Apple iPod Classic second generation review: Apple iPod Classic second generation

Apple iPod Classic second generation

Donald Bell

Donald Bell

Senior Editor / How To

Donald Bell has spent more than five years as a CNET senior editor, reviewing everything from MP3 players to the first three generations of the Apple iPad. He currently devotes his time to producing How To content for CNET, as well as weekly episodes of CNET's Top 5 video series.

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Apple iPod Classic second generation

The Good

The second-generation iPod Classic adds a new Genius playlist feature to its time-tested combination of music, video, podcast, audiobook, and photo playback.

The Bad

EQ control is limited; some older iPod video accessories may not be compatible; the plastic screen is susceptible to scratching; users are required to use the latest version of iTunes, which may not work on some older computer systems.

The Bottom Line

The iPod Classic refines the formula that put the iPod on the map. Few can match its combination of storage capacity, battery life, and intuitive user interface.

Editors' note, August 18, 2009: Rumors strongly suggest that a new line of iPods will be unveiled early in September of this year. For those considering the purchase of an iPod, we recommend holding off until these new models become available. Check out CNET's iPod Central for all iPod news updates.

The iPod Classic is Apple's iconic hard-drive-based MP3 player, with design roots that date back to 2001's original iPod model. If you can resist the fashion appeal and gee-whiz features of Apple's slimmer iPods, such as the iPod Nano and iPod Touch, the 120GB iPod Classic ($249) still delivers the most bang for the buck.

Prizefight: iPod Classic vs. Zune Play CNET Video

The second-generation iPod Classic is indistinguishable from 2007's original model, except that the thicker 160GB version is no longer available. An anodized-aluminum faceplate covers the front of the Classic in either black or silver, while the back of the iPod is covered in the same scratch-showing, smudge-loving chromed steel found on most iPods.

The second-generation iPod Classic fits a whopping 120GB hard drive into the same enclosure as its 80GB predecessor, coming in at pocket-size 2.4 inches by 4.1 inches by 0.41 inch. The screen is still made from plastic, making it the only remaining iPod that hasn't yet switched to a scratch-resistant glass screen.

The second-generation iPod Classic is also now one of the only iPods to use a split-screen main menu layout, displaying menu items on the left half of the screen and a picture related to the selection on the right. For example, highlighting Music on the main menu causes the right half of the screen to display a drifting close-up of cover artwork from your music library. This split-screen effect is more beautiful than it is distracting, and applies to menu items such as movies, podcasts, and photos, as well. You also have the option to browse your music using the Cover Flow view made popular by the iPhone, however, the novelty of Cover Flow wears thin without a touch-screen display. Users with large music collections to sort through will prefer browsing using the list mode or search function.

The only new feature distinguishing the second-generation iPod Classic from its predecessor is the ability to create instant Genius playlists. The Genius feature lets you create an instant 25-song playlists based on the musical characteristics of a single song, offering a new way to group together similar songs in your collection. Genius is easy to use, and the results are fun, provided your music collection holds enough songs to make interesting connections (with 120GB of storage, that shouldn't be hard). You can create and save Genius playlists directly onto your iPod, and with automatic syncing enabled in iTunes you can also transfer them back to your computer. Oddly, the Genius feature won't work if you haven't enabled Genius on your computer's iTunes software. If you find iTunes' Genius feature too demanding on your computer's resources or too invasive of your privacy (the feature reports your listening habits to Apple), then you'll need to live without the feature on your iPod as well.

Apple has also made it easier to record voice memos with the second-generation iPod Classic, although you'll need to pay a little extra to get the feature working. Many third-party iPhone headsets are compatible with the Classic's voice recording feature and beginning in October 2008, Apple will sell their own line of compatible headsets, as well. Without purchasing a compatible headset, however, there is no built-in way to create voice recordings with the iPod Classic right out of the box.

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 or rent 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 be switched on and off for video files that support them.

Apple's audio file format support remains the same. The iPod Classic allows for manually adding and deleting music and video files, but with 120GB of storage, many users will prefer to have their entire media library sync automatically. The Classic can also double as a USB hard drive in a pinch.

The iPod Classic's sound quality is clean and crisp, but still uninspired when it comes to sound enhancement options. Users do get more than 20 equalization presets to choose among--but half of them are either useless or indistinguishable from one another. Compared with products such as the Creative Zen, the Samsung P2, or the Sony S-Series Walkman, the iPod's sound quality still leaves room for improvement. That said, after listening with our Ultrasone HFI-2200 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.

The Cover Flow mode on the iPod Classic is a little slow, but it's a fun way to view your music collection.

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 of 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.

The iPod Classic's enhanced battery life is one of the better reasons to fork over your money to Apple. The 120GB Classic's rated battery life of 36 hours of audio playback and 6 hours for video is fairly conservative, actually. Our CNET labs found the iPod Classic to be realistically capable of 39 hours of continuous audio playback or 8.8 hours of video playback. MP3 players capable of 30 to 40 hours of audio playback are a rare find, but the Classic's 8-plus hours of video playback is in a class of its own.

Is it worth upgrading?
If you're looking for an iPod that can store more than 32GB of music and video, the 120GB iPod Classic is the only option now available to you. For file-hoarders anxious to break the 120GB iPod storage limitation, you may want to consider picking up one of 2007's 160GB Classic's before they disappear from the market.

Before you leap, however, you should know that the iPod Nano, the iPod Classic, and the iPod Touch, all require iTunes 8 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 without 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.

Final thoughts
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 futuristic 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.


Apple iPod Classic second generation

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8