A New iPod or No?

Following the October 26, 2004, announcement of the iPod Photo, many people were confused about what wonders the iPod Photo held. Before I dip into the small details of the device, let me make a few points clear.

Some of the Same

In regard to its form and its music- and data-handling capabilities, the iPod Photo is virtually indistinguishable from a fourth-generation iPod.

It bears the same controls as this iPod; it transfers data the same way over the same FireWire and USB 2.0 connections; its menu structure is very similar; it handles contacts, calendars, and notes just like its fourth-generation sibling; and until you switch the thing on, it looks exactly like a fourth-generation iPod. Unlike earlier iPods, however, it does require iTunes 4.7 or later.

Expectations vs. Reality

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod Photo, he quickly dispelled the notion that Apple had any interest in developing a video iPod (at least in developing one at that time). Though he felt that few people would be interested in viewing video on his beloved player, he had no doubt that it would be a wonderful platform for displaying pictures.

What he didn't spell out is how necessary a personal computer is to making the transaction between iPod and digital camera work.

Many had hoped that an iPod with photo capabilities would be able to download pictures directly from a digital camera and then display those pictures on the iPodthus making the device a useful tool for photographers who want to preview scads of pictures in the field without having to swap media cards or drag along a laptop. This is not that iPod.

The iPod Photo requires that its pictures be converted and stored in special files. Currently, the iPod Photo is incapable of performing either of these jobs. Rather, iTunes 4.7 or later converts the files, stores them in the proper format, and then downloads the photos to the iPod.

Although you can copy full-resolution images to the iPod, as well as transfer images via a device such as Belkin's Media Reader for iPod, these images won't display on your iPod until they're copied to your computer, converted, and then transferred back to the iPod via iTunes.

It Comes in Colors

Though you'd have some difficulty differentiating a 40 GB fourth-generation iPod and a 40 GB iPod Photo when the two are switched off and placed side by side, once you turn them on, the difference becomes startlingly clear.

The iPod's 2-inch, 65,536-color liquid crystal display is glorious. Despite the iPod's name, it uses colors in ways other than flashing photographs across its screen. Its interface sports a look similar to the blue "Aqua" theme used by Apple's Mac OS X operating system.

The battery indicator has been colorized, so a full battery appears green, and a nearly drained battery shows red. The device's calendars and games have been colored to make them easier to read and play. The iPod's Volume and Timeline thermometers are a soothing blue, as are the stars on the Rating screen.

Songs that have embedded album art can display album covers when played. And, of course, this iPod can play your pictures singly or in a slideshow.

But not all of this iPod's graphic enhancements come from color. Apple also employed a thinner fontsimilar to what's used on the iPod minithat gives the menus a cleaner look.

And to make it easier to discern your music, entries that don't fit on one of the iPod Photo's screens (an entry in the Artists or Songs screen, for example) scroll across the screen in ticker-tape fashion when selected. On other iPods, names that don't fit are cut short and end with an ellipsisMary Chapin Carp…, for example.

Television Network

Although the iPod Photo's ability to display pictures on its 2-inch display earns it a certain "gee-whiz" respect, showing pictures and slideshows on a pocket-packed device is hardly news to those who carry late-model cellular phones and PDAs. These devices are just as useful for boring the pants off your former friends with your summer-vacation slides.

Ah, but suppose that the iPod could also project those pictures on a television set. Let's see your Nokia do that, buddy. (No, really, let's not.) Yes, broadcasting slideshows to a TV is another of this iPod's charms. Apple helps this process along by including an AV cable that features two audio jacks and a composite video plug.

String this cable between a TV and the iPod's specially engineered headphone port (engineered to output video, that is), and it's showtime! For higher-quality video, take advantage of the S-Video port on the back of the iPod Photo's bundled Dock (no S-Video cable is included, however).