Thanks to a much lower price and a new, photographer-friendly feature, the latest version of the iPod Photo should get more than its share of looks. Offering a full-colour, 16-bit screen as well as 30GB and 60GB capacities, the iPod Photo displays photos and album art in an interface that's undeniably Apple. From the ease with which one loads photos on to the device to the browsing of thumbnails and images on the iPod itself, the overall experience is positive and warm. Plus, the mammoth 60GB iPod can hold as many as 15,000 songs or 25,000 photos.
The original premium price tags dismayed many prospective buyers but now at £245, the 30GB version costs only £45 more than the 20GB iPod, while the 60GB version costs £310. Add a firmware update that, with the help of an optional Camera Connector, will enable users to transfer and view digital images directly from cameras to the iPod, and you clearly have a better value. Just note that you'll have to pay extra for a dock and an A/V cable, accessories that were included with the original version.
From afar, the Apple iPod Photo looks no different than the popular fourth-generation version: same Click Wheel interface, polished white body, gleaming silver back panel, hold switch, dock connector and headphone inputs. It's not until you hold one that you sense a difference. At 104 by 61 by 16mm and 167g, the 30GB iPod Photo is slightly thicker and heavier than its 20GB audio-only counterpart and the 60GB version is even bulkier (19mm thick and 181g). While the Photo is still considered sleek, the extra weight is noticeable. The high-capacity hard drive and a larger battery contribute to this iPod-on-steroids feel. And when you power it up and see the colour screen light up, you know you're dealing with entirely different beast.
The 51mm (2-inch) backlit LCD can display 65,536 colours at a resolution of 220x176 pixels. Unlike the screen on the iRiver H320, another MP3 player that displays photos, the iPod Photo's transflective face is visible with the backlight turned off. This is particularly useful outdoors during the day, as the backlight sucks serious battery juice from the player. The monochrome LCD of the audio-only iPod looks downright drab when compared to the Photo's bright, vivid screen. As far as photo viewing goes, the experience certainly adds to the value of what is already an outstanding audio player.
However, the small screen size will have some users squinting and others complaining that the device doesn't do the photos justice. But most will be impressed by the iPod's ability to instantly load pictures, which can be browsed using the Click Wheel in a fashion that takes less thought than that of browsing music, since your choices are based on imagery instead of text.
Colour adds a lot more than just photo pleasure. The familiar iPod interface now has a white background, a blue selector bar, black text and a green battery indicator that changes to yellow and red when it's dying. Built-in extras such as the calendar and games look entirely different and more approachable on the iPod Photo, and you get full-colour album art on the Now Playing screen if you've purchased music from iTunes Music Store or if your ripped CD and jukebox software support the feature.
We -- and many others -- were disappointed with the original iPod Photo's lack of a digital-camera interface. After all, this iPod, with its colour screen and huge hard drive, had the potential to be an essential photographer's companion. Apple has responded by releasing a firmware update and an optional Camera Connector accessory that will allow users to connect a camera and transfer photos to the iPod (see 'Features' for details).
Luckily, those who shelled out the big bucks for the original can upgrade their iPod Photos, too. Previously, your best solution was to purchase a third-party product such as Belkin's Digital Camera Link or Media Reader, which allow you to transfer your files to the iPod but not view them. But serious photographers, be forewarned: the iPod Photo is not the ideal photo viewer due to its small screen size; direct digital-camera transfers will make it more suitable as a storage device. Serious digital photographers should take a peek at dedicated photo viewers such as Epson's P-2000, which features a larger 97mm, 24-bit colour screen and built-in media card slots. Nevertheless, the combination of audio and imagery that the iPod Photo provides is deft at worst.
We should mention the iPod Photo's headphone jack serves as a video-out port as well. In a cost-cutting measure, the device no longer ships with the fancy-looking white A/V cable that allowed you to output audio and still images to a television when viewing a slide show. This method of viewing photos is outstanding, especially on a big-screen TV with a nice audio system. The carrying case, the FireWire cable (£15), and the iPod Photo dock (£25), which features an S-video-out port, are now optional accessories.
If you're a digital shutterbug, you'll want to splash out on the iPod Camera Connector (£19), which will truly put the photo in iPod Photo. You do get standard earbuds, an AC adaptor, and a USB 2.0 cable. All in all, the new iPod Photo prices are attractive -- just realise that you're not getting some key extras.
