Review: Apple iPod Camera Connector
Pros: Simple, very inexpensive way to transfer to and view photos on your iPod photo directly from a supported digital camera or media reader. Works well with Apple’s built-in iPod photo import software.
Cons: Slow overall transfer speeds and battery drain issues are carried over from older peripherals, though the Camera Connector does more. Full computer synchronization still required for slideshows. Doesn’t work with earlier iPods.
It fills a missing gap in the iPod photo’s arsenal. It costs only $29 when similar accessories have sold for between $80 and $110. And it’s made by Apple, guaranteeing its quality and compatibility. What could possibly go wrong with the iPod Camera Connector ($29), a new Dock Connector peripheral designed to let you transfer digital photos to your iPod photo and automatically view them on its built-in screen?
Conceivably plenty. Previous photo transfer devices for the iPod have been criticized for slow transfer speeds, requiring 2 to 4 seconds per Megabyte to move the contents of a memory card to the iPod. They’ve also drained a fair bit of iPod and camera power in the process. And as is well-known to iPod photo owners, Apple’s process to convert photos into a small screen-viewable format has previously consumed lots of additional time, turning a high-speed USB 2.0 or FireWire sync process into an even more extended waiting game. How does the new Camera Connector fare? Read on to find out.
Apple’s iPod Camera Connector is the smallest and simplest implementation yet of an iPod digital photo transfer device. Made from traditional glossy white hard plastic, it includes no cables or dangling components, instead fitting snugly on the bottom of an iPod photo and adding only 1.25 inches to its height. Assuming your iPod was protected against scuffing, it could fit into the same pocket with the Connector, unlike the two camera add-ons released by Belkin, which most likely would have required their own separate storage places.
The top of the Camera Connector features an official Apple Dock Connector plug, while the bottom features a USB 2.0 port. Both are indicated with icons on the Connector’s body. That’s all there is to the design; Apple includes a transparent plastic Dock Connector cover to protect the Camera Connector when it’s being stored. You plug your digital camera or a media reader into the USB 2.0 port via the cable included with either of those items, and the iPod (hopefully) recognizes the device and opens Photo Import, the application Apple created a year and a half ago to handle transfers in several easy clicks.
It’s worth noting up front that despite its name, the iPod Camera Connector does not work with all iPods. As with Apple’s recently updated black iPod photo boxes, it carries the iPod name in big letters with a smaller “photo” badge at the bottom - a somewhat confusing compatibility indication given Apple’s current iPod line-up. In our tests, it was entirely ignored as a device when connected to a 3G or 4G iPod, and couldn’t even be used for photo importation on those devices. Consequently, Belkin will continue to have a solid market for its earlier and more expensive photo attachment peripherals, which work properly with all full-sized iPods.
The concept behind Photo Import remains generally the same on the iPod photo: there’s a menu with options to import the contents of the attached storage device, confirm (in numeric list form) the contents of the folders transferred, and/or to erase those contents once they’ve been transferred. There’s no need to type filenames and no method to deeply probe the contents of folders; the iPod photo will only show you that pictures and movie files have been transferred, conglomerating them together in a single number (“871” or “6”). If you have data other than images shot on the specifically connected camera stored on your memory card, the Camera Connector won’t transfer it. In fact, the iPod photo crashed and required a hard reset when we took the memory card from one camera and placed it in another to test the transferring functionality.
On earlier iPods, your only means to confirm the complete transfer of photos and camera-made movie files was to check the number of items your camera showed against the number the iPod shows; if they matched up, you could assume that it’s safe to erase your memory card. But on the iPod photo, that’s been improved: after downloading a “Roll” of film, you can immediately dive into a collection of your photographs and movies that appears in the iPod photo’s standard photo display mode. Movies are represented by small circular icons, which if clicked upon indicate that they cannot be viewed on the device’s screen.
All pictures imported from the Camera Connector are automatically converted to screen-viewable images during the photo import process, which you watch happening in real time with medium-sized thumbnails. The iPod photo properly carries over horizontal or vertical orientation data from compatible cameras, so you can always preview your pictures in the proper position immediately after an import; there’s no need to sync with iTunes or use a photo editing program to fix their orientation. Viewing angle and color balance considered, we actually preferred the way photos looked on the iPod photo’s transflective screen to the way they displayed on our cameras, though they were shown in a lower resolution because of the iPod photo’s lower-res color screen.
