In a bid to fend off advances from the Microsoft camp, Apple on Tuesday introduced two new iPod portable audio devices, one of which can display digital photos on its tiny color screen. The other new iPod, dubbed the iPod U2 Special Edition, provides lucky buyers with a black body and red scroll wheel, all for just an additional $50 when compared to an otherwise identical white iPod.

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Yeah, these releases aren't that inspiring. The reality of the long-expected iPod Photo was far less impressive than the mock-ups fan sites had created in the days leading up to the launch, featuring the standard but tiny 2-inch screen that adorns other iPods. By comparison, the Creative Zen Portable Media Center, which also displays photos and music, but adds support for videos and recorded TV shows, features a much larger 3.8-inch screen and better resolution (320 x 240 vs.  220 x 176 for the iPod Photo). It also gets dramatically better battery life. However, Apple says it kept the screen small in order to keep the iPod small, sacrificing both the display and battery life, presumably, for style.

 

"We think photos plus photos is the next big thing," said Apple CEO Steve Jobs. "Everyone has the content already, and there are no copyright issues." Microsoft apparently agrees: The company launched photo slideshow and music software in Windows XP Media Center three years ago, and added on-the-go support in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />PortableMediaCenter this past summer. Somehow, I suspect I'm still going to read about how Apple innovated in this area.

 

Apple also introduced the curiously crippled iPod U2 Special Edition, which is essentially a black version of its 20 GB white iPod. In addition to its black fascia and red scroll wheel, the iPod U2 Special Edition is differentiated from its white brethren in exactly three ways: It costs $50 more, it includes engravings of the band's signatures on the back, and it must be used with a wide range of white, not black, iPod accessories: For some reason, Apple chose not to supply black ear bud headphones, a dock, or other accessories (indeed, the iPod U2 Special Edition doesn't even come with a dock, black or white). Actually, there are a few other amenities included with this most painful of iPods: It comes with a U2 poster, and a $50 coupon off the purchase of "The Complete U2," a collection of over 400 U2 songs you must download in Protected AAC format; the retail price for the collection is $150.

 

Am I unimpressed by these new iPods? Yeah, pretty much. Don't get me wrong: For many reasons, the iPod is still the portable digital audio player to get, but the iPod Photo and iPod U2 Special Edition are underwhelming additions to the line-up.