Review: Apple iPod U2 Special Edition (Color) 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 U2 iPod released seven months 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. Because of slight added thickness, not necessariy compatible with all prior U2 iPod cases.
Last November, iLounge previewed Apple’s original iPod U2 Special Edition, a $349, black and red-colored 20GB (5,000 song) iPod with engraved signatures of U2’s famous bandmates Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullin Jr. on its back. But other than its unusual casing, its box, and a couple of special pack-ins, the U2 iPod was virtually identical to the $299 standard iPod Apple was selling. If you liked its looks or wanted to support the band, it was worth the extra $50 premium, but if not, it was easy enough to skip in favor of the cheaper white model.
At the time, many people believed that the U2 iPod was destined to be a short-lived limited edition, but seven months after its introduction, Apple surprised the world by releasing a second version - this time, based upon the new color-screened 20GB iPod. Apart from a few small changes, the new U2 iPod ($329) is just the same as its white and gray-colored, $299 sibling, only $30 more expensive. Consequently, this review is based heavily upon our separate review of the new color iPod (iLounge rating: A), but with notes where the U2 iPod is different.
Yet Another iPod?
Right before the release of the first U2 iPod, 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 finally, this week, the white-bodied iPod photo dropped to a mainstream $299 price and changed its name to just “iPod,” while the black version kept its U2 Special Edition name, gained a color screen, and fell $20 in price. While one item disappeared from its box, all of its most important pack-ins remain.
What’s In The Box: Hardware and Software
The iPod U2 Special Edition’s box is the same rectangular shape as that of the new standard iPod, dropping the cubic and more sophisticated origami art design of its predecessor. As before, the box features a white, gray and red front face with the “iPod Special Edition U2” appearing most prominently, with the phrase “20GB Mac+PC” replaced by “20GB PC+Mac” - a nod to the ever-increasing base of Windows-based iPod buyers. A black and white photo of the band has been relocated to the box’s back, while photos of the new iPod appeal on the left and right sides of the box. Unlike the standard iPod’s box, no silver foil is used on the U2 box, an omission no one will mind.
As with the standard 20GB iPod, the U2 iPod comes 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.
In addition to the stock iPod items, the U2 iPod also includes a two-sided poster featuring photographs of the band and a short monologue from lead singer Bono, as well as a $50 coupon that can be used towards the purchase of The Complete U2, a $149 digital box set with all of the band’s past music. The data CD contains no U2 music, rather just 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 $19 FireWire cables that used to be included with standard “iPods,” a change that was made back in February when Apple’s color-screened devices were called “iPod photos,” but not carried out for the 20GB models 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 U2 iPod Work?
The new U2 iPod adds power to the elegantly simple control and menu system of its predecessor. Within an enclosure that is half glossy black plastic and half mirror-polished metal, the iPod combines a 2-inch color screen with a simple circular controller called the Click Wheel. U2’s iPod has a red Click Wheel rather than a gray one, a color decision that has turned off some potential buyers, but doesn’t impact your use of the controller in any way.
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 generation 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 U2 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 U2 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 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 fourth-generation 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 iPod’s 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 previous U2 iPod’s 12-13 hours. 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, but needn’t be.
The storage capacity of the new U2 iPod also deserves 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 U2 iPod can now play back both music and photographs, the 20GB hard drive 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 white 60GB model, which for $399 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 U2 iPod from black-and-white to a color screen, Apple was forced to make only one compromise: thickness. While the new iPod is as tall and wide as its predecessor, and thereby fits in all of the same cradles and other non-case accessories previously designed, it is not as thin. At .63 inches thick, the new U2 iPod is .06 inches thicker than before, which is only going to be an issue if you try to use it with cases specifically designed to tailor-fit only a 20GB, fourth-generation iPod. Look for cases made to fit the prior 30GB iPod photo, and you’ll be fine.
Critically, however, the new U2 iPod is fully compatible with the wide array of third-party electronic 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 standard iPod was first sold as an iPod photo, or became so when their manufacturers subsequently released fully compatible revisions that are now 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.
We have two photo galleries full of new photographs of these new iPod models: first, the standard white iPod 20GB gallery, and a separate gallery for this U2 Special Edition iPod. Our historical photo galleries of older iPod models can be found here, including a gallery for the first, black-and-white screened U2 iPod.
If you’re not sure whether the U2 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 reviewing the U2 iPod - after all, it is little more than a cheaper, lower-capacity version of the 30GB iPod photo released only four months ago, but in a slightly different body and with a couple of extra pack-ins. 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 U2 iPod 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 digital music player with unparalleled ease of use and the best software package on the market, all at a fair suggested retail price - $20 less in fact than last year’s version. The new 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. True collectors will probably be happy that the previous Special Edition finally became a limited edition, while those in need of an upgrade can easily enough eBay their black-and-white U2 iPods with the conspicuous title “rare!”
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. We’ve also been hoping for a wider array of Special Edition iPods from bands other than U2, hopefully in different colors and with packed-in music rather than just coupons.
As it is, the iPod U2 Special Edition is certainly a better value and a better product than the one Apple released less than a year ago, and we have no hesitation in awarding it a flat A rating and high recommendation. Fans of U2 and people who prefer a black iPod body have every reason to jump on this new color-screened, photo capable model, especially given its lower price and better battery life. Case compatibility issues and perceived staleness of the collaboration aside, there’s no reason anyone other than a collector might prefer its predecessor.