Apple's audio file format support remains the same. Copy-protected AAC files purchased through iTunes are supported, of course, as well as MP3, Apple lossless, AIFF, WAV, and Audible files. We're happy to see that despite the iPhone's unique file management requirements, the iPod Classic allows for manually adding and deleting music and video files without the hassles of playlist syncing. The Classic can also double as a USB hard drive in a pinch.
While the iPod Classic is a top-tier product, we long for some additional features, including the ability to use the headphone jack as a composite-video output, allowing photos and videos to be played to your television set without a third-party interface. While we can understand removing the little-used AV output feature to save on construction costs, we're even more surprised that Apple has rendered all of the recently released iPods incompatible with a number of third-party 5G video accessories as well. If you're hoping to use a new Nano or Classic with an existing video dock, be sure to check that the product explicitly states it is compatible with the iPod Classic. Apple's own Universal iPod Dock ($50) and component AV cable ($50) are guaranteed to work, of course.
Plus, there's our standard list of long-neglected iPod features: FM radio, line-input recording, SD memory expansion, custom EQ, and native support for WMA and subscription music services. We're not holding our breath.
Despite the major interface overhaul, the iPod Classic's sound quality still sounds just middle-of-the-road. Although middling sound quality doesn't seem to affect iPod sales, you'd think Apple would eventually address this long-standing complaint--if only out of pride. Users do get more than 20 equalization presets to choose among--ranging from subtle enhancement to dramatic bass boosting. Compared to products such as the Creative Zen V Plus, the Cowon iAudio 7, or the Toshiba Gigabeat U, however, the iPod's sound quality still leaves room for improvement. That said, after listening with our Ultrasone HFI-700 headphones as well as a set of Shure SE310 earphones, we can say with confidence that the Classic's fidelity will certainly satisfy most users.
Video playback was the most impressive aspect of the iPod Classic. While we were impressed by the crisp resolution of the iPod Nano's smaller 2-inch screen, the 2.5-inch screen found on the iPod classic is easier on the eyes. Both players share the same 320x240 resolution and are capable playing files encoded at 640x480. By purchasing an additional component AV cable from Apple, it's possible for users to output resolutions up to 480p (720x480) to a television.
Aside from the increased storage capacity and upgraded interface, the iPod Classic's enhanced battery life is one of the better reasons to fork over your money. The 80GB Classic is rated at 30 hours of audio playback and 5 hours for video, while the 160GB version promises 40 hours of audio and 7 hours for video. While products such as the Archos 405 will deliver similar results for video playback, MP3 players capable of 30 to 40 hours of audio playback are a rare find. Our CNET labs team found the 80GB iPod Classic is capable of 45 hours of audio playback and nearly 9 hours of video playback under realistic conditions. Although we didn't have the opportunity to test the 160GB iPod Classic, we think it's reasonable to expect that it will at least match, if not surpass, these results.
Is it worth upgrading?
If you're looking for an iPod that can store more than 16GB of music and video, the iPod Classic lineup is the only option now available to you. Those of you with more modest storage requirements of 20GB to 60GB will simply have to step up to the 80GB model or consider an iPod alternative. For file-hoarders anxious to break the 80GB Video iPod storage limitation, the 160GB iPod is a logical step forward.
Before you leap, however, you should know that the iPod Nano, the iPod Classic, and the iPod Touch, all require iTunes 7.4 or later in order to be compatible with your computer. We recommend testing the compatibility of the latest version of iTunes with your computer before making the purchase.
The iTunes factor
No iPod review would be complete mentioning Apple's iTunes music software. For better or worse, the integration between an iPod and Apple's iTunes music software is nearly airtight. If this is going to be your first iPod, it's worthwhile to download iTunes ahead of time to see if it works well on your computer and is intuitive for you to use. You should also be aware that most of the music and movies available for purchase on the iTunes online store will play only in iTunes or on an authorized iPod and cannot be transferred to a non-Apple MP3 player.
As the availability of high-capacity hard drive MP3 players seems to be on the decline, we're happy to see that Apple is continuing to develop them. The iPod Classic doesn't deliver the novelty of the iPod Nano or the iPod Touch, but it is still one of the best-designed high-capacity MP3 players on the market.