Is this the final stage of refinement for the hard-drive-based media player Apple now calls the iPod Classic? Judging by the tiny changes in this sixth generation, it very well could be. This latest update is all about capacity, with the $399 model jumping from 30GB to 80GB, while the $549 flagship model leaps from 80GB to a whopping 160GB.
What would you do with all that space? Well, that is the question, isn't it? After spending some quality time with a 160GB iPod Classic, I have a few ideas. A standard-def video library or a music collection stored entirely in Apple Lossless compression would work, but either approach has its flaws. More on that later.
I won't be trading in my 80GB video iPod anytime soon, but I've really grown to like some of the minor tweaks Apple has made to the Classic's interface.
Apart from the capacity upgrade, the Classic introduces a couple of hardware changes to the iPod lineup. The player's plastic face has been replaced with anodised aluminium, slightly rounded on the sides. You get the same Click Wheel control, the same dock connector and top-mounted headphone jack, and the same lack of voice recording and FM radio. Apple managed to shave a few millimetres off the depth of both the high- and low-end models, but other than that the Classic looks much the same as the last-generation iPod.
Turn the Classic on, and you'll notice the other hardware change: a new LED-backlit screen. It sports the same 2.5-inch-diagonal size and 320 x 240-pixel resolution as the previous version, but the expanded colour reproduction it offers was noticeable in my side-by-side tests with an 80GB video iPod.
Like the new Nano Video, the iPod Classic lifts a few new interface touches from the iPhone. The headliner is Cover Flow, a neat-looking way to flip through your music using the album art stored on the player.
Cover Flow's nice enough on a 4GB or 8GB player like the iPhone or the Nano Video, but in a music library big enough to warrant an iPod Classic it rapidly loses its utility. Scroll 30 albums or so in one direction, and the iPod can't keep up -- instead you'll see grey place-holder graphics until you slow down enough for the player to catch up. I'll stick to browsing by artist first.
Other tiny tweaks help set the Classic apart from the previous iteration. Shuffle settings now appear if you press the centre button three times while playing music. Subtle font changes have modernised the look of the Now Playing screen, and album art now appears with a slight 3D rotation and a mirrored effect underneath.
Hop out to the main menus, and you'll see more album art floating gracefully on the left side of the screen, which used to consist of simple white space. Browsing through either albums or artists reveals more album art to the far left of the screen alongside each album listed.
Music and video playback
To my ears, the iPod remains among the best-sounding portable media players around, though I've tended to prefer Creative's players by just the tiniest bit in side-by-side testing. Audio codec support is the same, with AAC, MP3, Apple Lossless, .wav, and Audible among the highlights.
The Classic's LED-backlit screen provides a small but noticeable upgrade in video quality. Again, we're talking about an incremental improvement over what was already one of the better 2.5-inch screens out there. In my experience, full-frame TV shows look great on the Classic's display, but I wouldn't want to watch movies on a screen that small. Anything letterboxed immediately becomes eye-strainingly tiny, and I can't stand pan-and-scan transfers.
As a portable video library, the Classic has taken a step forward, with progressive-scan output now possible through a US$49 Component AV Cable. According to Apple, the 160GB model can hold up to 200 hours of video at 640 x 480 resolution using either H.264 or MPEG-4 compression.
The Classic's rated battery life also receives a significant boost over that of the previous generation. The 160GB model clocks in at up to 40 hours of audio playback or 7 hours of video, according to Apple. (The 80GB model is rated at 30 hours of audio and 5 hours of video.) Again, we'll update this review once our own battery tests are complete.
Accessories: Are any left?
Continuing a long-standing trend with iPod updates, the Classic's box contains a little less than the previous player's did. (Remember when these things shipped with their own dock?) The casualty this time around: No more carrying case. I know, right? You're cancelling your order this very moment, aren't you?
Seriously, though, standard iPod earbuds and a USB cable are the only things rounding out the package.
What to do with all that space
Anyone looking to replace an older MP3 player should at least consider the 80GB iPod Classic. It's thin and well designed -- and, at $399 for an 80GB player, few competitors can match its value. Creative's 60GB Zen Vision:M currently lists for $589, for example.
If you already have a fairly current player like my 80GB video iPod, your choice is a bit more complicated. With 54GB of music compressed at around 256 kilobits per second, I already have a pretty large library on my iPod. But even adding a few video files and photos to the mix still leaves me with plenty of space on the player. I like gratuitous technology purchases as much as the next guy, but I'm still left wondering what I'd do with that extra 80GB.
I suppose I could re-rip most of my music in Apple Lossless. A 160GB player holds 600 CDs' worth of lossless-compressed tunes, more than enough space for my non-eMusic recordings. Still, I've done the tests before, and even on much better stereo equipment than I could afford, I can't always tell the difference between 256-kbps MP3s and lossless compression. On an iPod's DAC and even high-end in-ear headphones, that difference disappears completely.
So what about video? I'd think seriously about ripping more of my, uh, home movies on DVD, if I hadn't seen the iPhone and the iPod Touch already. Does anyone want to bet that Apple won't be bringing out a touch-based, wide-screen player with some serious storage in the near future? So why spring for the extra video storage now?
And that, I guess, is my bottom line on the iPod Classic: It's a great update, but I can't see any reason to buy one if you aren't already running out of storage on your current player. Apple made me think hard about it, though.