Review: Apple iPod photo Power Users’ Review | iLounge

Review

Review: Apple iPod photo Power Users’ Review

A-
Highly Recommended

Company: Apple Computer

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPod photo

Price: $499 (40GB), $599 (60GB)

Compatible: Mac, Windows

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Jeremy Horwitz

Pros: Apple’s best iPod yet, featuring a new color screen and user interface, photo display through itself and TV sets, and 17-hour battery life. Sixty-Gigabyte version sets new iPod capacity mark.

Cons: New features aren’t as fully realized or evolved as Power Users might expect; photo display functionality requires extended sync process, no instantaneous display of photos downloaded with peripheral accessories, expensive by comparison with other iPods that feature identical music playback capability.

Oh Yeah - it Plays Back Photos, Too

With the cosmetic exceptions of its user interface and screen, ninety percent of the iPod photo’s functionality is the same as a fourth-generation iPod. The critically different ten percent, however, is its ability to display color digital photographs transferred from a computer.

Note that we’re not heralding its ability to store digital photographs, because older iPods alike can already do that, thanks not only to the iPod’s (and iPod mini’s) ability to serve as a computer hard disk, but also to 3G and 4G iPod peripherals from Belkin that can transfer photos directly from cameras and memory cards onto the iPod’s drive. The big change is that the new iPod can show digital photos on its own screen, or use the included iPod photo Dock or AV cables to display them on a television set instead. The big surprise is that the iPod photo cannot display pictures that were transferred onto its hard disk using these Belkin peripherals, and neither Apple nor any third-party has announced any additional hardware to accomplish that seemingly no-brainer task.

Why not? Well, at least for the moment, it appears that the iPod photo cannot quickly or optimally re-size full-sized digital photographs for display on its tiny, limited color display. Apple requires users to have iTunes pre-process all photographs to be displayed on the iPod photo’s screen, which presently exhibits two problems: first, the iTunes photograph interface wasn’t especially intuitive. We’d expected in Apple fashion that our first sync of the iPod photo with iTunes would bring up a photo transfer menu, some new conspicuous Photo button, or wizard to guide us through the process, but none of these was the case. We actually had to use the iPod photo’s manual to find the photo transfer button, which was hidden in an iTunes options menu and didn’t appear properly the first time because our Mac failed to recognize that it was connected to an iPod photo. A restart of the computer thankfully fixed the problem. Sure, this is an early adopter’s bug and likely to be remedied in an upcoming release of iTunes, but it detracted from our initial plug-and-play experience.

Second, your first synchronization of the iPod with a computer’s photo library may be agonizingly long - perhaps even longer than syncing with your computer’s music library. Our 2,500-photo collection took 90 minutes to pre-process on an Apple PowerBook G4, and around three times longer on a fairly modern test PC. Serious photographers have previously complained that the 3G and 4G iPods’ digital photo accessories were slow to the point of delinquency, and the iTunes sync-before-playback requirement and associated delays aren’t likely to win fans from that crowd. From our perspective, however, an initial sync of an hour or two’s duration isn’t unacceptable, given that subsequent synchronizations to transfer new photos are relatively short (single-digit minutes) and take no effort on your part save plugging the iPod in. Making this entire process shorter and easier - even if it requires new iPod hardware with a more sophisticated photo resizing processor - will endear the iPod photo or its successors to more users in the future.

On the bright side, photos generally looked very good once they’d been transferred to the iPod photo, displaying surprising levels of detail and alternating between subtle and vibrant color despite the limitations of the unit’s screen. At around half the resolution (38,720 total pixels) of screens commonly used in low-end digital cameras (78,000) and a third of mid-range ones (118,000), the iPod photo’s scaled-down on-screen images still remain more than acceptable for portable slide shows, and are clean enough to be shown on most contemporary televisions without any audience complaints. Pure reds (not yellows or oranges) appeared to be clipped a little bit on the iPod photo’s screen, but that may have been attributable to color processing in our test camera.

Playback of photos can be achieved in either an entirely manual mode or through an organized Slideshow feature. If you just want to view photos individually and manually, the iPod photo (thanks to iTunes and helper applications such as iPhoto) lets you access playlist-style subsets of your collection: click on Photo Library for the entire collection, Last Roll for whatever you most recently transferred, and Last 12 Months for the last year of your pictures. What you’ve transferred and the list of associated photo playlists depends on what you’ve selected to transfer using iTunes, and how you’ve organized your collection with iPhoto, Adobe Photoshop Album, or Adobe Photoshop Elements. (You can alternately just dump your entire collection of pictures into your PC’s My Pictures folder or another folder on your PC or Mac, and pull them over in bulk that way.)