However, pictures imported with the Camera Connector cannot be viewed in Slideshow mode with transitions unless you perform a complete iPod synchronization with your computer, photo program, and iTunes. This means that you can’t bring your photos directly in from your camera and connect up to your TV for a presentation: they’re only available for iPod viewing, without transition effects. From our standpoint, that’s a minor issue, and frankly one that we don’t think most photographers will mind, as the device properly performs its photo transferring and display features without incident. Just don’t expect to create an on-the-go photo presentation for a room full of people without connecting to a computer.
As a final note on this topic, we were glad to see that the iPod photo properly imported all the photos we threw at it - even huge RAW files. Many serious photographers were concerned that the iPod wouldn’t be able to manage this feat, but RAW photos taken with two cameras showed up without incident, appearing as circular icons on the Roll menu. You can’t view RAW pictures on the iPod photo’s little screen, but we’d be surprised if anyone but the hardest-core of photographers cared, given that the photo still stores the shots without incident and lets you know they’ve been safely transferred.
Transferred Photo File Structure
Files transferred to the iPod photo are stored in a folder called DCIM, accessible with your computer through Windows or Macs. Inside the DCIM folder are individual folders for the rolls you’ve transferred, as well as a folder called IPODMISC with thumbnail collections for each imported roll. The thumbnail collections can be large: 30 Megabytes of additional space were consumed by the thumbnail files for our 871MB photo collection alone. Far less space is used for smaller imports, but the numbers can begin to add up - so be careful.
As another mild note of caution, the Camera Connector does not create a folder to transfer over the contents of anything else that may be on your cards. Our 1GB card with 871MB of photos was filled with around 100MB of other data that the peripheral didn’t acknowledge or transfer. But on the bright side, the iPod’s Erase Card feature doesn’t delete that extra data - only the files it sees - so you won’t lose it unless you format the memory card separately on your own using your camera or computer.
The biggest question mark for some users will be the Camera Connector’s list of supported cameras, which like the lists of too many such devices is incomplete and based only upon cameras that the manufacturer’s employees personally tested with the device. Consequently, unless your camera is on the list, you’ll have to make the assumption that it’s likely to work (any camera released in the past two years or so with USB 2.0 support) or that it won’t. If you’re not sure, and it’s not on Apple’s list, buy the Camera Connector from a retailer with a good returns policy - not a store that assesses a restocking fee for opened items. It shouldn’t be your responsibility to pay for the privilege of testing its compatibility with your device.
If you’re technically inclined and have your digital camera’s manual handy, you could save yourself the testing hassle by checking to see whether the camera supports one of three data storage standards: PTP, Type 4 (a/k/a Normal), or Mass Storage. If it does, you’re more likely than not going to have a fine experience with the Camera Connector. For reference, Apple also notes that the Camera Connector supports certain memory card readers, but hasn’t as of press time specified which ones.
In order to be thorough, we tested the Camera Connector with three digital cameras to see how they’d perform. One of the cameras (the Canon PowerShot S400) was on the list, but listed under its overseas name (IXY Digital 400), while the other two (a Canon EOS 10D and a Nikon Coolpix 8800) were not. We also tried two memory card readers - Sandisk’s ImageMate 8-in-1 USB 2.0 reader, and IOGear’s Universal Memory Bank - to see whether they would prove compatible or not.
In our test of the “supported” PowerShot S400, we achieved a transfer rate of 30 Megabytes in 2 minutes, 3 seconds, or about 4 seconds per Megabyte, and both other cameras worked as well. The Nikon 8800’s 871MB of photos took a bit over 42 minutes to transfer, for a rate of under 2.90 seconds per Megabyte, while the EOS 10D transferred shots at a comparatively slower rate of seven seconds per Megabyte. There’s no doubt that the camera and its associated file transfer system affects transfer time, as we put the EOS 10D’s memory card into the IOGear Universal Memory Bank and the same data transferred at a rate of around 4 seconds per Megabyte. And there’s some variability at play, too. A subsequent test of the Nikon 8800 with a 335MB collection of photos took only 2.33 seconds per Megabyte to transfer using the same 1 GB Lexar 80X Pro memory card used in the first Nikon transfer. We can’t tell you why there was a difference, but there was - and at least it was faster the second time.
