First Apple put some color on the iPod, when it offered the iPod mini in a palette of pastel hues, and now it has put some color inside it, in the form of the new iPod Photo.
This update to Apple's near-ubiquitous music player lets you carry around your computer's entire photo library as well as your music collection. You can rock out to that carefully compiled set of U2 rarities while you browse through the summer vacation pictures, all using the same pocket-size device.
Apple is late offering this feature: Photo-capable MP3 players have been around for several years, but they have yet to take off in the market. If the reason for that lack of success is poor quality, the iPod Photo ought to change things in a hurry. It shows all the elegant simplicity you'd expect in something crafted by the relentlessly design-conscious folks at Apple.
But after testing the iPod Photo over the past week, I don't see that happening. This device is very good at what it does, but its photo capabilities seem unlikely to get enough everyday use to justify their extra cost.
That would be $100 more than a music-only iPod of the same capacity, if you buy the 40-gigabyte, $499 iPod Photo. Apple also sells a 60-gigabyte model, the one I reviewed, for $599; that does offer about twice the storage of any other iPod (a hair under 56 gigabytes of usable space), but it also costs more than many new computers.
Those added dollars buy you a sharp, clear but cramped color screen -- just over 11/2 inches wide by 11/4 inches tall, with 220 by 176 pixels of resolution -- software to browse through photo albums and set up slide shows, and a cable to display those photos on a TV.
The iTunes software bundled with the iPod Photo (in versions for both Mac OS X and Windows 2000/XP) will copy all or part of your digital-photo library to the device. If you use Apple's iPhoto or Adobe's Photoshop Album or Photoshop Elements, photo albums or collections created on the computer will show up on the iPod Photo as well. You can also copy any individual folder of pictures.
Browsing through picture archives on the iPod Photo is as easy as flipping through music playlists; spin a finger around the iPod's ingenious click-wheel control to choose individual photo albums and select a picture, then press left or right on the click-wheel to go back or forward in the album. You can also turn any album into a slide show by matching it with a music playlist stored on the iPod.
In practice, viewing pictures on the iPod Photo is not always a delight. Its screen, less than half the size of a handheld organizer's LCD, is too small to display fine detail without distracting visual artifacts -- the pattern on a checked shirt looked like the whorls of a fingerprint. The iPod also takes a few seconds to draw thumbnail views of each photo in an album when you select it, a slight delay that can be distracting.
You can view photos and slide shows on TV by connecting an included adapter cable to your set's audio and composite-video input ports, then selecting an option in an onscreen menu to activate TV output. Most digital cameras offer the same basic capability.
By default, photos are copied to the iPod Photo in compressed form to save disk space; this doesn't affect how they look on the device or on a TV, but it does increase the time needed to copy them to the iPod the first time. This also prevents you from copying your photos from an iPod Photo to another PC.
You can avoid both problems by selecting a less-than-obvious option in iTunes to preserve photos' full resolution -- even the 40-gigabyte iPod Photo has more than enough room to allow that. (If you want to simply haul photos from computer to computer, without viewing them on the iPod's screen, any old iPod will suffice if switched into the "disk mode" that lets it double as an external hard drive.)
When playing music, an iPod Photo looks and works like a garden-variety iPod, except that it displays any album cover art stored in iTunes.
Those images, however, show up no bigger than a thumbnail. If you haven't bought any songs from Apple's iTunes Music Store, which includes cover art with each download, you may not even know this feature exists, since iTunes (unlike Microsoft's Windows Media Player) doesn't automatically show album art for songs in a collection.
Apple did manage to add photo capability without adding much size or weight. The iPod Photo is only slightly thicker and heavier than a music iPod -- 3/4 inch thick and 63/4 ounces. Nor is there any compromise on battery life: I got 161/2 hours of music playback with the screen's backlight off, 90 minutes more than Apple's estimate. With the screen illuminated full time for slide show viewing, the battery lasted about 51/2 hours.
Like other iPods, this model doesn't allow easy replacement of its internal, rechargeable battery. Apple charges $99 for that service, while third parties offer it for a bit less.
This entire package is certainly much more pleasant to live with than such competing devices as the Archos Gmini 400 audio/photo/video player. This $399, 20-gigabyte device is a bit smaller, a bit lighter and a lot cheaper than the iPod Photo and offers the bonus feature of video playback, but it suffers greatly from a senselessly cluttered interface and the lack of any photo-synchronization option.
But the iPod Photo's biggest obstacle isn't other products, it's human nature. As I wrote several weeks ago when I reviewed a Portable Media Center handheld, it's a lot harder to gawk at pictures while walking, running or driving than it is to listen to music; none of Apple's engineering wizardry can change that.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.