Apple iPod Classic
In a metal mood
Review The iPod Classic marks the most widespread update Apple has ever made to the 'standard' hard drive-based iPod range. The name's been tweaked, the user interface given a radical overhaul, and while the new model may look like the previous version, it's actually quite different.
Apple's iPod Classic: black metal
The iPod Classic has a metal face, not a plastic one. The shiny, curved chrome-like backplate is still there, but now it's attached to an anodised aluminium sheet that curves gently forward before forming a flat space in which the display and clickwheel are mounted.
The casing - its the same material used in last year's iPod Nano update - is tactile and has a satin sheen quite unlike the patent gloss of old. That's good for the black Classic, which is now far more resistant to fingerprints than its predecessor was and probably more resistant to scratches, though only time will tell for sure. The back of the player however, is just as susceptible to scrapes and scratches as it always was, as we discovered when we were a little reckless in docking the device.
What was once the white model is now one Apple calls 'silver' - but in reality it's more of a kind of dull, pale grey. It's not as metallic looking as last year's Nanos and Shuffles, and it's hard to see consumers falling for it. We'd hazard a guess that the black model will sell significantly better this coming Christmas.
The metal front makes for an iPod that feels less like two halves fitted together and more like a single, solid unit. The screen and the clickwheel are slotted into holes cut in the face, and while the clickwheel has an almost perfect fit, there's a tiny groove running around the perimeter of the screen. While it's barely noticeable in the hand, it won't be long before it picks up dust and pocket fluff.
As before the bottom of the player is home to the dock connector, with the earphone socket and 'hold' switch up on top. All three are surrounded by a thin lip of colour-coded plastic to match the hue of the faceplate.
Apple's iPod Classic: top and bottom
The new model is much the same size as its predecessor - it's actually fractionally thinner, but not so as you'd notice. Similarly, it's very slightly heavier, but again you won't be able to tell when you're carrying this player around.
What is noticeable is how much thicker the 160GB Classic is than the 80GB model. The latter's a svelte 1.1cm at its thickest point, and less at the edges, where the curves make it seem thinner. The 160GB Classic is only 0.3cm thicker, according to Apple's numbers, but it looks much more than that. It isn't, but at a glance you'd swear it was twice the thickness of the 80GB model.
Apple's iPod Classic: still shiny, still thin
The Classic's screen size - 2.5in across and 320 x 240 pixels in resolution - is the same as last year's 5G iPod and again backlit by LED to help conserve battery power. Apple's newest earphones are included, along with a USB 2.0 cable - this time with a slightly more compact dock connector, not that that matters much - and an adaptor for Apple's universal dock system. Once again, there's no iTunes CD, but the software's just a download away.
Turning the Classic on really rings in the changes. Fresh from the iPhone, Apple has re-purposed its graphic designers' work for the new iPods. The updated iPod user interface doesn't simply borrow the iPhone's visual style, it clearly works the same way, albeit through the clickwheel rather than a touch-sensitive display.
Click on a displayed world clock face, for instance, and up pops a slider with 'Add' at one end and 'Delete' at the other. Sliding your thumb on the clickwheel moves the selector back and forth between these two choices, but what you really want to do is move it the selector by sliding your finger on the screen.
Powered on, the standard iPod colour menu now fills just the left half the screen, with the right-hand side devoted to graphics. The text is again rendered in smooth, bold lettering, while the images are given that grey gradient background tint and vaguely glassy looking iconography familiar to anyone who's seen a Steve Jobs keynote speech. Interestingly, the menu bar casts a drop-shadow onto the image space, clearly implying a visual hierarchy between the two.
Apple's iPod Classic UI: iPhones affectations
The pictures the iPods displays are context sensitive - move the cursor down the list and the images change. Top of the menu is the 'Music' sub-menu, initially showing a bold 'No Music' icon and message, but quickly replaced with a dynamic slideshow of album art once you copy over some tracks.
Album art is pervasive, appearing in thumbnail form in subsidiary menus, such as the Albums listing. Here, each entry is presented with the thumbnail, the album's title in bold above the artist's name in plain grey text. Likewise, other listings are presented with this kind of subsidiary information. Select Genre, and each entry has the number of relevant artists and albums presented below it. Only the Composers and Artists menus don't follow the pattern. Why not? We can't think of a good reason.
