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Cons: Despite large hard drives and batteries, outdated 2.5” screen and interface continue to fall behind Apple’s best devices in ease-of-use and quality of overall media playback experience, forcing users to pick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.

In 2007, Apple released three substantially new iPods: the biscuit-shaped third-generation iPod nano (iLounge Rating: A), the metal-faced iPod classic (iLounge Rating: B+), and the phoneless iPhone called iPod touch (iLounge Rating: B-). This year, Apple has updated all three models with new features that range from trivial to important, generally improving each while boosting storage capacity for the dollar. Our review of the 2008 iPod classic (120GB/$249) covers all of the key changes and details you want to know about.

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Every once in a long while, Apple releases an iPod that isn’t quite the next “generation” of an earlier model, but certainly isn’t exactly the same as its immediate predecessor, either. Such is the case with the 2008 iPod classic, the most recent hard disk-based sequel to the original iPod released in 2001: despite internal changes, Apple has stopped short of calling it the “second-generation iPod classic,” and is instead referring to it solely as the iPod classic (120GB). Properly understood as the “sixth-and-a-half-generation iPod” (or 6.5G iPod for short), here’s how it fits into the family’s history.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

The first iPod pioneered the concept of a 1.8” hard disk drive-based music player that used a bright white screen and rotating wheel for navigation. Its second-generation 2002 sequel changed the wheel to a touch-sensitive surface and came in both PC and Mac versions. A completely redesigned third-generation model in 2003 added a bottom accessory Dock Connector, replaced all the clickable buttons with touch-sensitive controls, and added USB connectivity as an option. The fourth-generation 2004 version came in both black and white and color versions, swapping the prior control scheme for the modern Click Wheel controller. Apple’s fifth-generation 2005 iPod was the first to play videos, and an “enhanced fifth-generation” version in 2006 added additional storage capacity. The 2007 sixth-generation iPod was rebranded as iPod classic, and was the first to offer Cover Flow and come with a silver or black metal face. Two versions were available: an 80GB version with 30 promised hours of audio runtime, and a thicker 160GB version with 40 hours.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Apple’s 2008 model is still sold in black- or silver-faced versions, but comes in only one capacity, 120GB, enough to store 30,000 songs or 150 hours of video in standard formats. Like all screened iPods, the classic supports audio and video in MP3, AAC, MPEG-4, and H.264 formats, as well as Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV. Though it looks exactly the same dimensionally as the “thin” 80GB sixth-generation iPod classic, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs spent less than a minute discussing the new model during its unveiling, it has actually changed inside: in addition to the extra storage space, Apple has quietly added new features such as superior 36-hour battery life, headphone port-based remote controls, and headphone port-based voice recording, as well as a number of smaller changes. The pages of this review look at each of the key prior and new features in turn; you can look at the pros and cons here, or skip directly to the conclusions for our purchasing recommendations.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

[Editor’s Note: This review was updated on September 14, 2009 to add a page on the late 2009 replacement for the 120GB model, which is virtually identical in all ways except capacity. The late 2009 iPod classic has 160GB of storage capacity, and is discussed in full on page 10. The rest of this review, including the original rating for the late 2008 model, remains intact; page 10 discusses the reasons for the new model’s lower rating. Additionally, on November 6, 2013, we re-rated the iPod classic a second time to note its continually diminished appeal relative to iOS devices.]

Packaging, Pack-Ins, and Physical Characteristics

As was the case last year, the 2008 iPod classic comes in a cardboard box that has more in common with the current-generation iPhone than it does the flash-based devices on the iPod family. This year’s box is just like last year’s, but white rather than black, using a foam-padded interior with a hard plastic shell to hold the classic in place. Once the shell and iPod are removed, you’ll find a white envelope with instructions, Apple stickers, and safety warnings inside, plus a sealed white paper pouch containing three white plastic accessories.