An MP3 player with built-in photo viewing isn't revolutionary by any means. iRiver's 20GB H320 was introduced a couple of months before the iPod Photo and other lesser-known manufacturers have experimented with MP3/JPEG players. In fact, every portable video player on the market -- including the Archos Gmini400, which is smaller than the iPod Photo -- can display pictures. But you had to assume that Apple would implement the most user-friendly method of organising, transferring and viewing JPEG, BMP, GIF and PNG files. And it did.
When you connect the Apple iPod Photo to iTunes 4.7 or higher, you'll get a new tab in Preferences. This is where you can designate what photo application or photo folder you want to sync with the iPod Photo, just as you would with audio tracks. After -- and only after -- iTunes has synchronised the music side, the program will automatically create and transfer three copies of the original photos designated by the user: one each optimised for thumbnail viewing, regular viewing, and television viewing.
This makes a lot of sense, as zero optimisation or compression would make for annoyingly slow photo-loading times, as experienced on the iRiver H320. And without optimisation for televisions, your outputted photo would look pixellated and harshly low-fi. The transfer is invisible to the user, and the benefits include blazing-fast scanning through photos and thumbnails, which are displayed in an innovative, mosaiclike, five-by-five thumbnail grid. In iTunes' Preferences menu, you also get an option to transfer a full-size copy of the photo. While you can't view this file, you can store and transfer it as you would a data file.
Now here's the catch. The best possible way of transferring photos to the iPod Photo is by utilising the power of iPhoto 4.0. Having the latest version of the Mac OS X staple allows you to transfer photo albums and the accompanying slide-show music you've spent time assembling. It's a much cleaner experience than pointing to a folder and having every photo in it transferred in bulk. Unfortunately, many users of older Macs don't have iPhoto 4.0 or must pay £49 for the iLife '05 suite to get it. The fact that Apple didn't bundle iPhoto 4.0 with a device costing £245 to £310 astonishes us. On the PC side, iTunes is optimised to work with Adobe Elements or Adobe Album -- again, two products that will cost extra.
Okay, you now have your photos on your iPod. In its default state, the iPod main menu lists Music, Photos, Extras, Settings, Shuffle Songs and Backlight as options. Drill down into the Photo menu, and you'll see Slideshow settings and your iPhoto Albums or bulk photo library. In Slideshow settings, you can specify what music playlist accompanies the slide show, the time between slides, whether to use a simple transition, and so on. If you're away from a computer and want to play a specific song, you can utilize the On-the-Go playlist feature as a workaround.
Besides the updated pricing scheme, Apple has added a hotly desired feature, one that should have been included with the first version. Digital camera owners can now transfer their photos onto the iPod Photo and view them. Users will be able to do this by purchasing the optional iPod Camera Connector and by updating their iPod's firmware to version 1.1. This once-coveted extra feature is now icing on the cake, especially since users today would buy an iPod Photo just for its colourful interface. The firmware update also includes additional slide-show transitions. For a list of compatible cameras, click here.
Let's not forget that the iPod is an audio player first and foremost. Outside of the colour screen, the scrolling track information and the inclusion of album art, the iPod Photo is the same excellent and easy-to-use audio player compatible with MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, WAV, AIFF and Audible files. We love the fact that you can browse photos while listening to music outside of slide-show mode. The slide shows add an intangible emotional element to the portable experience and album art brings some personality to the music, with the effect of transforming a digital file into a song.
The first thing we noticed about the Apple iPod Photo was its relatively speedy processor. Although Apple won't get specific about internal hardware, we know that the Photo runs on dual 80MHz processors residing on an updated PortalPlayer chip. In general, you're never waiting around for photos to render or for slide shows to activate. Other than the few seconds it takes to load a screen full of thumbnails, the iPod Photo slows down for no one.
This model's sound quality mirrors the standard iPod's and is good overall, although we're still not impressed with the preset equaliser settings -- in other words, we've heard better-sounding MP3 players. Rated battery life has also been improved to 17.1 hours for audio only. This is a marked improvement and another reason to like the iPod Photo. You're able to get a rated 5 hours of battery life when you play a continuous slide show, but with a device with dual audio and visual features, expect battery life to vary depending on usage. For example, our device lasted only 9 hours when we had played audio (backlight turned off) for about 6 hours and slide-show mode with the backlight turned on for nearly 3 hours.
Transfer times were excellent as well at a brisk 7.5MB per second over USB 2.0. For those interested, over FireWire (cable sold separately), the iPod Photo reached only 2.6MB per second.
Update: Apple have stopped selling the iPod Photo, as all standard iPods now come with colour screens. See here for details.
Edited by Jasmine France
Additional editing by Guy Cocker