On October 26, Apple Computer introduced the iPod Photo, a $500-to-$600 iPod device that features a beautiful color screen and, for the first time on Apple's portable music player, the ability to watch and remotely display photo slide shows synchronized from your Macintosh or PC. If this functionality seems a bit familiar, you've been paying attention. Many electronics companies have offered similar devices for some time now. Indeed, the most recent examples—the Portable Media Centers made by Creative, iRiver, and Samsung—also offer a number of features that the iPod Photo lacks. Why does the mainstream press seem to ignore non-Apple products, and what should you do if you're considering such a device?

It's an Apple Mad, Mad World
As a tech reporter of sorts, I've always been dismayed by the unfair attention Apple garners from key members of the tech press. I know from experience that Apple gets this attention by seeding influential reporters with early and free hardware and software products. Thus, publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Newsweek have always given Apple and its Macintosh computer systems more press than the company has deserved (based on Apple products' near-nonexistent market share).

With the iPod, however, the tables turned. Beautifully designed, like all Apple products, the iPod brings one crucial element to the table that the Mac could never muster: It's actually better than the competition in many ways. The iPod is also an affordable luxury. Sales have taken off in recent years, bolstering this opinion. As of October 1, 2004, the iPod commands almost 91 percent of the market for hard disk-based portable media players.

However, the iPod isn't perfect. Although we should credit Apple for creating an elegant player, certain features are still lacking when compared to the competition, including price, storage capacity, battery life, compatibility with online music stores, and durability. (iPods scratch horribly if you just look at them funny.) Furthermore, iPod batteries aren't user-replaceable, and no iPod includes features such as FM radio or voice recording. And figuring out which iPods come with certain accessories—such as a dock, inline remote, or carrying case—can be frustrating.

Photos on Deck
In any event, the iPod Photo is now available, and tech journalists are flooding the media with egregious hyperbole to describe the new device. That's too bad, because the truth is that the iPod Photo is a seriously flawed device, and it's unclear that it's worth the extra $100 to $200 you pay for it, when compared to previous-generation iPods.

Like the previous iPods, the iPod Photo is a wonderfully designed device, with an elegant form factor and a gorgeous color screen. The color screen serves three purposes. First, it enhances the general screen display. Combined with a new font, the new screen makes text on the iPod Photo incredibly easy to read. Second, during song playback, the iPod now displays a small album art graphic (assuming you've spent the time to add that information in Apple iTunes). And third, you can use the device to watch photo slide shows.

Although the overall addition of color is welcome and much needed, Apple's application of color on the device is decidedly 1.0. For example, when you're playing back music, you can't change the view that's displayed. If you hit Select, the album art briefly appears full screen, but that's it. Contrast this functionality with the options available when playing music on a Portable Media Center. As I note in my review on the SuperSite for Windows, "The default view displays album art with group, album name, track number and title, and timeline information. But you can navigate horizontally through other views as well: Album art, Album listing, Spartan, and options, from \[which\] you can quickly set up shuffle play, repeat play, and equalizer options, all without having to Menu, Menu, Menu, Menu back to the main screen like you would on an iPod. There's also a fourth option, called Purchase, which \[is\] used for trial song (or video) downloads: If you like the sample, you can purchase the full song the next time you're connected to the PC."

In short, the Portable Media Center offers a wealth of carefully considered display options, which probably has a lot to do with the size of that device's screen: Compared side by side, it's clear that a Portable Media Center screen is about three times that of the iPod Photo's tiny screen. It also offers much higher resolution at 320 x 240. (The iPod Photo is limited to 220 x 176.)

The iPod Photo's photo capabilities are even more limited. When you navigate to the device's new Photo menu, you'll see just a few options: Slideshow Settings, Photo Library (which contains thumbnail images of every photo on the device), and a link to the top-most folders you use to store your photos (in my case, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, and Old Pictures). The problem is that the iPod offers no view of the underlying photo and folder structure: On my device, the 2004 folder contains more than 1200 photos in a flat structure and isn't subdivided into topical folders, as it is on my PC. Navigating to precisely the photos I want is quite difficult. For example, let's say I want to display just the photos from a trip my family took to Vermont this year. On the iPod, those photos are commingled with all the other photos from 2004, so I have to manually find them and can then only manually navigate from picture to picture. That's silly.

On the Portable Media Center, the device respects the folder structure I created on the PC, so I have folders such as 2004 Trip to Vermont from which I can trigger slideshows. It's far more usable.

Another feature users might expect on this kind of photo device is the ability to play music over photo slide shows. On the Portable Media Center, you simply start playing some music, go back to the Start screen, then select My Pictures and the photos you want—it all works perfectly. Unfortunately, Apple has botched this functionality on the iPod. Instead of letting you play any music on the fly, you must go to Slideshow Settings and configure the music that will play—which means the exact same song will queue up every time you start a slideshow. Yawn.

Like the Portable Media Center, the iPod Photo comes with the cables you need to play slide shows and music on a TV set. That's cool. But, once again, the iPod's functionality limitations are ultimately frustrating. Setting up on-the-fly slide shows with a Portable Media Center is far easier than performing the same task on the iPod. And because the Portable Media Center also supports video and recorded TV playback (in addition to music and photo slide shows), it's a more practical and versatile tool.

Not a Slam-Dunk
You're probably assuming that I'm recommending a Portable Media Center over an iPod Photo. Not quite. Both devices are expensive, starting at $500, and both are missing key features. Compared to the iPod Photo, most Portable Media Centers are quite large. For example, the Creative unit I'm testing is more than twice as big as the iPod Photo, so you can't jog or work out with it as you might with an iPod. You also need to be fully invested in Microsoft's Digital Entertainment Anywhere mantra to fully take advantage of a Portable Media Center—and that means owning a Media Center PC that's hooked up to a TV source such as cable.

Adding insult to injury, neither the iPod nor any Portable Media Centers deliver key functionality. You can't use either to offload pictures directly from a digital camera, which would be handy. Neither includes an FM tuner. And neither includes an inline or wireless remote, although you can get some of this functionality through third parties if you don't mind spending even more money.

In the end, neither one of these devices is a slam-dunk. The Portable Media Centers got there first and offer more functionality, a bigger screen, and better battery life. But the iPod Photo is more portable, more elegant looking, and has a better-looking UI. In the end, deciding which is "better"—the utilitarian Portable Media Center or the fancy iPod Photo—might be the wrong question. A better question is, When will these devices come down in price and offer better functionality? When that happens, we'll have to revisit this interesting new market segment. Until then, only early adopters and the truly affluent need apply.