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

There’s a pair of iPod Earphones, a Universal Dock Adapter, and a USB-to-iPod Dock Connector cable. The Adapter is the same one that was included with last year’s 80GB model, and the USB cable is now the smaller-tipped version that debuted with the iPhone last year but didn’t make it into initial iPod classic boxes. As always, these parts enable you to listen to the iPod classic’s music, fit into any Universal Dock-equipped accessory, and charge or synchronize content from any USB 2.0 port-equipped computer.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Other than the 120GB badge on the back casing, there’s literally nothing new dimensionally about the device’s body. It still measures 4.1” tall by 2.4” wide by 0.41” deep and weighs 4.9 ounces, just as the prior 80GB model did. It retains the same 2.5-inch, 320×240 screen and Click Wheel that we’ve seen in hard disk iPods since the fifth-generation, and the Click Wheel is still made from plastic. While the silver version is virtually indistinguishable from the prior 80GB version, the black 120GB classic has adopted the same charcoal gray coloration as the third- and fourth-generation iPod nanos, which Apple still calls “black,” despite the obvious differences between this color and the jet black prior iPods, as well as first- and second-generation nanos.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Though the front of the device is made from scratch- (but not dent-) resilient anodized aluminum, iPod classic’s back continues to use a scratch-attractive polished metal, interrupted by the same top-mounted Hold switch and headphone port arrangement as before, along with a bottom-mounted Dock Connector port. Both of these ports connect the iPod classic to accessories, as discussed below.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

As we’ve noted before, our feelings about the iPod classic’s physical design are mixed. While the unit packs impressive storage capacity and features into an easily pocketed device—one with a thickness that we don’t mind given its benefits—the classic looked and felt sort of stale on arrival last year and haven’t improved in any way this year. Red or other colored iPod classic models have never materialized, and the stock silver and black colors are dull by contrast with the continually evolving iPod nano family. There’s little doubt that Apple’s doing nothing to glamorize this product, as its only real improvements are under the hood, and then, not especially well touted.

Hard Disk, Battery, and iTunes Sync Tests: Great Results

When we reviewed the 80GB and 160GB iPod classics last year, we were thrilled to discover that these models packed not only the family’s largest storage capacities, but the best battery life Apple has ever offered: the company had jumped from a $249 30GB, 14-audio-hour fifth-generation iPod to a $249 80GB iPod classic with over 30 hours of audio run time.

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Apple has done it again this year. The $249 iPod classic now boasts 50% more storage capacity, using a single-platter 120GB hard disk as a replacement for the 80GB disk in the prior model. And the new device is even more power-efficient than before: Apple promises 36 hours of audio run time and 6 hours of video run time. If accurate, these numbers would place it in the middle of last year’s 80GB and 160GB models.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Our tests yielded very positive results. While Apple has become less conservative in publishing battery life for the iPod touch and iPhone 3G models, which it struggled to portray as up to snuff with last year’s iPod nano and classic, the 120GB iPod classic is undersold, and actually delivered healthy gains over the 2007 iPod classics. Whereas Apple promised 30 audio hours from the 80GB classic and delivered 36, it promised 36 in the 120GB classic and delivered over 42. Similarly, while it promised 5 hours of video run time in the 80GB classic and delivered nearly 7, it claims 6 hours for the 120GB model and delivers nearly 8. These numbers place the 120GB iPod classic substantially above the iPod shuffle, nano, and touch, and more than trivially above the iPhone 3G in audio, as well.

Two things should be noted about these performance statistics. We ran our video battery test three separate times because of a bug in the 120GB classic’s video playlist feature that kept playing the same video over and over rather than alternating between different videos in our playlist. In order to achieve an “average” despite the bug, we ran the test once repeating one of our two test movies and once repeating the other, then averaged the numbers to reach our 7:59 figure. Our third test yielded a run time of 7 hours and 57 minutes, so we feel comfortable saying that the 120GB iPod classic on average falls just under 8 hours in video run time, which is superb for a device of its size and capacity.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

The only caveat is that last year’s 160GB iPod classic did better. Apple promised 40 hours of audio run time for that model, but delivered 58, then claimed 7 hours of video while delivering nearly 9 and a half. Just as the 120GB classic’s improvements over the 80GB model and other current iPod and iPhone devices isn’t trivial, these numbers aren’t, either, and suggest that should Apple release another iPod classic based on the 160GB model’s physical size and recently announced 240GB 1.8” hard disk technology, further performance gains would be possible. In any case, the 120GB iPod classic may not be the family’s all-time battery king, but it’s the best Apple has ever done in an enclosure of this size.

