Pros: A superior update to Apple’s 2005 and 2006 hard-disk based iPods, featuring cleaner audio, crisper video, better storage capacity and greater than promised battery performance at last year’s prices. Available in silver or black versions, each featuring an enhanced user interface that’s visually more interesting than its predecessor, and with better built-in games. Offers industry-leading 80GB and 160GB hard disk technologies in enclosures that are slimmer than ever before.

Cons: No longer Apple’s “best iPod ever;” outdated 2.5” screen and interface are now steps behind Apple’s best devices in ease-of-use and quality of overall media playback experience, while new interface struggles to match iPhone/iPod touch features without approaching their elegance. For photo and video output, no longer compatible with majority of video-out accessories, including portable video displays, released for the color 4G and 5G iPods, requiring new and more expensive replacement accessories; past accessories with on-iPod display features will exhibit reduced functionality, as well. Past iPod games won’t play on iPod classic.

It’s new! It’s old! It’s the new iPod classic. Using a refreshed interface that’s shared with the iPod nano, the iPod classic differentiates itself from the workout-ready model with hard disk-based storage and a larger physical size. An 80GB version is available for $249, with an incredibly spacious 160GB version for $349 — despite the fact that both models are thinner than the 30GB and 80GB fifth-generation iPods they respectively replace. More details to follow. New! Watch our video of the new iPod classic interface here, and get answers to frequently asked questions here.

Whether you call it the sixth-generation iPod or by its new name, iPod classic, the concept behind Apple’s latest hard disk-based iPod is the same as its predecessor, the “iPod (with video)”—offer a pocket-sized audio, video, and game player with large storage capacity options at industry-leading prices. In fact, iterative tweaks aside, iPod classic is an almost identical product to the enhanced fifth-generation iPod it replaces; the changes are supposed to make it even more appealing to last year’s holdouts.

Consequently, there is a lot to like about the iPod classic. More power efficient than its predecessors and equipped with an 80GB ($249) or 160GB ($349) hard disk, it unquestionably delivers markedly superior value for the dollar than what it replaces. The scratch-attractive black and white plastic of prior full-sized iPods has now given way to a mostly metal silver and white or black front shell. And there’s even a new user interface that takes cues from several other Apple products.

 

But is the iPod classic a smarter purchase today than its predecessors were in 2005 and 2006? And what about its incompatibility with a number of past accessories released for iPods, most notably including video devices? We’ll answer these questions and many more in our full review, below.

Also: Watch our video of the new iPod classic interface here, and get answers to frequently asked questions here.

Packaging, Pack-Ins, and Physical Characteristics

Pretty much the only thing iPod classic has in common with Apple’s iPhone is its packaging: both products now use two-piece black boxes that open to reveal foam-padded interiors with hard plastic shells that hold their devices. Once the shell—here, black rather than clear like iPhone’s—and iPod classic are removed, you’ll find a black envelope with instructions, Apple stickers, and safety warnings inside, plus a sealed white paper pouch containing three white plastic accessories.


All of these items are highly familiar. There’s a pair of iPod Earphones, unchanged from last year’s version, a Universal Dock Adapter, and a USB-to-iPod Dock Connector cable. The cable and Adapter are both identical to last year’s parts, a surprise given that new iPods typically merit new Adapters, and that iPhones come with slightly smaller-tipped USB cables. Most people won’t notice or care; both parts work just as they’re supposed to, enabling iPod classic to fit into any Universal Dock-equipped accessory, and charge or synchronize content from any USB 2.0 port-equipped computer.

 


Past iPod users will also find iPod classic’s physical dimensions and weight to be very familiar. As before, both versions measure 4.1” tall by 2.4” wide, but their depth and weight have changed slightly. The 80GB model is 0.41” deep and weighs 4.9 ounces, while the 160GB model is 0.53” deep and weighs 5.7 ounces. Both models are thinner than last year’s 80GB iPod, which was 0.55” deep; they also differ imperceptibly in weight from the 4.8 ounce 30GB and 5.5 ounce 80GB models they replace. Both the front and rear shells have taken a little off their previous thicknesses; the difference is more noticeable on the thinner and tapered metal iPod classic front versus the thick plastic iPod face.

