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Cons: Despite large hard drives and batteries, outdated 2.5” screen and interface continue to fall behind Apple’s best devices in ease-of-use and quality of overall media playback experience, forcing users to pick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.
Of course, the 2008 iPod classic still plays the same music, audiobooks, podcasts, and video files that the fifth-generation iPod and last year’s video-ready models could play, with no additional formats or upgraded on-screen video. The 2008 iPod classic’s audio and video quality is unchanged from the 2007 version’s, so we preserve most of the text of last year’s review below; it’s worth reading for those who aren’t familiar with what made the iPod classic special last year, even at a time when the flashier iPod touch and iPod nano were grabbing more attention.
As we noted last year, Apple improved the audio quality of the iPod classic by replacing the Wolfson Audio chips found in prior iPod models with a Cirrus Logic chip. Consequently, plugging the same high-end earphones into both old and new iPods yielded a noticeable difference in audio hiss; the iPod classic sounded cleaner. This year, Apple has changed the chips on the new iPod nano and iPod touch as well, bringing them all into line with the iPod classic.
As an offset, however, the iPod classic’s sound remains slightly less warm than the prior fifth-generation iPod and similarly Wolfson chip-equipped past models at comparable volume levels, and by “slightly,” we mean slightly. The same pairs of test earphones—here, Etymotic’s ER-4P, Shure’s SE530, and Ultimate Ears’ UE-11 Pro—sounded just a little more rich when used with prior iPods, but they also revealed the much more noticeable static hiss. Overall, we prefer the classic’s sound, though we still would strongly prefer to have band-level graphical equalization features to tweak it precisely to our liking.
Very little has changed in the iPod classic’s handling of video files. Unlike the iPhone and iPod touch, you need to pre-select whether a video will take up the entire screen or display in letterboxed widescreen mode. Rather than fading in as white overlays on top of the video, status bars—title, battery life and play/pause status on top, volume, time/chapter scrubbing, and screen brightness on bottom—slide in and out on bars that appear from off-screen.
Video quality is the same as with the 2007 iPod classic, and highly similar to the enhanced 5G iPod released in 2006. Movies played on either iPod classic have roughly the same minimum and maximum brightness levels as the 2006 5G iPod, but they’re rendered a bit more sharp rather than soft, in either widescreen or fullscreen mode. There are situations in which one sharpness setting might seem better than the other’s, but we generally preferred the classic’s.
With only one exception, the iPod classic is now the least impressive photo display device in the iPod family. As with last year, the classic displays thumbnails against an attactive dark gray background, and they show up on an easy-to-view 5 by 3 grid, plus a number tally and date bar, that’s consistent visually with the latest iPhoto interface. You get fewer thumbnails (15) than on the iPod nano or iPod touch/iPhone (20), but they’re larger than the nano’s and a little easier to see.
The classic’s only advantage over the iPod nano is the sheer size of its screen. At 2.5” on the diagonal, photo details are generally easier to see on the classic’s display than on the nano’s 2.0” screen. However, the new nano’s accelerometer—like the iPod touch and iPhone 3G—makes the most of the smaller screen, letting pictures turn for portrait and widescreen viewing to take up as much of the screen as possible; this doesn’t happen on the iPod classic, which does a less impressive job with portrait-oriented images. You also don’t get the zoom abilities of the iPod touch and iPhone photo applications, and the transition effects on the iPod classic (cross fade, fade to black, zoom out, wipe across, and wipe center) are the worst of the family.
As a final note, the new iPod classic—like the iPod nano and iPod touch—continues to bear a scar from last year’s model: Apple’s locked-down TV Out feature. Prior iPods could display photographs and videos on a TV set with any $15-20 video cable, but Apple unfortunately locked down this feature in 2007, so neither videos nor photos will display on a TV unless you buy a more expensive Apple-authorized cable or docking solution. Additionally, pre-2008 video accessories such as portable video displays do not work with the iPod classic. This is discussed in more detail under the Accessories section, but remains an unexplained and seriously disappointing limitation of the current iPod lineup.