One other performance statistic worth noting is the iPod classic’s transfer speed relative to the current iPod nano and iPod touch. We used the same 1GB test playlist of mixed audio and video files with all three of these devices, as well as older models as noted in the nano’s and touch’s separate reviews, and the iPod classic dusted the other models: it transfered the 1GB in 57 seconds, versus 1 minute and 29 seconds on the iPod nano and 2 minutes on the iPod touch. In other words, in our testing environment, it would take less than 30 minutes to put the same 30GB of content on the iPod classic as it would take 60 minutes to put on the current 32GB iPod touch. It’s surprising that the iPod model that has the least need to swap its contents is the fastest at doing so.

The iPod classic User Interface, Plus Genius

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.

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

Audio, Video, and Photo Performance

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.

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

Audio Recording and Remote Support

The only other significant hardware change to the iPod classic is in headphone port input. Like the new iPod nano and iPod touch, the iPod classic’s headphone port has been subtly changed to add support for new microphone and remote control accessories, the first of which—the Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic—is expected in October.

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

For now, there’s little to say about these features other than that they work. Until the new Earphones are released, the iPod classic can be used with the iPhone Stereo Headphones, which include both a mic and a single button for track play/pause functionality, which now can be pressed three times to skip backwards a track, or two times to skip forwards. Connecting these headphones to the iPod classic brings up a Voice Memos menu option, which previously only opened on iPod classics when a Dock Connector-based recording accessory was attached. Old Dock Connector-based accessories continue to bring up the same menu, and work.

Unlike the iPod nano, the iPod classic’s Voice Memos feature offers two quality choices—low or high—for the recordings it makes, creating one as a monaural 22kHz and the other as a stereo 44kHz file, both in WAV format. The iPod nano uses the less widely compatible but less space-consuming Apple Lossless encoding format, and forces the user to record in monaural mode with headphone-connected microphones, or stereo with Dock-connnected mics. This makes some sense on the nano given that the iPods’ headphone ports apparently don’t support stereo recording, but less as the Dock Connector port can also support (and in some cases benefit from) lower-bitrate monaural mode; only the iPod classic gives you the choice to use it.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

This is offset by the devices’ other recording features. The iPod nano has a new screen that shows you a graphical display of input levels, and lets you click the center button to add chapter markers automatically mid-way through your recordings. By comparison, the iPod classic’s “2.0” software doesn’t add either of these features, so you can just sort of guess that the recording is being made properly. In our testing with the iPhone’s microphone, it worked exactly as we’d expect, creating fine-sounding close-proximity recordings, but obviously, being able to check levels for greater distance recordings would be very useful, too.

It bears only brief mention that there’s some irony in the addition of both headphone port recording and remote control functionality to the new iPod classic: after years of cultivating popular top-mounting remote and microphone accessories for the third- and fourth-generation iPods, as well as the iPod mini, Apple without explanation removed this top-mounted accessory port from the fifth-generation iPod and nano, leaving users and developers scrambling for new—and ultimately more expensive, less convenient—bottom-mounting ones. We’re glad to see these features back where they always belonged, but it’s both puzzling and disappointing that they had to disappear for three years.

Games, Other Extras, and Missing nano Changes

There’s been no change from last year’s iPod classic to this year’s in terms of built-in games or game support. The 2008 iPod classic comes with a trivia game called iQuiz and a solitaire game called Klondike, both improvements on previous-generation iPod games. Notably, the fourth-generation iPod nano has replaced iQuiz with a new and cool game called Maze, which uses that device’s accelerometer; as the accelerometer’s missing from the iPod classic, it would be unplayable on this device.

