Almost a full two years since its last full-size iPod, Apple has unleashed the iPod classic. Coming in 80GB and 160GB capacities -- costing £159 and £229 respectively -- the classic can hold a massive archive of music and video. There's no need to pick and choose which music goes with you, even if you rip CDs at the very highest lossless quality. We wasted no time in stress-testing the classic to within millimetres of its life. The classic is available now from Apple stores or the company's Web site.
The glossy and easily scratched faceplate of previous models has been replaced with an attractive matte texture, either in black or silver -- white is no more. The Click Wheel too has been steered from shiny gloss to matte, the result being a less scratch-prone finish. The reflective silver casing is unchanged though, and still easily scuffable -- seven days into the classic being used as our 'full-time' MP3 player, several scratches had appeared.
An unchanged 64mm (2.5-inch) 320x240-pixel full-colour screen still consumes the top half of the player's front. The new iPod nano's screen has the same pixel count in a smaller display, leaving us feeling a little left out -- why not up the classic's resolution a notch?
The most exciting new feature is Cover Flow. You've seen it in action with iTunes -- it's that arty way of browsing your CD collection by the cover art. We've long hoped it would come to the iPod, and now it has. It works just like in iTunes, only it's now on a white background instead of black. You'll need to ensure most of your music files have album art embedded or you'll see a lot of generic grey album covers floating around. Browsing Cover Flow is easy with the Click Wheel and, hell, it's darn pretty too!
A new UI splits the main menu screens into two halves: the left half contains the traditional blue-on-white menu, while the right contains floating album art. Artwork slowly moves around the right-hand side of the screen as you navigate through menus. This is all well and good unless you've got, shall we say, 'Grandma-unfriendly' album covers floating around while demonstrating the interface to friends.
In fact, album art is used widely in the classic. In addition to Cover Flow and floating menu art, small covers sit beside albums as you browse through artists. Floating menu art doesn't appear in these menus, so there's plenty of room. Art is much more attractively displayed on the 'now playing' screen, in as much as it's slightly larger than on previous models and a reflection is displayed below it.
The classic retains the supported codecs of the fifth-gen video iPod -- it plays MP3s, AACs, Apple Lossless, WAV, AIFF music files and audiobooks from Audible. It'll also handle high-quality video in H.264 MPEG-4 format, plus QuickTime movies and your photo libraries. No longer can you output video via the headphone socket though. Apple now forces you to buy another proprietary video cable for playing content on your TV. So much for investing in Apple accessories.
Some fun games are included, including a game show-esque title called iPod Quiz, which asks a plethora of questions about your music collection. Any games you've already bought from the iTunes Store won't work, or indeed any you go ahead and buy now. Rumour has it that a firmware update is coming to rectify this issue, but hasn't been confirmed at the time of writing.
A handy search feature lets you tap out words to search for in your library. Again, this instantaneous search mimics the lightning-fast system in iTunes. Podcasts no longer reside inside the 'music' sub-menu; they now sit as an option within the main menu. Still sitting in the 'extras' menu, however, are the stopwatch, calendar, alarm clocks, notes, contacts and so on. No new additions here.
Sound quality is mostly unchanged and if you don't use decent headphones, you won't notice anything. Significantly, Apple has changed its supplier of audio-decoding chips. These are responsible for sound quality, and until now Apple has used chips from Wolfson Microelectronics. The new chips from Cirrus Audio produce a moderately 'cleaner' sound, with a marginal increase in treble. Maximum volume is also slightly lower, though playing an iPod through headphones at maximum volume has never been a good idea.