 


These modest differences are attributable to Apple’s decision to preserve many of its prior components. iPod classic retains the 2005-2006 iPod’s 2.5-inch, 320×240 screen and matching Click Wheel, which as noted above are now wrapped in silver or black aluminum iPod nano-like pajamas. The Click Wheel is still made from plastic, and required a bit of additional pressure relative to the new iPod nano and past 5G iPod for scrolling. As has always been the case with hard disk iPods, the back is still made from a mirror-finished metal, interrupted by the same top-mounted Hold switch and headphone port arrangement as before, along with a bottom-mounted Dock Connector port. This port connects the iPod classic to all of the fifth-generation iPod’s accessories, though compatibility—especially for video add-ons—is not guaranteed (see our section on Accessories, below).

 


We can’t say that we actively like or dislike iPod classic’s new design. Though we’re sad to see the iconic white plastic iPod disappear, that change seemed inevitable once black iPods became popular and the iPhone emerged as a beautiful example of black-backed glass and chrome. We didn’t need to see the iPod classic go even thinner than the 5G iPod, but it has, and the difference between today’s iPods and 2001 models—shown in our Conclusions section below—is just that much more stunning. But iPod classic’s mixture of matte and mirror-finished metals doesn’t look as natural as the iPhone’s, so even though we should feel glad that the device has gained a less scratchable front surface, we’re not in love with the actual execution. Perhaps by design, it’s impossible to confuse with the ultra-classy iPhone, and only a step better than merely acceptable.

New Hard Drives and Batteries: Classic’s Biggest Upgrades

If iPod classic’s going to win fans, it won’t be on the strength of what’s outside; rather, the $249 and $349 models’ new hard drives and batteries are their strongest selling points. Thankfully, they’re stronger than ever. Last year, the $249 iPod was a 30GB model with 14 hours of continuous audio playback and 3.5 hours of video playback; the $349 model had 80GB of storage space, 20 hours of audio run time, and 6.5 hours of video run time. Both were considered very good values for the dollar, lacking only slightly in battery power relative to what users would prefer.

The iPod classic does better. For $249, you now get 80GB of music, video, and game storage space rather than 30GB, which means you can store 20,000 128kbps songs or 100 hours of 640×480 video. Battery life has gone up to a promised 30 hours of audio playback and 5 hours of video playback. That’s 2.7x the storage capacity, 2.14x the promised audio run time, and 1.43x in promised video play time for the same price. However, in our testing with test videos downloaded from the iTunes Store, the 80GB iPod classic actually outperformed Apple’s battery statistics, repeatedly playing The Incredibles and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for 6 hours and 46 minutes. That’s an hour more than the run time of the new iPod nano with the same videos, and up to snuff with last year’s 80GB model. Audio also beat Apple’s numbers, running for 36 hours and 16 minutes before requiring a recharge.

 


Power users will prefer the $349 model, which now has a whopping 160GB of storage capacity rather than 80GB—this equates to 40,000 songs or 200 hours of video. Its battery now promises 40 hours of music and 7 hours of video, versus 20 hours of audio and 6.5 video hours in last year’s $349 model. In other words, Apple claims that you’ll get twice the storage and twice the audio play time, with a 7.7% increase in promised video play time. If those numbers weren’t impressive enough, the 160GB iPod classic also outperformed its battery claims, running our two test videos for 9 hours and 28 minutes on 50% volume and 50% brightness—a 46% improvement over last year’s top model. In audio, it exceeded Apple’s claims by a wide margin, playing our test tracks for 58 hours and 14 minutes. Your results may well vary based on the amount you use the iPod’s screen, equalizers, and other features, but there’s no doubt that the 160GB classic is the power champ of the iPod family.

 

File transfer speeds vary between the iPod classic models, but they’re improved over the 5G iPod. Our 80GB iPod classic transferred 5GB of data in 5 minutes, 43 seconds, or roughly 69 seconds per Gigabyte; the 160GB iPod classic has a slower hard drive which took 7 minutes, 21 seconds for the same transfer, or 88 seconds per Gigabyte. This is faster than the 102 seconds per Gigabyte we saw when we retested last year’s 5G iPods under the same conditions, and also faster than the 93 seconds per Gigabyte speeds we saw on the new third-generation iPod nanos.

