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Correction to This Article
The Fast Forward column in the April 10 Business section misidentified an Oregon Scientific digital camera tested with Apple's iPod Photo. The camera was the ThinCam DS6628.
Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

An iPod of a Better Color

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page F07

Just a dozen years ago, laptop buyers had to think hard about whether it was worth spending all the extra money a color screen would cost. Then, seemingly overnight, that added price dwindled to nearly nothing, as color displays quickly became standard equipment.

Digital music players are going through the same transition, with Apple Computer Inc.'s market-leading iPod a prime exhibit of the trend.

With the $29 Camera Connector, the iPod Photo can copy pictures off a digital camera. (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)

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Five months ago, Apple shipped its first iPod with a color display, the iPod Photo -- and the market yawned. At $499 and $599 each, the two Photo models cost $100 and $200 more than the next-priciest iPod, not to mention many desktop computers.

Now Apple is taking another crack at adding color to an iPod. The price of entry is now $349, and Apple sells only one non-color-screen iPod outside of the iPod mini line. In other words, color now amounts to a feature you get for free if you want more than 20 gigabytes of storage in an iPod.

Apple didn't slash prices that much because it was overcome by generosity -- it no longer bundles the dock and audio/video cable that allowed owners of the old model to screen their snapshots on a TV and the FireWire data cable needed for file transfers to and from older Macs. (Add-on cables to remedy those omissions cost $19 each from Apple.) Also, the new entry-level Photo model stores about 30 gigabytes of data, down from 40.

But still, the psychological effect of the lower prices is the same: You don't feel like you must decide on a use for that color screen ahead of time to justify the purchase.

Last, the iPod Photo now does more than just show album-cover art for your digital songs, plus display your favorite snapshots and let you view them on TV (features that either made little difference in the real-world enjoyment of the device or were already performed ably by handheld organizers and digital cameras themselves).

A new $29 Camera Connector lets the iPod Photo double as an enormous backup for your digital camera. Using this tiny adapter, you can download your latest shots off your camera to free up space in its own memory for new pictures.

It's the definition of simplicity in operation. Plug a camera's USB cable into the Connector's jack, turn the camera on and the iPod will prompt you to import your pictures. As they transfer, it will flash a thumbnail preview of each on the iPod's screen; when you're done, you can delete those shots off the camera or leave them intact.

Apple says the Connector accepts cameras that employ any of three widely used methods to transfer files to a computer: PTP, Type 4 or Mass Storage. A new Canon SD300, an almost-new Olympus Camedia D-580, a two-year-old Pentax Optio 550 and an ancient Canon S100 all worked fine. But two more obscure, low-end models, an Oregon Scientific Pentax Optio 550 and a Logitech ClickSmart 310, did not.

You can view your saved photos on the iPod, but you can't delete individual shots or screen them on a TV. Once you get the iPod back to your computer, you can copy those pictures into your usual photo-management program to do with as you wish.

The net effect is to free people who take lots of pictures on trips from having to buy multiple memory cards for their cameras or separate "photo wallets" that, unlike an iPod, don't offer the fringe benefit of letting you listen to your entire music collection.

My only real complaint with the Connector is that it requires a camera's own USB cable, normally a proprietary, easy-to-lose item. If the camera industry would ever settle on one memory-card format, instead of the four in use now, Apple and other vendors could put a single card slot into a device like the Camera Connector -- or the iPod Photo itself.

Between the price cut and that new option, the iPod Photo -- with one exception -- is far more useful than before. It's still an ace at synchronizing your photo and music collections (standard MP3 files as well as songs purchased off Apple's iTunes Music Store, but not those downloaded off competing stores run by Microsoft, Napster, Wal-Mart and others).

Battery life remains excellent -- I achieved 16 1/2 hours of music playback, a tad more than the 15 Apple estimates.

The one exception to the iPod Photo's appeal applies to anybody who owns a Mac of 2003 or earlier vintage, as well as owners of some older PCs. Those machines lack USB 2.0 ports and rely instead on FireWire connections to connect such data-intensive devices as an iPod; their owners will need to ante up for a FireWire cable, and the $19 Apple charges seems a lot for such a simple thing.

Apple says the USB 2.0 cable that it does still include works on any new PC or Mac, which is true -- but if Apple was going to standardize on USB 2.0, it shouldn't have waited longer than every other major computer vendor to start including it on its machines, and it shouldn't continue to include fewer of these high-speed connections on its computers than any other major vendor.

(These complaints also apply to the updated iPod mini, available in a four-gigabyte size for $199 and in a six-gig version for $249.)

The most interesting aspect of the iPod Photo is what's still to come. Once enough of these things are in people's hands, I expect the same tinkering types who began writing software for the original iPod to go to work on this model. We may not know the best reason for getting a music player with a color screen, but I suspect many of us will a year from now.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

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