Review: Apple Color 4G iPod 20/60GB Review
Pros: Apple’s best iPod yet, with a color screen and user interface, photo display through itself and TV sets, and 17-hour battery life. Great audio quality and overall experience. An affordable, substantial improvement on the black-and-white fourth-generation iPod released less than one year ago.
Cons: Photo display initially requires extended sync process, add-ons required to download photos directly from a camera, or display photos on a TV. Still no way for users to easily replace battery.
In November 2004, iLounge reviewed Apple’s then-new iPod photo (iLounge rating: A-), a premium version of the fourth-generation black-and-white iPod released in late July. We praised the storage capacity, battery life, and new features of the color-screened music and photo player, but thought that it was expensive at $499-$599, and a little rough around the edges for such a pricey device. Even when Apple dropped the iPod photo’s price - mostly by removing pack-ins - and released a lower capacity version in February, we still felt that the company hadn’t addressed most of the concerns we had raised in our initial review, and left our A- grade intact in our Spring/Summer 2005 Buyers’ Guide re-review.
Several major things have changed since then. Apple released the inexpensive iPod Camera Connector (iLounge rating: B+), which was a considerably better value than the $80-$110 devices iPod owners previously needed for camera-to-iPod photo transfers. The company also published a Software Update that added support for digital photo viewing without computer synchronization, and new slideshow transition effects, addressing two of our review’s issues.
And this week, Apple eliminated the biggest barrier for potential buyers: premium pricing. A 20GB (5,000-song) version of the iPod photo is now Apple’s fifth “iPod” - considered by the company to be a color fourth-generation model - and sells for $299, while the old 60GB (15,000-song) version now sells for $399 - a $200 price drop since its introduction last October. Now only do these two new iPods offer the best features and capacity yet for their price tags, but they perform better than their predecessors in other ways, as well. While not the perfect A+ iPods we’re still hoping to see, they’re fully worthy of iLounge’s flat A rating and high recommendation.
What’s In The Box: Hardware and Software
Since last October, Apple has dramatically streamlined the packages of its color-screened iPods, shrinking their boxes and cutting their pack-ins to a minimal level. Though the boxes are no longer as exciting to open as their intricately designed predecessors, Apple has thankfully gone back to using classy exterior designs, with the iPod name in silver foil and clean product shots on three of each black box’s sides. Gone are the colorful and overplayed images of silhouette dancers, replaced by Black Eyed Peas album art and shots of the hardware’s photo display capabilities.
Both the 20GB and 60GB iPods come with one pair of white earbud-style headphones, two sets of black foam earpads, an iPod-to-USB 2.0 cable, a wall power charger, a single data CD, and a collection of instruction, ad, and warranty booklets. The data CD contains PC and Macintosh versions of Apple’s iTunes music software and the necessary drivers to connect your iPod to your computer, as well as electronic versions of various iPod instruction manuals.
This collection of items is all any person needs to fully use and enjoy a new iPod - no further purchases or software are required. You insert the CD into your computer, quickly install iTunes and drivers as applicable, and then connect the USB cable to both your computer and iPod. iTunes provides an incredibly powerful and easy set of tools for transferring your music from CDs to your iPod, as well as legally downloading music and other audio content online. Recent versions of iTunes have also added video management tools, calendar and personal contacts management for Mac users, support for free radio-style “podcasts,” and more.
It’s worth a small technical note that Apple has now officially done away with the FireWire cables that used to be included with standard “iPods,” a change that was made back in February when these devices were called “iPod photos,” but not carried out for the 20GB model up until now. As a result, Mac owners and the few PC owners with standard FireWire ports will not be able to take advantage of FireWire’s added computer-to-iPod transfer speeds, but the included USB 2.0 cable will certainly suffice for the data transfer needs of most users. If your computer only has an older USB 1.0 port, you’ll need to charge the iPod with the included wall charger, and expect that it will take longer to initially fill and subsequently update the contents of your iPod.
How Does the New iPod Work?
The new iPod adds power to the elegantly simple control and menu system of its black-and-white predecessor. Within an enclosure that is half glossy white plastic and half mirror-polished metal, the iPod combines a 2-inch color screen with a simple circular controller called the Click Wheel. You skim your finger over the Click Wheel’s touch-sensitive surface to move up and down in menus, adjust volume, and skip through photographs. Buttons hidden under its surface - one each to the north, south, west and east, plus one in the center - let you skip quickly through menus, go forwards or backwards in lists of audio tracks, and play, pause, or turn off the iPod. No easier control and menu system has yet been designed for a music player of the iPod’s complexity.