 

As iPod hard drive sizes have increased less dramatically in size than this in the past, one question is obvious: is all of this capacity actually necessary? If so, why? There are two answers: yes, and “for video,” particularly video that’s displayed on something other than the iPod’s screen.

 

Though iPod classic’s screen remains at the same low 320×240 resolution it started with two years ago, virtually all of the videos sold through the iTunes Store and most of the DVDs out there use substantially higher resolutions—640×480 or higher. The greater the resolution, the more space a video takes up. Consequently, those who have amassed large, high-quality video collections—and those who might—will find the extra space to be much more convenient than, say, trying to create extra-small versions optimized for only the iPod’s screen.

The biggest potential advantage of iPod classic as a video player is its enhanced video-out capability. Unlike the fifth-generation iPod, which was only outfitted by Apple with a composite video-out cable, Apple states that iPod classic can output video at up to 480p (720×480 resolution, 60fps) or 576p (720×576)—better than even the iPod touch, which promises only 480i or 576i. Unfortunately, you’ll apparently need a $49 Apple Component AV Cable in order to take advantage of the superior resolution; we’ll review it and offer more details as soon as it’s available. Additional details on iPod classic’s video functionality are discussed under Accessories, below.

 

It’s worth a brief note that iPod classic’s Disk Mode—its ability to serve as a hard drive for files on your computer—hasn’t changed. Apple still formats iPod classics as PC or Mac hard disks, depending on the type of machines they’re connected to, and still lets you drag and drop files onto the drive from Windows or the Mac OS Finder. Because of the 160GB model’s incredible storage capacity, it’s even better suited for use as a spare data drive than its predecessors, though you’ll need to decide whether you want to risk the extra wear and tear on its hard disk mechanism.

A Split-Screen (or Half New) User Interface

Though its enclosure, hard disk, and battery performance have definitely changed, the biggest difference you will notice in iPod classic is its user interface. As iPod screens became bigger and more colorful, and their fonts less chunky, the minimalist designers at Apple didn’t seem to know what to do with them, and consequently each generation had more and more white space on the right of the screen.

That’s changed. Apple has shifted all of its old first- and second-level menu options over to the left half of the screen, using the right side 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 now 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 has put a little extra Mac OS X Leopard-style spin on the new interface, as well. Search gets a clean matte overlay bar, for instance, and old Aqua-influenced elements such as the volume level bar and scroll bars have been replaced with more solid, less glassy alternatives.

 

Most of the time, the new interface is fine, but it does look 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’s Cover Flow, which works similarly but with more button pressing, less fluidity, and a white background. Somewhat better is a Now Playing screen with perspective-angled album art inspired by Apple TV, again only in white rather than the Apple TV’s black. Now, after a minute or so of audio playback, a large clock will appear on a white screen-filling background along with a battery indicator and play icon. Are these improvements on the old iPod interface? Yes, but as with iPod classic’s exterior, you won’t confuse them with the better-looking screens on the iPhone.

 


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.

Audio and Video Quality, With Tweaks

From an on-paper specifications standpoint, little has changed from the fifth-generation iPod to the iPod classic: the new device still plays the music, audiobooks, podcasts, and video files its predecessor could play, with no additional formats or upgraded on-screen video. However, when you actually listen to or watch the iPod classic performing music and movies, it’s clear that there have been some changes—mostly good ones.

There’s generally good news on the iPod classic audio quality front: Apple still appears to be taking sound quality seriously in its hard disk-based iPods, and this year’s model has consequently seen further reductions in the base level of noise from last year’s fifth-generation iPods. Plugging the same high-end earphones into both old and new iPods yields a noticeable difference in audio hiss; the iPod classic sounds cleaner. It remains to be seen how the iPod touch will fare in this regard, but if the iPhone and our brief tests of iPod touch at Apple’s Special Event are any indication, the iPod classic may well be the family’s best audio player.

As an offset, however, we noticed that its sound was slightly less warm than the 5G iPod’s 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 the fifth-generation iPod, but they also revealed the much more noticeable static hiss. Overall, we preferred the classic’s default 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. The effect is nice, if more intrusive than before.

 


Video quality is highly similar between the iPod classic and the enhanced 5G iPod released in 2006. Movies played back on the iPod classic’s screen 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.

