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Cons: Despite large hard drives and batteries, outdated 2.5” screen and interface continue to fall behind Apple’s best devices in ease-of-use and quality of overall media playback experience, forcing users to pick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.
It would be an understatement to say that Apple’s 2009 edition of the iPod classic feels like an afterthought: rather than making any major—or even minor—changes to the device’s functionality, the company did little more than swap the 120GB hard drive from its 2008 model with a larger 160GB drive, preserving the same $249 price tag, and virtually everything else in the process. Apple bills the iPod classic as a standout solely on its capacity, which is largely true, except for one other factor: battery life.
Apart from its cardboard package, which is a tiny bit smaller than last year’s version, there’s only one way to distinguish a powered-off 160GB iPod classic from its 120GB predecessor: the rear engraving. This year’s iPod classic has seen its capacity badge shrink significantly in size, and its engraving shrink from three lines to two, removing Apple’s copyright and trademark references, plus its reservation of rights. The 160GB classic now starts with the words “Designed by Apple in California,” and ends with its serial number, whereas the prior version began with the serial number and ended with “All rights reserved.”
Apple has preserved two color choices from last year: a silver-faced version that has remained more or less identical since 2007, and a “black” version that evolved into a dark charcoal gray in 2008, remaining the exact same for 2009. Those familiar with Apple’s original 160GB iPod classic, released in 2007 and removed in 2008, will note that this year’s model is the first 160GB classic to have a charcoal face rather than a jet black one, and uses an enclosure that has the same thickness as the 2007 80GB model and the 2008 120GB model. The new model has 148GB of usable storage capacity, versus around 111GB on its predecessor, and preserves a sub-one-minute USB transfer time for 1GB of files—the fastest of the family, by at least a little bit. Apple continues to include a USB cable, Universal Dock Adapter, and a plain pair of Earphones—no microphone or remote—along with the new model.
The new iPod classic’s battery life isn’t a huge surprise. Apple says that it offers 36 hours of audio run time and 6 hours of video run time, which are lower than the 40 hours and 7 hours promised by the original, thicker 160GB iPod classic, but identical to last year’s 120GB model. Our battery tests saw the new model actually run for 42 hours and 53 seconds of continuous audio playback, while two separate video tests came up different: one went for 6 hours and 48 minutes of video playback, the other for closer to 7 and a half hours. We saw variations like this in last year’s iPod classic testing, as well, which leads us to believe that the new model is roughly on par in battery life with the prior 120GB model, maybe a little worse for video. Notably, the original 160GB iPod classic ran for over 58 hours of audio and nearly 9 and a half hours of video. It is also worth mentioning that this year’s classic continues to be the only iPod model that still supports FireWire charging, which enables it to remain compatible with a number of older car, speaker, and battery accessories that have been phasing out of stores over the past couple of years.
One thing that did surprise us with the new iPod classic was the short shrift it was given from a software standpoint. Last year’s model gained very little over its predecessor, adding a microphone- and remote-ready headphone port and support for Genius Playlists, but not much else. This year’s version doesn’t even include support for Apple’s latest Genius feature, iTunes-synchronized “Genius Mixes,” nor does it gain any of the additional speed or functionality tweaks that appeared in this year’s iPod touch and iPod nano. This iPod classic ships with version 2.0.2 of Apple’s iPod software, which the release notes say only adds support for the 160GB hard drive inside; it remains to be seen whether the company will make any subsequent improvements to the software during the classic’s lifespan, but the prior version saw only the most minor of changes in the past year.
Our flat B rating of the new iPod classic is reflective more of the state of the iPod family as a whole than of any new deficiencies in the 160GB model, which remains roughly competitive with its predecessor in battery life and features while gaining 37GB of usable additional storage space for the same price. That said, the classic has fallen considerably behind the less expensive iPod nano and iPod touch in features, and as Apple has suggested, its storage capacity is the single greatest reason to consider a purchase at this point, followed by its audio run time, which eclipses every other iPod and iPhone model currently on the market by either a little or a lot. With the release of the 64GB iPod touch, the classic’s days now truly appear to be numbered; at this point, we would recommend it only to users who really need it to tote around huge collections at once, and aren’t willing to wait for or spend the money on the inevitable 128GB iPod touch. It is still a good iPod—fast, capacious, and long-running—but in a twist of irony, it now does less than iPods that were once its subordinates.