Apple’s screen is a significant improvement over the ones sold in the prior generations of iPods. Brightly backlit and made with a “transflective” LCD material, it’s easy to read indoors and outdoors, and capable of displaying over 65,000 colors. Seven lines of large, clean menu text plus a header can be displayed at once, with a battery icon always present on the top right of the screen and a play status indicator on the top left. In text file display mode, the iPod can show up to eleven lines of small text at once, and can also display attractive color graphics and games that its older predecessor couldn’t handle. For more details on all of these features, take a look at our Power Users’ Review of the iPod photo; with the exception of a new menu option that segregates downloaded Internet radio programs called Podcasts into their own library, little has changed since then.
As a music player, the new iPod improves in only one significant way upon its predecessor: it now allows you to store and view album artwork for each of your songs, displaying a small icon during playback that can be magnified to a larger (though not full-screen) view for short periods of time. It does not play back music videos or include any sort of visualizers; songs are accompanied on-screen only by their titles, artists’ names, and album names. You can still rate songs, increase or decrease volume, and skip to any part of a song with simple button presses - all with only one finger, if you desire.
When used as a photo storage and playback device, the new iPod is only a few hairs shy of perfection. Out of the box, it can transfer photographs from your computer using nothing more than iTunes, a process that initially takes a considerable period of time but decreases upon subsequent synchronizations. You can create and view slideshows from your photo collection, either silently or accompanied by music. A collection of five different transition effects can create movie-style wipes and pushes, simple visuals that add a little spice to any slideshow.
Additionally, you can connect the optional iPod Camera Connector or two other devices to transfer photographs to your iPod without a computer, and can also purchase separate cables or a Dock to connect your iPod to a TV for slideshow viewing. While not as sophisticated as a photo slideshow generated by a computer program such as Apple’s iPhoto, the iPod holds its own as a portable photo storage and display device.
Audio, Battery, and Storage Performance
In previous reviews of Apple’s iPods, we’ve noted that we don’t have any major complaints about the general audio quality of these players: they are accurate, sonically balanced devices that have earned the praise of average users and audiophiles alike. A small minority of users has insisted that iPods don’t have as much bass as certain other audio devices, but other than that - and related calls for user-customizable equalizers to permit dynamic changes to the device’s sound - the new iPod is about as good as portable audio players get from an audio standpoint.
That includes Apple’s substantial, but not complete remedy of an audio interference issue we identified in black-and-white fourth-generation iPods last year: a static sound that overlapped songs whenever the hard drive was accessed, audible with most pairs of headphones. While we can still hear a short, faint occasional hint of static in our pairs of high-end earphones during hard drive accesses, the noise was not audible using Apple’s standard earbuds or “typical” earphones we tested. Unlike the black-and-white iPod’s problem, most people won’t mind what little interference there is, but we still strongly believe that Apple should eliminate it entirely in the next-generation iPod.
We are quite happy with the new iPods’ battery life, which in our testing exceeded Apple’s 15-hour estimates by a full two hours - over 17 hours of run time, compared with the black-and-white 4G iPod’s 12-13 and the 3G iPod’s 6-8. Rare is the occasion when we’re away from a computer or wall outlet for longer than 12 hours of iPod playback, so 17 hours works quite well for us. While the iPod family could and should continue to improve in this regard, this is nowhere near the issue it was back a year ago. Our only remaining issue is that users cannot easily replace the iPod’s battery by themselves - you need to use special tools to pop off the rear metal compartment - and we certainly hope that this issue is addressed in future iPods. It’s been a limitation of the iPod family since the beginning (see a comparison photo of 2G and color 4G iPods, below), but needn’t be.
The storage capacities of the two current iPod models also deserve a few words. In the past, 20-Gigabyte iPods have proved the most popular with iLounge readers, holding a peak of around 5,000 songs at standard compression rates. We applaud Apple for being honest about the iPods’ storage capacities, even as competitors have stooped to claiming that their devices can hold more songs in the same 20GB of space - despite their scratchier, lower-quality sound.
However, as the new iPods can now play back both music and photographs, the 20GB iPod is required to squeeze even more content into the same space - album artwork, pictures of various sizes, and less-compressed songs stored by increasingly quality-sensitive listeners. After transferring a sample collection of 7,095 photographs to the new iPod, we saw that over five full Gigabytes of storage had already been used up, leaving far less room for music and album artwork. For future iPods, Apple needs to work on reducing the size of its photo database, perhaps through improvements in processor power (enabling realtime scaling of stored images rather than storage of multiple thumbnails). Today, however, music lovers planning to make major use of the new iPod’s photo features should give serious consideration to the 60GB model, which for $100 more triples the smaller version’s storage capacity and leaves plenty of room for whatever you might want to put on the device.