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

The single best title Apple includes with the iPod classic is Vortex, an updated version of the classic game Breakout. Vortex wraps bricks around the inside of a tube for your paddle to break with a ball or upgraded weapons, and offers numerous levels and powerups that make this title better than basically all of the Breakout wannabes that have emerged for the iPhone and iPod touch.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Apple also continues to sell downloadable games for the iPod classic under the heading of “iPod Click Wheel Games” from the iTunes Store. As of today, there are 36 downloadable titles that work with the iPod classic, and we’ve reviewed all of the games in our Reviews section. They vary considerably in quality, and each sell for $4.99. None of the titles work on the iPhone or iPod touch, and there is no guarantee that they will work on Apple’s next-generation Click Wheel iPods, either.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

All of the Extras previously found on the iPod classic remain in the 2008 model, as well. They are Clocks, Calendars, Contacts, Alarms, Notes, Screen Lock and Stopwatch. Clocks fits up to three nice-looking transparent clocks on screen at once. They’re displayed on top of a gray map of the Earth, and can display the current times in countries and cities all across the world.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Alarms is a separate but related Extra. You can 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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Stopwatch 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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Calendar and Contacts synchronize calendar and contact data from your computer and displays them in simple form on the iPod’s screen, letting you choose individual days or people to see additional information. You can’t edit these details using the iPod classic, as the Click Wheel provides a very marginal input system for such a task; the iPod touch handles this and other editing with much greater aplomb.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Screen Lock works the same as before to prevent others from accessing iPod classic’s contents. It uses a four-digit code to lock the device, and can be opened by connecting to your iTunes library, as well.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Notes provide light HTML-styled text documents that you can drop into a folder on the iPod classic, just as with prior iPods. The text, as with last year’s iPod classic, looks thinner and smaller than before.

It’s worth mentioning that none of these items has been changed in any significant way from the prior iPod classic and iPod nano interface, despite tweaks to the iPod nano that enable it to boost its font size, achieve song-to-song crossfading, and offer voice prompted menus for the visually impaired. At this point, it remains unclear whether Apple will add these features to the iPod classic, or whether the “classic” name is a signal that future updates won’t be as frequent as with the other iPod models going forward.

Accessories

Apart from the audio recording and remote change mentioned in an earlier section of this review, there’s only one thing to say about this year’s iPod classic accessory compatibility relative to last year’s model: it’s the same. And that’s sort of surprising.

The only surprise is that Apple used the refreshes of the iPhone, iPod nano and the iPod touch to discontinue their support for FireWire charging, a feature that has been found in all Dock Connector-equipped iPods since 2003, enabling FireWire computer ports and accessories to refuel connected iPods and original iPhones without an issue. FireWire charging support was discontinued in the iPhone 3G, then the nano and touch, but it’s still offered in the iPod classic—most likely because Apple just didn’t get around to it. As a consequence, this is the only remaining iPod model that charges from past speaker accessories such as the Bose SoundDock, Apple iPod Hi-Fi, and certain premium car kits, amongst others. If you find that the new nano and touch don’t recharge in your car or speaker, you have a choice: replace the accessory, or buy an iPod classic instead.

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Everything else about the new iPod classic is predictable, accessory-wise. It still fits in all of the cases created for last year’s 80GB model. Past 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; the same ones that worked with last year’s classic will work with this year’s.

