The iPod photo is another great piece of Apple engineering that takes what could be a remarkably cumbersome idea and executes it with ease. Not much has changed from the original iPod menu navigation, which has been the pinnacle of efficient user interface since its introduction. The added photo slideshow ability, color screen and larger hard drive offerings are a step forward, but the Windows software is still buggy at best. Also, with so many iPod accessories, the slight change in form factor has caused many case companies to go scrambling back to the drawing board. Even so, the iPod remains the best easy-to-use MP3 player available.
It was the next logical step in the evolution of the iPod: a color screen. While this was an expected step, most rumor sites were predicting the latest incarnation of Apple’s market leading music player to bridge into video. Instead, Apple opted for a simple addition to take advantage of the color screen and its capabilities. You can also display images on an external monitor should you decide you want to go that route.
Features and Design
Out of the box, you get the iPod, the docking station, 1394 (FireWire) and USB 2.0 cables, A/V adapter cable, ear buds, carrying sack, and a case with belt clip and power adapter. We would have liked slightly longer connection cables, since the 3.5 ft. cables are stretched to their limits if your tower is placed under a desk. Also, the power adapter has to be used with the FireWire cable. We would have liked both USB and FireWire ports for charging on the road (not all laptops have FireWire ports). The carrying sack is largely useless. The material feels low quality, and the functionality is the same as the case with belt clip. While it may provide slightly better scratch protection, we recommend that users buy a third party case.
One of the unique features, and a major selling point for the iPod photo, is the availability of a 60GB version. Even if you don’t want to take advantage of the photo capabilities, there are simply no other players as small as the iPod photo and with this amount of storage capacity. We were able to fill the full 60GB in close to 4 hours using the FireWire connection; not bad at all. Battery life is advertised at 15 hours however we were able to get close to 10 with the volume cranked up 3/4 of the way.
The photo functionality adds a new level of flexibility. Users can display slideshows to music, browse thumbnails and with the purchase of a third party add on, plug their camera’s flash memory in to the iPod photo to offload pictures. In addition, color album art images appear in the Now Playing screen. We can see some die hard shutterbugs really taking advantage of the photo storage features, but curiously missing is support for the RAW picture format. While this won’t be a concern to most people, we expect to see it in a future update with Apple’s recent inclusion of the format in their iPhoto software. Photo synchronization is handled by Adobe Photoshop Album. Rather than add a slew of ports to the industrial design marvel, video output is handled by a single adapter cord, consisting of composite video out and stereo RCA leads. The dock also sports a s-video output and a stereo headphone jack.
Music Quality and Performance
Music playback quality is great. Most of our test MP3s were encoded at 320Kbps and sounded far superior to similar iRiver products. One sound quality gripe we had was the lack of deeper bass. Some sites have posted ways around this problem, but they require transcoding the MP3s and lowering the volume by 30-40%. We used the stock ear buds, and found them on par with other bundled ear buds, which is to average. Audiophiles will want to use their own set of head phones. We tested the sound quality with the Shure E2Cs, Sennheiser HD580s and Bose QuietComfort headphones. The iPod had no problem driving any of them, although the QuietComfort had to be switched to the Hi volume mode. There have been complaints in the past about a humming while the drive is accessed. We held the unit while it fetched data, and could hear no artifacts. We would like to see a user configurable equalizer, although there are plenty of EQ settings to choose from.
The user interface followed the tried and true iPod interface that hasn’t changed significantly since the first generation. We would still like the display to show more information about the music files playing, such as bit rate, graphical EQ, and perhaps next song title. Also, quicker access to the shuffle feature and EQ settings would be a plus, as well as an option to keep the backlight on when docked.
Included are a few games, like Solitaire, along with a quick and dirty Contacts, Datebook and Notes section. These can be set to synchronize with Outlook, but we had to search for a third party application, called Palm2iPod, to sync to Palm Desktop. Once found, the process was simple.
Image courtesy of Apple
We had two issues with the iPod photo. The first was the increase in width. The iPod Photo is slightly thicker than the 40GB 4G iPod, which is slightly thicker than the 20GB iPod, rendering most third party cases and add on docks useless. While makers will no doubt scramble to introduce updated goodies, we were unable to find a case to fit the iPod photo at the local Apple, Best Buy, Circuit City and CompUSA retail stores. Also, some docks such as those offered by JBL and Bose, may not fit properly. When we are able to confirm the dock sizes, we will post any incompatibilities on the forums linked to this review.
Our second problem was with the iTunes software. While we loved the easy browsing, filtering, and playlist creation, there were several technical issues. Our iPod would never stop displaying the “Do Not Disconnect” screen when iPod photo was plugged in or if the computer was restarted. For some reason, opening and closing iTunes fixed this. Our experience with the 20GB 4G iPod tells us that this is not normal behavior, and probably a bug in the iPodHelper process. We were also constantly annoyed that every little progress notification is shown. Several times, we thought the computer had crashed when iTunes was either updating the iPod or detecting it. The Apple support forums have several posts on connection issues involving USB which invovle having to reset the iPod photo when it’s connected via USB, so we avoided that option. We’d also like to see the ability to sync with other jukebox programs, but currently you can’t.
The iPod photo is an all around great performer. The sound quality is first rate, the battery performance is excellent, and the storage capacity mammoth. While the ability to make slideshows won’t appeal to every one, the color screen and higher capacity model will draw many people to this miniscule music marvel. Windows users should prepare to encounter some minor software issues, but most are well documented. iTunes is a breeze to use and offers great music organization features as well as the easiest playlist creation you can ask for.