Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)
Pros: Apple’s only remaining hard disk-based iPod, boasting family-leading storage capacity and battery performance at reasonable pricing. Available in silver or black versions, each with full support for music, video, photo, and game playback. Adds new headphone port-based voice recording and remote control technology, as well as Genius playlist creation. Fastest iPod at transferring media from iTunes, by a substantial factor. Now the only iPod that remains compatible with older FireWire charging accessories, including expensive past speaker systems and certain car kits. A solid compromise device.
Cons: Despite large hard drives and batteries, outdated 2.5” screen and interface continue to fall behind Apple’s best devices in ease-of-use and quality of overall media playback experience, forcing users to pick between great screens or the hard disks necessary to carry lots of video around. Lacks several new features added to fourth-generation iPod nano. Remains incompatible with pre-2008 video-out accessories, including portable video displays, requiring recent and more expensive replacements. Not available in capacities as large or larger than last year’s biggest model.
Last year, Apple released an updated user interface for both the third-generation iPod nano and iPod classic that finally used the screen for more than just black text on a white background. Though the fourth-generation iPod nano dropped that interface, the new iPod classic preserves it essentially unchanged.
First- and second-level menu options are shown on the left half of the screen, while the right side is used for artwork. Use the Click Wheel to highlight Music, Videos, Photos, or Podcasts and you’ll see cover art or pictures floating on the right, and underneath the shadow of the left side’s menu. Dig down to the third level menu and the whole screen will become white, save for the blue highlighting cursor and black or gray text. Playlists have small gray song tallies, Albums have small artists’ names and art icons, Songs have artists’ names, and Genres have artist and album tallies. Videos also have icons and summary information as appropriate.
Apple includes a little Mac OS X Leopard-style design here, as well. Introduced in the enhanced fifth-generation iPod, Search gets a clean matte overlay bar, for instance, and old Aqua-influenced elements such as the volume level bar and scroll bars use more solid, less glassy alternatives.
As we noted last year, the new interface is fine, but looks a bit odd, and feels as if it’s been cobbled together from earlier, more powerful Apple products. For instance, there’s a cut-down version of the iPhone and iPod touch’s Cover Flow, which works similarly but with more button pressing on a white background. It is faster than was the version included with the iPod classic’s original software last year, but it’s not as fast or fluid as on the new iPod nano or the touchscreen-based devices.
Similarly, the iPod classic’s Now Playing screen is looking increasingly dated. The new iPod nano, as well as the iPod touch and iPhone, use their entire screen widths for huge album art; the iPod classic continues to feature a piece of perspective-angled album art inspired by Apple TV. Amazingly, though this piece of art is the same size as it was last year, it’s now smaller than the one found on the iPod nano’s Now Playing screen, and less detailed. An odd-looking clock, play icon, and battery indicator continue to appear as a screensaver when the device is continually playing; the clock’s font is unlike any other part of the classic’s interface.
The split-screen interface works especially well in the iPod classic’s settings menu. Old commands such as “shuffle,” “repeat,” and “clicker” that may have confused some users in the past now have explanations on the right side of the screen, and new options such as “Music Menu” make their purposes clear. Apple’s long-neglected equalizer (EQ) feature still isn’t adjustable by users, but at least the various presets now have bar-style visual indicators of how they work—assuming you know what the bars are supposed to represent.
Apple’s only additions to the iPod classic’s prior interface fall into the “trivial” category. Added to version 2.0 of the iPod classic software is a feature also found in the new iPod nano, touch, and iPhone 3G: “Genius.” Using an atomic icon that resembles the ones found in Apple’s retail store Genius Bars, Genius enables you to create automatic playlists of similar music by selecting a track, holding down the center button for a second, and choosing the “Start Genius” option. It requires you to connect once to iTunes to import Genius data from your library, but after that, it does a smarter but similar equivalent to creating a smart playlist from the current song’s genre.
The company has added two new options to the Video Settings menu, now enabling you to select Alternate Audio and/or Subtitles for video files. These features depend on the video you’re watching to actually have encoded audio or subtitle data, which is presently not very common; the same options notably have been added to the new iPod nano, but not the iPod touch or iPhone 3G, suggesting that they’re not a high priority at this point.
Other changes to the iPod classic’s software are basically invisible. While Apple changed the image-to-image transition effects in the iPod nano’s version of Photos, it has left them—and everything else—the same in the new iPod classic as in the past one. Consequently, this software doesn’t feel so much like “2.0” as it does “1.2,” and though Apple has worked out most of last year’s classic kinks at this point, it’s unclear whether this classic will continue to receive the same sorts of bug fixes and other updates that proved necessary for the original.