A big reason for the success of Apple Computer's (AAPL ) iPod is that it's designed to do one thing -- play music -- really well. I recently had a look at the newest iPod and some of its hard-drive-based competitors and quickly came to the conclusion that the product that does least does it best. Extra functions are nice, but they come at a price in usability.
Until you turn it on, the new iPod photo ($499 with a 40-gigabyte drive) looks just like a standard iPod, although it's a tad thicker. The color display is much brighter and easier to read than the regular monochrome screen, but aside from that, its music-player functions are identical to those of its older brother.
What's new is the ability to download pictures -- from iPhoto on a Macintosh or Adobe (ADBE ) Photoshop Album on Windows -- and display them on the 2-sq.-in. screen. Syncing pictures is a bit more complicated to set up than syncing music, but it works smoothly, with the software automatically reducing photo resolution to save space. The iPod gives storage priority to music, so it loads your songs first, then uses the remaining space for pictures. The 40 GB allow plenty of room for both. And it's easy to set up slide shows, the photo equivalent of playlists.
THE PROBLEM IS THE DISPLAY. It's just a bit bigger than a 35mm slide, and the screen provides relatively low resolution, a little more than half the pixel density of the new palmOne (PLMO ) Treo 650. So the pictures are tiny and don't look very good. You can hook up the iPod to a television and get a slide show with music if you're willing to fuss a bit. All in all, I'm not sure the photo feature is worth an extra $100.
The new player 5GB from Virgin electronics shows the virtues of single-mindedness. At $250, it's aimed squarely at the popular iPod mini, and while it lacks the mini's cool looks, it adds an extra gigabyte of storage (for a total of five), an FM radio tuner, and a pair of earphone jacks so two people can listen in. The unit is less than 4 in. long and weighs 3.1 oz., compared with the iPod mini's 3.6 in. and 3.6 oz. The controls are logically laid out, with an iPod-like display. Using a high-quality headset, the toughest test of any player, the sound was indistinguishable from the iPod's very good audio. (For more on headsets, see "Gifts for Your Ears".) The Virgin player complies with Microsoft's (MSFT ) PlaysForSure standard, so it can handle music purchased or subscribed to from any PlaysForSure source.
At the other extreme, the $500 Creative Technology Zen Portable Media Center, based on a Microsoft design, is much more than a music player. It uses its 3.8-in. diagonal display to show videos and display photos. Unfortunately, the Zen doesn't perform so well on several of these tasks. It's fine as a music player, but you gain little advantage from its extra bulk (5.7 in. long and 12 oz.). Despite the relatively huge display, its menus show 10 songs at a time, compared with six on an iPod.
You manage videos and photos for download using Windows Media Player 10 on your PC. But the Media Player is a dreadful tool for organizing photographs. And the Zen's screen, which has even lower resolution than the iPod, doesn't display them very well. Video works better. You can download TV shows you have recorded -- provided you have a Windows Media Center PC. You can also download about 130 specially formatted but obscure movies from CinemaNow. Microsoft hopes to offer more content in early 2005, but at least until then the Zen's appeal as a video player will be limited.
Simplicity remains the key to a good experience on a portable player -- and on this point, Virgin's player gets high marks. If the iPod photo isn't very good at displaying pictures, at least its musical abilities don't suffer for it. The Zen Media Center and Microsoft need to spend some more time pondering the zen of the iPod.
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