Friday, January 06, 2006

Apple iPod (20GB) - Review

By Michael Kobrin

Whenever Apple releases a new iPod—or anything, these days—there's quite a bit of buzz in the air. The recent release of the "new" 20GB color iPod, however, doesn't give much reason for a big commotion, as it represents merely a slight shifting of Apple's product line: The iPod photo has dropped the "photo" from its moniker and is now the standard iPod. And the full-size iPod lineup has shrunk; you can get the color iPod in 20GB (tested) or 60GB versions only. It's still an excellent music player and photo viewer, but we're a little disappointed by how closely it resembles the iPod photo.

The 20GB color iPod is slightly thinner and lighter than both the 40GB and 60GB photo models, and slightly thicker and heavier than the fourth-generation 20GB iPod—in other words, pleasantly plump but not chunky. Battery life is the same as the iPod photo's; Apple claims 15 hours for continuous audio playback (based on 128-Kbps AAC files) and 5 hours of photo slide shows. We tested audio playback on our review unit using a real-world mix of MP3 and AAC files encoded at 128 to 320 Kbps—as well as a few button presses here and there—and the battery was good for more than 16 hours. Note that this is an improvement over the previous standard (noncolor) iPod's roughly 12-hour battery life.

Since we reviewed the iPod photo, iTunes 4.9 was released, which supports podcast synchronization without any additional software. A podcast menu is now available on the iPod under the Music menu, and you can set bookmarks so you can return to specific points in a podcast. Of course, this is all available in older models via a firmware upgrade. Other minor interface changes include the addition of Playlists and Albums to the Main menu, which means that—for the first time—the entire Main menu doesn't fit on a single screen.

On both subjective listening tests and formal audio lab tests, the color iPod performs identically to the iPod photo and previous 20GB iPod, retaining its status as one of the best music players out there. Photo viewing is also essentially the same as with the iPod photo, although you can now immediately view images transferred to the iPod via the Apple iPod Camera Connector ($29). Although Apple did not bring back the brightness and contrast controls that disappeared with the introduction of the iPod photo, the screen is sufficiently bright in most lighting, and photos look crisp and vivid. Unfortunately, you still can't pan and zoom images, as you can with many other photo-capable players. And in syncing photos to the iPod you are still restricted to a single machine; if you sync them with a different machine, all of your photos will be replaced. The iPod photo introduced album artwork to the Now Playing screen, and this iteration adds support for podcast artwork as well. And we still laud the iPod's excellent photo file format support, which includes JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, PSD (Mac only), and PNG.

One thing that has many new iPod purchasers grumbling is that, unlike the iPod photo, the color iPod doesn't come with a docking base or breakout AV cable. So if you want to play back your pictures and slide shows on a TV, you'll need to plunk down some extra cash—$39 for the dock and $19 for the cable. But at least the color iPod's battery can be charged via the included USB cable.

While the new iPod is still an excellent audio player that's extraordinarily easy to use, it won't be able to rest on its laurels for long. With so many innovative features being added to large-capacity hard-drive players, there are plenty of fine options out there for users who want more than just audio playback and limited photo features. For example, for around the same price, you can get the Archos Gmini 402, which is the same size but adds video playback, more flexible photo options, and recording abilities without a terribly complex interface. We can still comfortably recommend the iPod, of course, but we feel that the playing field has leveled, in part due to a lack of progress in the iPod line.

Player Type: Hard Disk MP3 Player
Radio: No
Recording, Voice: No
Recording, Line In: No
Audio Battery Life: 900 min
Screen Size: 220 x 176 pixels
Capacity: 20000 MB
Dimensions: 4.1 x 2.4 x 0.63 inches


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