All good, right? Mostly. Our cameras and the IOGear reader all worked, but our other test memory card reader didn’t. The iPod photo rejected our attempt to use Sandisk’s ImageMate, displaying a message on its screen that the device was incompatible. We were a bit surprised, only because the ImageMate is a more expensive and generally excellent reader, but if it’s not supported, it’s not supported. Until Apple updates its list of compatible reader devices, don’t assume that anything you plug in will work for certain.
How does this compare with earlier devices? Belkin’s Digital Camera Link (iLounge rating: B) was comparatively speedy at just under 2 seconds per Megabyte in our testing with an earlier iPod and the EOS 10D, and 2.64 seconds with the PowerShot S400. And Belkin’s Media Reader on version 1.0 of the iPod photo’s firmware ran at 2.14 seconds per Megabyte in a new test. But these weren’t apples-to-apples comparisons: in neither case was the Belkin device rendering pictures viewable by the iPod photo, while our iPod Camera Connector transfer times also reflect time consumed by Apple’s conversion process.
So we ran the same Media Reader test with version 1.1 of the iPod photo firmware, which gave that device the ability to do realtime photo encoding as well. Though the rate slowed from 2.14 seconds to 2.28 seconds per Megabyte, the Media Reader narrowly outperformed the iPod Camera Connector with the same collection of pictures - the aforementioned 2.33 seconds per Megabyte number. But the difference was so small - a matter of a few seconds - that we’d call the devices basically equivalent when used with certain camera equipment. Your camera, media card, and other factors may change the numbers, as well.
We previously noted that Belkin’s Digital Camera Link had a major disadvantage relative to the company’s earlier Media Reader: it drains your camera’s battery, the iPod’s, and its own at the same time. Continuous use of the iPod’s hard drive is the most serious problem, but USB transferring from your powered-on camera doesn’t help, either. On the bright side, unlike the Digital Camera Link, you won’t need a third set of batteries for the peripheral: Apple designed the Camera Connector to draw power from the iPod photo rather than an internal peripheral battery. But the consequence is that battery drain on the iPod photo is fairly considerable, and may be even worse if you connect a standalone (unpowered) media reader instead of a self-powered digital camera. In the past, we’ve noted that these devices practically beg for serious iPod lovers or photographers to carry around spare iPod and/or camera batteries, and this device is no different in that regard. The Media Reader’s at a bit of an advantage here, assuming you don’t mind the extra expense, keeping it loaded with AA batteries, and that it works with the types of memory cards you use.
Overall, the iPod Camera Connector is a suitably inexpensive and simple way for digital photographers to transfer to and view their pictures on an iPod photo. It remedies the biggest single complaint that early iPod photo purchasers (and potential purchasers) had about Apple’s newest iPod, and though it is technically more powerful because it’s doing more with the photos it imports, it preserves the slow overall transfer times of the photo transfer peripherals we’ve previously tested. On balance, serious photographers will like some of its features, but because of the long transfer times and battery issues will probably continue not to view the iPod photo as a legitimate alternative to a dedicated hard disk-based photo vault.
As we’ve said in previous reviews of such devices, however, this add-on - particularly for its lower-than-ever price - can eliminate the casual photographer’s need to spend hundreds of dollars on a dedicated portable storage unit for digital photos, and that’s what makes it worthwhile. At $29, it’s certainly cheaper than buying 30-60GB worth of flash memory cards, too. We only wish it worked with earlier iPods, and was a bit faster.
Therefore, we recommend the iPod Camera Connector to specific iPod users only: photo hobbyists who won’t mind its lengthy transfers and/or can live with the battery drain. It’s hard to complain for the price, and we do like it, but it’s not the end-all-be-all photo solution it could have been.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.