recharge, displayed a repeating slideshow on the iPod’s screen for 5 hours and 39 minutes. However, when connected to a television, the slideshow playback time dipped dramatically—offering just 2 hours of continuous play.
Synchronizing the iPod to iTunes takes significantly longer on a Windows PC than it does on a Mac. On my 3.2GHz Pentium 4 Windows PC, my iPod Photo took nearly twice as long to synchronize a library of about 3,000 songs as it did on my 900MHz Power Mac G4—expending 31 minutes on the Mac and 56 minutes on the PC. However, I obtained similar results when synchronizing a 40GB fourth-generation iPod on this same PC so the iPod Photo can’t specifically be faulted for this longer sync time.
It Comes in Colors
As you might expect, the iPod Photo’s greatest usability enhancement is its 65,536-color liquid crystal display. Though included primarily for the purposes of showing up to 30,000 photos, the display brightens everything about the iPod. Menus are easier to read, red calendar events are more prominent against a calendar’s blue background, and Solitaire finally offers cards distinguishable enough to make the game playable. When lit up, other iPods look positively drab in comparison.
When backlighting isn’t switched on, however, the display can be difficult to read indoors unless it’s exposed to a direct light—and even then the screen is best viewed off-axis to overcome light reflected off the screen. Once you take it outside, you should have no difficulty reading the display without having to tilt it.
Bring on the Show!
The iPod Photo displays thumbnails on a five-by-five grid as well as “full-sized” images (meaning they take up most of the iPod’s 2-inch display). The display in this grid view is crisp enough that if you have dissimilar images—one image of a flower, another of a bird, and yet another of your grandmother—you can easily tell them apart. However, if the grid has several similar shots taken with a digital camera’s rapid-fire feature, you’ll have little success picking out just the image you want. Once you flip the iPod into full-screen mode, it’s child’s play to distinguish similar images.
It couldn’t be much easier to navigate through those pictures. In full-screen mode you use the scroll wheel to quickly advance through the album, just as you would scroll through a list of audio tracks in a playlist. To move back and forward through an album a single image at a time, you press the corresponding buttons on the iPod’s click wheel.
Displaying a slideshow is just as straightforward. Highlight Slideshow Settings in the Photos screen, click Select, and choose the options you want—time per slide, the audio playlist you’d like to accompany your slideshow, repeat on or off, shuffle photos on or off, transitions on or off (only a single wipe transition is available), TV Out (On, Ask, or Off), and TV Signal (NTSC or PAL). Click back to the Photos screen, pick a photo album and press Play to begin the slideshow.
Note that if you have a picture on the iPod’s screen and string the AV 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.
Nearly Picture Perfect
The iPod Photo’s photo synchronization and playback schemes are likewise intuitive. Simply connect the iPod to your computer, fire up iTunes 4.7 or later, open the iPod preferences window (now available within iTunes’ preferences window), click the Photos tab, and tell iTunes where you keep your pictures. Macintosh users can synchronize the iPod to their iPhoto Library (the entire thing or just selected albums) or any folder on their computer. The Windows version of iTunes will synchronize photo albums created by Adobe Elements 3.0 and Adobe Album, as well as Windows’ My Pictures folder or a folder of your choosing.
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 those images are not displayed by the iPod or projected to a television. Rather, this option exists as a convenient way to gather your images on the iPod for easy transport—they’re available in the Full Resolution folder that’s inside the Photos folder at the root level of the iPod when disk mode is enabled.
The required photo conversion process within iTunes is where expectations and reality part company. With a name like iPod Photo, some expected that when you downloaded pictures to the iPod by other means (a card reader, for example) those pictures would be viewable on the iPod. Regrettably, this isn’t the case. While it’s hardly fair to judge the iPod Photo on what it might do rather than what it does do, potential buyers should be aware that it’s not meant to be the kind of tool photographers will use to preview pictures in the field.
Is this the right iPod for you? If the size of your music collection overwhelms lower-capacity iPods, you care to easily cart tens of thousands of digital pictures with you, you want to display those pictures on a television without having to lug along a computer, or you simply have an appreciation for beautiful design (and can afford to indulge that appreciation), you’ll find its $100 – $200 premium worth the price. 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.