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 some new iPod owners 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.
This is a reprint of the iPod photo New Users’ Review from the iLounge Buyers’ Guide 2004. Our Power Users’ Review is now available here for advanced iPod and digital music player users, and our accompanying photo gallery is available here.
It’s hard not to love Apple’s iPod photo ($499, 40-Gigabytes; $599, 60-Gigabytes) at first sight. With a new color interface, fifteen hours of battery life, plenty of storage space and cool new pack-ins, the latest iPod represents the future of the brand and the embodiment of many fans’ dreams. But in an uncharacteristic break from Apple’s track record, the iPod photo hardware and software have some rough edges that will put off some potential buyers. For a company increasingly attentive to the mainstream, the new iPod is unquestionably a classic early adopter’s product – for now.
The iPod photo’s positives are obvious. While preserving all the music functions we enjoyed in the 4G iPod, and maintaining a virtually identical casing – only a millimeter thicker, and a mere 0.2 oz. heavier than a 40GB model – it evolves the user interface with color and graphics, adds photo display abilities, and includes enhanced versions of the iPod’s applications.
But a simple recitation of features ignores how impressively executed most of them are. By iPod standards, the new transflective color screen is gorgeous, with bright colors and a strong backlight that keeps the screen evenly illuminated. It’s two steps better than the quality black-and-white screens used in last year’s third-generation iPods, but four steps above the less impressive purple-and-white fourth-generation iPod screens. Apple’s new color user interface is similarly a big, if evolutionary, step forward from iPods released only four months ago; prior iPod owners will be envious within seconds of seeing it, and we’re pretty sure it will be a standard iPod feature two years from now.
The new unit’s fifteen-hour battery is another major plus, even if it modestly thickens the iPod photo’s case. Even if you don’t actively use the unit’s picture abilities, you’ll love the extra musical enjoyment it offers. Though the unit’s combined music-and-backlit photo ability is a comparatively modest 5 hours, that’s probably more than enough for most photo presentations, and suggests that the iPod photo has plenty of juice for use with battery-draining accessories, particularly those required for photo transfers (see next page).
Our only issues with the iPod photo’s music abilities are carryovers from our experiences with the 4G iPod. While we strongly emphasize that we love listening to music on the iPod Photo, and that it’s an A-caliber product in that regard, the product has not taken any steps forward in user-requested features such as adjustable equalizers or support for other file formats. Album art displays would likely have been far down the list. And we heard the same audio defect mentioned in our 4G iPod review when testing the iPod photo, only a little quieter. Frankly, we find this aggravating in a $299 iPod, let alone a $599 one.
Enhanced User Interface
The iPod photo’s new user interface isn’t a radical icon-based redesign of the old iPod menus. Instead, it adds splashes of color, a classier font (Myriad), and Mac OS X Aqua-inspired liquid scroll bars and progress indicators to the familiar text-based iPod interface. Apple’s use of a higher resolution screen (220 x 176 with 65,536 colors, up from 160 x 128 and 4 grays) adds more detail and crispness to every menu. When you play back any song with album art stored in iTunes – included with every Music Store download – the cover appears on the iPod’s screen during playback as an icon. Press the center button to enlarge the art on the screen; additional presses move you through place-in-song skipping and rating screens.
Familiar Applications, New Look
We’ll admit that we play Solitaire on any iPod we’re carrying, and if you’re somewhat like us, you’ve seen at least one of Apple’s free games or applications – Calendar, Clock, Contacts, Notes, Brick, Music Quiz, Parachute and Solitaire. Each has received a more than pleasant color and resolution facelift for the iPod photo, with Calendar and Solitaire looking the best of all. Functionality wise, you’d be hard-pressed to find major differences between these and their older iPod equivalents, but the new screen does hold more text for Notes and Calendar entries and display everything just a bit more clearly. And Apple modestly changed the rotation controls on Solitaire – not for the better, in our view. We continue to hope that the company expands the suite of built-in programs; a color visualizer and/or screensavers to go along with music playback would be especially welcome.
In addition to a carrying case, soft carry bag, USB and FireWire data cables, white earbuds and a power supply, two new pack-ins come in every iPod Photo box. First is the iPod photo Dock, which looks just like Apple’s audio Dock but contains a S-Video port on its right rear side. S-Video input permits a TV to display cleaner video than is possible with a standard yellow-tipped RCA “composite” video port. No S-Video cable is included in the package, however. Instead, Apple includes a long, white proprietary AV cable that plugs into the iPod photo’s headphone jack and outputs both audio and composite video to any television. The cable looks cool, and works well.
All That, and It Plays Back All Your Photos
Apple has music playback down to a virtual science on the iPod, but it’s a relative newcomer to the portable photo storage and playback market. Unfortunately, this inexperience shows a bit in the iPod photo, which – at least for the moment – suffers from interrelated software and hardware limitations that will put off some people.
The iPod photo’s good points are numerous. Once you’ve transferred your photos on to the device, you can create sequential “slideshows” that display either on the device’s screen or your TV. Slideshows can be slient or accompanied by your choice of music, and transition from shot to shot with smooth Star Wars movie-style wipes. If displayed on the iPod, the pictures take up the full screen, but if you’re using a TV, the iPod becomes a remote control with the prior, current and next pictures. In either case, the iPod’s forward button skips forward a photo, reverse goes back a photo, play and pause and menu… you know. Play and pause icons appear on-screen in Mac OS X bezeled form.
If you just want to view photos individually, the iPod photo stacks 25 thumbnails to a page, and you scroll through by touching the Click Wheel. Despite their small size and our concern that they’d be hard to discern from one another, the photos are impressively identifiable. Scrolling through photos is a little too fast, but otherwise fine; we’ll hope for a tweak in future firmware.
Pictures look very good, but not spectacular on the iPod photo’s screen, which is around half the resolution (38,720 pixels) of screens commonly used in low-end digital cameras (78,000) and a third of mid-range ones (118,000). Images are more than acceptable on the small screen and on TV, but aren’t stunning.
Problems start with the iPod photo’s inability to transfer photos off of either cameras or memory cards without the use of additional accessories. Apple and Belkin have had a year to improve on their co-developed Media Reader and Digital Camera Link accessories, and though these devices do an acceptable job of transferring photos from cameras and memory cards to iPods, they’ve been pooh-poohed by serious photographers for slow speeds and iPod lovers for their battery drain. One of these accessories, or something better, should have been in the iPod photo box.
The other big issue: the iPod photo currently needs a computer to pre-process any picture before it appears on screen, and though Apple inexplicably uses iTunes to handle the photo processing, it’s slow, non-iconic, and less intuitive than you’d imagine. We needed to consult the manual to find the transferring and optimizing photos option, which is hidden in an iTunes options menu. iTunes also failed to recognize our iPod photo as such until we restarted our Mac. And the 90 minute optimization time for a 2,500-photo collection was painful. Expect three times the wait on a PC. Worse yet, photos transferred to the iPod using Belkin’s accessories won’t display until run through iTunes. Ugh.
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. But it also has some small yet annoying limitations that when combined with its price may put some prospective buyers off, especially new iPod owners looking for a bargain. Early adopters and Power Users will be thrilled with the new features – and they’re worth paying for – but a few tweaks will make it even better for iPod newbies and other mainstream buyers.
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.
Company and Price
Company: Apple Computer
Model: iPod photo
Price: $499 (40GB), $599 (60GB)
Compatible: Mac, Windows