Physical size and Accessory Compatibility
In upgrading the iPod family from black-and-white to color screens, Apple was forced to make only one compromise: thickness. While the new iPods are as tall and wide as their 30GB and 60GB iPod photo predecessors, and thereby fit in all of the same cases, cradles, and other accessories previously designed, they are not as thin as their black-and-white 4G predecessors. The 60GB model is .75 inches thick, and the 20GB model is .63 inches thick, each a bump of .06 inches over last year’s 40GB and 20GB black-and-white iPods. Practically, these differences are virtually irrelevant and fully justified by the device’s superior batteries, but they’re modestly noticeable when compared right next to last year’s models.
Critically, however, these iPods are now fully compatible with the wide array of third-party accessories that have been developed for prior iPods - everything from speakers to voice recorders, camera connectors, battery chargers and car mounts. These accessories either were already compatible when the iPods were sold as iPod photos, or because their manufacturers have subsequently released fully compatible revisions that are now the only versions on store shelves. If you already own an iPod accessory other than a case that doesn’t work with your new iPod, you can most likely contact the accessory’s manufacturer for details on how to obtain a fully working replacement.
If you’re looking for additional information on various features of the new iPod, or its included iTunes software, iLounge has plenty to offer. Our comprehensive Power Users’ review of the iPod photo contains all you’ll want to know about the current iPod’s menus and built-in applications, while our Complete Guide to iPod photo Pictures will help you make the most of its photo features. To learn about iTunes, check out our Tutorials pages, including details on the new features in the current version (4.9) of iTunes, and for information on compatible accessories, you can find cases and other items on our Reviews page, and a easier-to-read digest in our popular, free Buyers’ Guide.
For a discussion of the new iPod’s name and comparison photographs with other generations of iPods, check out our Backstage article Naming the New iPod.
We have two photo galleries full of new photographs of these new iPod models: first, the iPod 20GB gallery, and a separate gallery for the color-screened black U2 Special Edition iPod released at the same time. Our historical photo galleries of older iPod models can be found here.
If you’re not sure whether the new iPod is the right model for you, take a look at our recent Editorial, Today’s iPod lineup, and you. You can also find our super-simple iPod picking guide in the Buyers’ Guide.
Still have questions? With over 65,000 members and 600,000 messages, our Discussion Forums likely already address anything you might want to know. If not, post a message, or use Ask iLounge, our weekly Q&A column. There’s a good chance that you can find the answer on the site, but if not, we’re always happy to help.
It would have been easy to pass on re-reviewing Apple’s newest iPods - after all, the 20GB version is little more than a cheaper, lower-capacity version of the 30GB iPod photo released only four months ago, and the 60GB version is just the same, only in a different box. That simple fact has elicited groans and tears from the most devoted iLounge readers, particularly those who purchased black-and-white-screened iPods only recently.
But to view the new iPods from the perspective of existing owners would clearly miss the significance of what Apple is now offering to new potential buyers: a color-screened, photo-capable 20GB digital music player with unparalleled ease of use and the best software package on the market, all at a lower suggested retail price than any serious competitor. Similarly, its bigger 60GB brother and black-bodied U2 clone are more affordable than ever before, while continuing to possess all of the key features that made them stand out at their October 2004 introductions. Owners of black-and-white-screened iPods may complain, yet there’s little doubt that they’d quickly upgrade if given the right incentive. The reasons for this are obvious: the new iPod’s color screen is not only useful for photos and album artwork, but makes typical reading of its menus and other text considerably easier - and visually more pleasant - than on last year’s iPod.
Last October, we said that “there’s little doubt once you’ve used the iPod photo that its new screen and interface will be in virtually every full-sized iPod Apple sells two or three years from now.” Frankly, we never expected that Apple would be a more than a year ahead of that curve, and that competitors such as Sony would be focusing most of their recent efforts on black-and-white hardware. By switching across the board to superior color displays, offering last year’s great storage capacities and user interface experiences, and polishing most of the iPod photo’s rough edges, Apple has redefined what consumers should expect from a $299 digital music player, and very much earned our high recommendation.
With all of that said, there is certainly still room for improvement. iLounge readers continue to ask for a variety of new features that could further enhance the iPod experience, ranging from an integrated FM tuner to crossfaded playback, customizable equalizers, and even better batteries. While none of these features is today a necessity, future iPods would unquestionably be helped by their inclusion - and competitors will unquestionably continue to exploit their absence to mount challenges to Apple’s market dominance. Our flat A grade recognizes the iPod for what it is today: a great value and truly wonderful product, without any serious reservations. Whether the next full-sized iPod merits equal or higher praise will depend very much on what Apple’s competitors can muster before its release, and the wisdom of Apple’s response.
[Editor’s Note: Following publication of this review, Apple Computer clarified that the new color iPods remain part of the fourth-generation family, and as such we have changed “fifth-generation” references in our review to “color fourth-generation.” We thank Apple for providing this clarification.]