Apple has added a new option, Captions, to the Video Settings menu. Closed captioning will be available in certain videos sold through the iTunes Store, so you’ll be able to have this text appear as an overlay to the video if the Captions option is selected. Widescreen has also been renamed Fullscreen in this menu, emphasizing what the iPod classic has rather than what it lacks. Turn on Fullscreen mode to crop the sides of a widescreen video and fill the iPod classic’s entire 4:3 display with what’s left.

Photo Playback: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Somewhat surprisingly, the iPod classic Photos feature takes one step forward and two steps back from the fifth-generation iPod’s. Apple’s improvement to this feature comes straight from the iPhone: iPod classic now displays thumbnails against an attactive dark gray background rather than the prior iPod’s more boring white, 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 photo thumbnails than on the 5G iPod’s screen, but they’re easier to preview from afar.


The photos themselves look no better on the iPod’s screen, though, and you still can’t zoom into them as you can on the iPhone or other devices. We don’t mind that. But we did mind the fact that Apple dropped a number of the 5G iPod’s 3-D transition effects, including Cube across and down, swirl, radial, and dissolve, along with others. Now you just get five effects (cross fade, fade to black, zoom out, wipe across, and wipe center), and the option to use them at random, or none at all.

 

They’re also not the same five effects as are found on an iPhone, suggesting either that something’s changed in the new iPod’s graphics hardware, or Apple’s crippling the classic to keep its features in line with the new iPod nano.

 


Another step backwards is the TV Out feature. iPod 5Gs, as well as their iPod photo and 4G iPod predecessors, could display photographs on a TV set with any $15-20 video cable. As is the case with iPod classic’s movie output feature, photos can no longer be displayed on a TV unless you buy a more expensive Apple-authorized cable or docking solution; this is discussed further under the Accessories section.

All-New Games

Apple could have kept the old iPod’s pre-installed games, which date back from 2001 to 2003, but it didn’t: they’re gone. And we don’t mind. Two of them—Music Quiz and Solitaire—have been replaced by the 5G iPod game iQuiz and a refreshed solitaire game called Klondike, which are much-improved visually over the old iPod’s built-in games.


The old-fashioned Breakout clone Brick has been replaced by the 5G iPod game Vortex, which wraps bricks around the inside of a tube for your paddle to break with a ball or upgraded weapons. Apple appears to have mostly preserved Vortex from the 5G iPod original, but it’s lost some of its transparency effects, which is a bit of a bummer. Still, these three games are better than the four that used to be on iPods; no one will miss the Missile Command-like Parachute.

 


Unfortunately, it appears that none of the old 5G iPod’s downloadable games will work on the iPod classic, which is a major bummer for those who have spent $5 per title to build up their libraries. All of the games will have to be updated for use on the new iPod (and iPod nano)—a process that is apparently starting slowly with only three downloadable titles, Tetris, Ms. Pac-Man, and Sudoku—and Apple hasn’t yet said whether past customers will have to pay again to play the same titles on their new iPods. We certainly hope not.

Refreshed Extras: Clocks & Timers, Calendars, Contacts, Screen Lock, and Notes

Though no one gets excited about such changes, Apple has visually updated each of the 5G iPod’s Extras applications to take better advantage of the 320×240 display.

Clock now fits three nice-looking transparent clocks on screen at once instead of the 5G iPod’s four black and white ones. They’re displayed on top of a gray map of the Earth, losing the calendar date in favor of the words “today” or “tomorrow.”

 

Alarms has now been broken out into a separate Extra. You can now set alarms to go off once, every day, weekends, weekdays, every week, every month or every year. Each can be labeled with one of a handful of names picked from a list. Multiple alarms can be set up for your current location.

 

Stopwatch now has an image of a stopwatch on the screen alongside a digital timer. You can peruse past records, with computed total, shortest, longest, and average times kept in a log. Multiple timers can be run at once, as well.

 

The Calendar interface has slightly softer colors, but otherwise looks very much the same as before. Blank days now say “No events for this day” rather than appearing blank when you click on them. They’re not editable using the iPod classic.

Contacts are laid out with slightly different fonts and all-white backgrounds. Icons/photos of the contacts are still very small. They’re not editable using the iPod classic.

 

Screen Lock works the same as before to prevent others from accessing iPod classic’s contents. There’s now a nice new brass lock icon, but it’s otherwise the same four-digit system.