But as noted earlier in this review, the iPod classic still refuses to output video or photographs to an external TV or other device unless it’s connected to a new accessory that contains an Apple authentication chip—an Apple change that has never been explained by the company, and resulted in the abrupt discontinuation of popular video accessories that we used to love, such as Sonic Impact’s Video-55 and Memorex’s iFlip. This change means that most in-car video cables, wearable video displays, and docks with video output produced before early 2008 just do not work with the iPod classic. Your choice is simple: either stick with your old 5G iPod, or go out and buy new accessories to replace the ones that worked before.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

The only good news, of sorts, is that 2008 has in fact seen the release of some new accessories with support for the new iPods’ video-out functionality. We have tested Myvu and Carl Zeiss video goggles, a Philips portable video display, Apple Universal Docks, and a few speaker systems that offer video-out functionality, but haven’t been completely impressed by the video performance of any of them. Simply put, if you’re looking for a way to bring video out of your iPod classic, you’ll find that options are available—make sure that the box guarantees iPod classic compatibility—but we strongly preferred the video options that were sold before the authentication chip nightmare began.

Finally, it bears mention that Apple’s Nike + iPod Sport Kit still doesn’t work with the iPod classic. Once again, this isn’t a surprise—and some readers have suggested that the hard disk-based iPod models are too fragile to run or power walk with—but it goes without saying that Apple could easily have added this feature to the classic, if only for times when it’s docked in an exercise facility’s running machine.

Conclusions

Having tested every iPod Apple has released over the past seven years, we find ourselves a little confused—but ultimately, not surprised—by the continued existence of the iPod classic. This device, which melds the family’s best battery life and storage space with a merely passable screen and an aging interface, now seems to exist solely as a foil to Microsoft’s Zune and similar hard disk-based competitors, keeping capacity- and value-conscious users from looking elsewhere.

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

However, despite its advances in battery life and capacity for the $249 asking price, which collectively are enough to earn it the same B+ rating and general recommendation as its 2007 edition, the iPod classic is no longer trailblazing in any way. Perhaps because a 240GB hard drive version wasn’t ready in time for Apple’s September 2008 special event, or perhaps because Apple didn’t feel compelled to release something so huge, the 120GB version now stands alone as an odd little asterisk to the family—the first time since 2001 that there has been only one hard disk-based iPod model. Yet it remains a good compromise option; as we suggested last year, the classic makes a lot of sense for people who want to carry around lots of music and listen to it continuously without a recharge, and still plays videos and games. The only people who will be deeply saddened by it are serious video fans, who want the capacity and battery longevity they need to watch virtually anything they own, yet need to accept a screen that is in no way comparable to the ones in today’s iPod touch or iPhone 3G. Athletic users will also be forced to deal with its lack of support for the Nike + iPod Sport Kit.

Last year, we didn’t think the iPod touch and the iPod classic were even close in terms of appeal: Apple priced the touch high, equipped it with a dodgy screen and old audio chip, then crippled it with low capacity and weak battery life. But this year’s touch has improved considerably in every way save capacity, and then, it’s at least more affordable than last year’s model. Additionally, the idea of buying iPod touch games and other applications seems safer, as they have a much greater chance than the classic of working on Apple’s next-generation devices.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Overall, the choice between this year’s iPod classic and iPod touch strikes us as purely a matter of personal preference. With the classic, you’re unquestionably getting old iPod technology, but with superior battery life, tremendously better storage capacity, and faster transfer speeds. The iPod touch offers a better form factor and interface, Nike + iPod support, modestly lower battery performance, much worse storage capacity for the dollar, and a more future-proof interface. It goes without saying that a device with the touch’s screen and classic’s storage would have been worthy of an A-level rating in our book, but until that happens, you’ll need to decide which of these iPods—or a competing device—has the key features that are most important to you. Right now, these two devices rate a draw; we’ll be interested to see how the family’s balance changes next year.

The Late 2009 160GB iPod Classic

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.

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.”

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

 

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

Review: Apple iPod classic (Late 2008 120GB, Late 2009 160GB)

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.

Our Rating

C+
Average

iPod classic 160GB (As Rated in Late 2013)

B
Recommended

iPod classic 160GB (As Rated in Late 2009)

B+
Recommended

iPod classic 120GB (As Rated in Late 2008)

Company and Price

Company: Apple Computer

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPod classic

Price: $249 (120GB)

Compatible: PC/Mac

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