The iPod photo’s screen stacks 25 thumbnails to a page in a five-by-five grid, and you scroll through pages of these grids by touching the Click Wheel to move and selecting them with the Action button as you desire. Despite their small size and our concern that they’d be hard to discern from one another, the thumbnail photos are impressively identifiable - almost as good as in Apple’s simulated photos of the screen. Scrolling through photos in the thumbnail mode is a little too fast, but otherwise fine; we’ll hope for a tweak in future firmware. Once you pick a picture, you can move back and forth through the complete collection by pressing the iPod photo’s forward or back Click Wheel buttons, and continue to adjust the volume of whatever music you were hearing with the surface of the Wheel. Regrettably, you can’t change music tracks or initiate new playback while watching pictures; what’s playing is playing.

The alternative to manual mode is the Slideshow, a sequential (or randomized) presentation of the photos in your collection, displayed at your choice of paces (2, 3, 5, 10, 20, or unlimited seconds of delay) with musical accompaniment taken from either iPhoto or your playlists - pre-programmed, On-the-Go, or silent. Perhaps most impressive about the iPod photo is its ability to alter the slideshow’s sequencing and features without computer involvement: you can choose movie-style “wipe” transitions between photos, music, and other dimensions of the presentation from a new Slideshow Settings menu. Slideshows begin whenever you hit Play on the Click Wheel, and display a cool gray glass bezeled Pause icon whenever you stop the show, with a similar bezeled Play icon whenever it resumes.

If displayed on the iPod, the pictures take up almost the full screen if they were shot in landscape mode, or appear with black side borders if they were shot in portrait orientation and properly rotated before transfer to the iPod. But if you’re using a TV to display the photos, the iPod photo’s screen becomes a remote control display, showing you the immediately prior, current and next pictures in the Slideshow sequence - a nice idea if you’re using the Slideshow for a professional presentation and want to match your words to what’s coming up, or easily recall what just came before. In any display mode, the iPod’s forward button skips forward a photo, reverse goes back a photo, and Menu takes you out of the Slideshow into the text menu system.

In sum, the iPod photo’s digital photograph storage and display capabilities are good, though neither groundbreaking nor perfectly implemented. We truly liked the way 95% of our pictures looked on its screen, though we’ve seen better small screens on portable devices, and once the initial hurdle of optimizing and transferring photographs had been passed, we found it easy to display them on the iPod photo and televisions.

Without question, the iPod photo’s single most glaring omission is its inability to transfer photographs off of cameras or memory cards without a supplementary accessory, and its related inability to immediately display those photographs on its screen once transferred. Less expensive though admittedly less stylish and elegant devices were equipped with both features three years ago, and serious photographers have already expressed strong reservations about the iPod photo’s utility as a consequence. The jury’s still out on whether mainstream consumers will want or actually find uses for this photo functionality, but iLounge is currently inclined to view it as a cool novelty that just happens to accompany the newest iPod’s outstanding battery life and potential additional storage capacity. That’s surely not what Apple intended, but absent a more fully-featured transfer and display mechanism, that’s what the iPod photo offers photographically. We’ll see what future firmware and software updates do to change this.

Value and Conclusions

There are two primary ways to evaluate the iPod photo, and we know which we prefer: judged against Apple’s prior $499 30GB and 40GB iPods sold only last year, the current $499 iPod photo is an almost unmitigated success - double the battery life, expanded visual functionality, and as much or more storage capacity for the dollar. It’s an improvement in almost every way (except thickness, price, that pesky audio defect, and the Click Wheel’s aesthetic) over what came before. The 60GB version offers 50% more storage capacity at only a 20% higher price, which while very high by iPod and portable music standards is within the price range of the sort of Power Users who might covet it.

The other way to view the iPod photo is as a failure of imagination: the coupling of a quality backlit color screen and tremendous storage capacity with a feature (computer-tethered digital photo display) no one asked for and none of the features (integrated photo transfer, video display, enhanced music playback, visualization) real people might really want. Clearly, there are those who have already espoused this viewpoint, and while we generally disagree with them, there’s also little doubt that the iPod photo’s current incarnation will leave many users wanting more. Hopefully Apple will be able to accomplish at least some of these features in software rather than replacing the iPod photo with something entirely new.

Our own experiences with the iPod photo have been generally very positive. We now use it as our primary “take everywhere” iPod and prefer its screen and storage capacity to everything else we’ve tried. Photo playback remains a bit of an on-off feature for us, even though we’ve now transferred roughly 3,000 pictures to the unit: it’s an amusing way to pass time on an airplane and an occasional parlor trick when visiting with friends or family, but not a feature for which we have found a practical use. And we say that as serious digital photographers. A more fully-equipped photo transfer device would have been far more useful.

That said, 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, and by that standard, it’s an important product. Hopefully its battery life will wind up in future iPods, too. True, its limitations, combined with sticker shock over the 60GB version’s price, may put some buyers off. But the 40GB version is a major step over last year’s $499 model, and a great value given all of its pack ins and power - definitely Apple’s best iPod released this year.

Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school - ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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