 

Notes are mostly the same “light HTML documents” as before, except for the font boldness, which has dropped substantially. Text looks thinner and smaller than before.

Accessories

There’s some good news and some bad news about past iPod accessories. The good news is that, from a physical standpoint, iPod classics will work with almost everything developed for fifth-generation iPods. Apple has kept the top and bottom ports in the same places, the same footprint, and almost the same thicknesses as the prior models. Though you can’t expect form-fitting hard plastic cases to fit perfectly, and the iPod classics will be a little looser in soft cases, old designs will do just fine for protection until new ones come along.

Audio and charging accessories will generally work properly with iPod classic. Unlike the iPhone, which still doesn’t work with our favorite car accessories, iPod classic works just fine for audio with the accessories we previously installed—it doesn’t put up any nag screens, fail to charge, or fail to play back music. It also works properly with past voice recording accessories, adding both a new recording screen with a microphone icon and a new playback screen that’s nicer than before.  FM transmitter and other accessories will generally work properly so long as they don’t hijack the iPod’s screen for tuning or other functionality.

 


But it does fail to do something simple and fundamental: unlike the fourth- and fifth-generation iPods, it refuses to output video or photographs to an external TV or other device unless it’s connected to something that contains an Apple authentication chip. That means that our in-car video cable can’t play video from the iPod classic. It also means that our collections of iPod video display docks and wearable video displays do not work with iPod classic. Photo slideshows and video playback alike are constrained by this artificial limitation. In short, Apple has locked away the photo-out feature it introduced in the iPod photo and 4G iPod, as well as the video-out capabilities that it introduced in the 5G iPod, and is now going to make you buy new accessories to replace the ones that worked before.

 

It goes without saying that Apple need not have done this, and to lock away support for devices that people have been using for two years sets an extremely poor precedent for future iPod accessory support. Why should consumers invest any amount of money in an iPod add-on when there’s a good chance that next year’s model might not work properly with it? Beats us.

Another less important accessory that won’t work is the iPod Camera Connector, which offered snail slow transfers of photographs from a digital camera to the 4G and 5G iPods’ hard drives. This now brings up a screen that says “Unsupported – Accessory is not supported.” Given that the Camera Connector hasn’t been an especially viable transfer solution for the past couple of years, we’re not sad to see it go, but it would be nice to have a faster, better alternative. Similarly, the Nike + iPod Sport Kit doesn’t work with the iPod classic, which isn’t entirely a surprise, but could easily have been added by Apple given the similarity in the classic and nano’s new interfaces.

Conclusions

There’s no doubt that your view of the iPod classic will depend entirely on the yardstick you measure it by: judged against the fifth-generation iPod it replaces, it’s certainly a better product for the dollar, and offers substantial improvements in both audio and video output—with the exception of its problematic accessory support. If you were one of the few people who saw last year’s 5G iPods and held off on a purchase not because of the screen or the Click Wheel but because of battery or hard disk concerns, the iPod classic is the right iPod for you. As before, it’s yet another nice iterative step ahead of the original 2001 iPod.


Unfortunately, Apple’s iPhone casts a very long shadow: the company has long proclaimed iPhone its “best iPod ever,” and all it takes is one look at the iPod classic’s face—or the fact that Apple gave it the “classic” name—to know that it doesn’t represent the best interface or display technology Apple has to offer. iPod classic’s new split-screen menus are nicer than last year’s iPod models, but from Cover Flow to the Now Playing screen to video playback, you can’t help but feel that classic is struggling to be something better.

 

In our view, iPod classic is most clearly an example of pragmatism slapping optimism in the face—this is not the device Apple fans have been dreaming about, but rather the device that Apple could sell for $249 or $349 while maintaining its classic profit margins. These facts don’t make it a bad iPod for new users; to the contrary, it is a good choice for those who don’t mind compromising on display and user interface technology to get an affordable digital media player with incredible storage capacity. However, we wouldn’t recommend it to everyone; our advice would be to hold out for a device that offers the screen, interface and storage capacity that satisfy your needs.

Our Rating

B+
Recommended

Company and Price

Company: Apple Computer

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPod classic

Price: $249 (80GB), $349 (160GB)

Compatible: PC/Mac