Apple iPod Classic 6th Generation review: Apple iPod Classic 6th Generation
Apple iPod Classic 6th Generation
Editor's note: This review has been updated to include battery life data resulting from CNET Labs' testing.
The iPod Classic is the latest revamping of Apple's iconic hard drive MP3 player, formerly known as the Video iPod or fifth-generation iPod. As Apple's only remaining high-capacity MP3 player, the iPod Classic comes in both 80GB ($249) and 160GB versions ($349), available in black or silver.
Cosmetically, the iPod Classic's improvements over its predecessors are minor. An anodized-aluminum faceplate now replaces the glossy, all-plastic facade found on the previous generation. Overall thickness has also improved, with the 80GB iPod Classic now measuring 2.4x4.1x.41 inches--just a fraction of an inch thinner than the 30GB Video iPod we had in our lab. The screen, however, is still made from scratch-prone plastic (unlike the iPhone's and iPod Touch's), and the chrome found on the back cover still begs for smudges.
The Classic's most impressive design improvement is its dramatically overhauled menu system. One of the most striking changes is a split-screen main menu that displays the selections on the right half of the screen and a picture related to the selection on the left. For example, highlight the Music selection on the main menu, and the right half of the screen displays a random, drifting close-up of cover artwork from your music library. This same effect accompanies menu items such as movies, podcasts, and photos. Some might write off this split-screen effect as pure novelty, but the end result is quite beautiful. The Cover Flow system, for browsing your music collection with an emphasis on album artwork, finally makes its Classic debut, although Cover Flow does lose some appeal when not on a touch-screen device such as the iPhone. We also found a noticeable amount of lag using Cover Flow. Users with large music collections to sort through will prefer browsing using the list mode or search function. That said, Cover Flow makes for a scenic and engaging, if slow, way to browse your music.
The iPod Classic has very few new features to talk about. Support for video and music playback, as well as photos, podcasts, and video games, are virtually unchanged.
The iPod Classic supports H.264 or MPEG-4 video in MOV, MP4, or M4V file formats, with a maximum resolution of 640x480 at as much as 30 frames per second. You can buy videos through the iTunes online store or import them into iTunes and convert them for playback. (Many third-party software video converters also do a great job converting videos for the iPod.) The Classic supports many of the video features we look for in portable video players. For instance, the Classic can recognize and skip between the DVD-like chapter markers embedded in QuickTime movie files. It also does a dependable job automatically resuming video playback at the point at which you last left off. Closed captioned subtitles can now be switched on and off for video files that support them.
Looking past the obvious big-ticket improvements, the new Classic includes some small touches that are easy to miss. Apple's music shuffle function, for instance, has made a subtle evolution, now letting you easily engage and disengage the shuffle function on the fly, with just a few clicks of the scroll wheel's center button. By placing the shuffle setting options (Shuffle Song, Shuffle Album, or Shuffle Off) in a song's Now Playing window, Apple is effectively giving you the ability to randomize songs until you find an artist you like--a lazy listener's dream come true. We're also happy to see that Apple has bundled three video games into both the iPod Classic and the Nano, giving us yet another way to stay distracted.
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.