Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. 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 4.1 by 2.4 by 0.63 inches and 5.9 ounces, the 30GB iPod Photo is slightly thicker and heavier than its 20GB audio-only counterpart, and the 60GB version is even bulkier (0.75 inch thick and 6.4 ounces). 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 color screen light up, you know you're dealing with entirely different beast.
The 2-inch backlit LCD can display 65,536 colors 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.
Color 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-color 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 color 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 3.8-inch, 24-bit color 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 ($19), and the iPod Photo dock ($39), which features an S-Video-out port, are now optional accessories. If you're a digital shutterbug, you'll want to spring for the iPod Camera Connector ($29), which will truly put the photo in iPod Photo. You do get standard earbuds, an AC adapter, and a USB 2.0 cable. All in all, the new iPod Photo prices are attractive--just realize 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 months before the iPod Photo, and other lesser-known manufacturers have experimented with MP3/JPEG players (see Bantam's BA800 and Truly's MP301). In fact, every portable video player on the market--including the Archos Gmini400, which is smaller than the iPod Photo--can display pictures. Even this Samsung flash-based player can display photos. But you had to assume that Apple would implement the most user-friendly method of organizing, 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 synchronized the music side, the program will automatically create and transfer three copies of the original photos designated by the user: one each optimized for thumbnail viewing, regular viewing, and television viewing. This makes a ton of sense, as zero optimization or compression would make for annoyingly slow photo-loading times, as experienced on the iRiver H320. And without optimization for televisions, your outputted photo would look pixelated 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.