Apple's iPod Classic UI: now with iTunes' Cover Flow and reflection effects
Since Apple introduced accelerated scrolling in the 5G iPod, all these extra lines of information don't slow you down if you have to dash to the end of the list to find the track, album or artist you want. Once again, scrolling quickly pops up the initial letter of the album, artist or song the cursor's passing over, making it easy to find, say, albums beginning with S and then slow down to narrow the search to Springsteen.
And there's a Search entry that pops up a text-entry field and, to the right of it, the alphabet. Select the letter you want using the clickwheel, then press the centre button to 'type' it into the field. As you type, the iPod searches, narrowing down the list of results as you enter more characters. The Rewind button works like a backspace key.
Album art really comes into its own in the Music menu's Cover Flow option. The fact it is optional tells you immediately it's not ready for primetime. Yes, you get the same 3D cover-by-cover album display that was first introduced by iTunes, though Apple did itself a disservice by setting it here against a white background, which shows up the jagged edges that might have been obscured by a black background.
Apple's iPod Classic UI: photo slideshows and a revamped calendar
Selecting a cover brings up its track listing just as it does on the iPhone - select a specific song or press Play to hear them all. Pressing Menu takes you back to the Cover Flow screen. The screen certainly populates quickly enough, but moving along the line doesn't feel as smooth as it does in iTunes. Maybe it'll look a lot better on the bigger, 3.5in screen of the iPod Touch, but here Cover Flow feels crammed in.
Part of the problem is the Classic's processor isn't quite up to it - there are a fair few brief but noticeable pauses, not only when we were using Cover Flow but also when transitioning between other menus and sub-menus too. We've experienced this before with the first-generation Nano, for example, but that's two years old and we'd have hoped Apple might have beefed up the iPod's specs to a point where it can handle the demands of the UI. Our time with the Classic suggests it hasn't.
This is a shame because - Cover Flow aside - it remains a good UI, and most of the changes are improvements. The album cover slideshow on the main menu is a gimmick, but the use of icons is smart. Visit the Settings menu, for example, and as you scroll down through the options, the graphic changes to give a handy visual read-out of the setting so you can immediately see what the setting is without having to go a further step into the menu structure.
Apple's iPod Classic UI: CoverFlow aside, it's a good interface
The EQ setting image, for example, show you exactly where the sliders have been set. Move through the EQ sub-menu and you'll see precisely how they'll be changed if you apply a given pre-set. We also liked the new storage status screen, which takes the capacity read-out from iTunes and displays it on the iPod, with coloured blocks on a white bar showing you how much of your player's hard drive is loaded with audio, video, photo and other files. Press the centre button and all this slides off to the left, replaced by a list of the number of songs, videos, photos, contacts and so on that you've stored on your iPod. Click again to show the iPod's serial number.
Expect this to come into its own on the iPod Touch when you're going to need to know how much free space you have before downloading content over its Wi-Fi connection direct to your player.
Not that you really need it here, when you've a choice of 80GB or 160GB of storage. These capacities are a real boon. The Classic supports all the formats the previous generation of iPod could handle, but now there's space to start using the compressed but full quality, lossless formats. Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, for example, lasts almost 49 minutes and in 128KBps MP3 takes up 45.5MB. Using the Apple Lossless format, the album takes up 233.8MB - room enough for five copies of the MP3 version.
There was a time was when storage limitations meant that the trade off between capacity and sound fidelity would have favoured MP3, but since the 160GB Classic can hold around 650 Lossless albums, now you can take your collection with you and have it delivered in true CD quality.
Apple's iPod Classic UI: sub-menus slide in
Or you can store 200 hours of H.264-encoded video at 640 x 480 - more if you encode at 320 x 240, the Classic's actual screen size. Even the 80GB model can hold 100 hours of 640 x 480 video or 330-odd Lossless albums. Video playback is smooth, and the picture crisp and bright on the Classic's nice display. For video, we'd prefer a bigger screen - enter, again, the iPod Touch - but this one's not bad for occasional viewing.
Incidentally, the 160BG is the better value product: you pay £1.43/$2.18 for each gigabyte, whereas the 80GB model charges you £1.99/$3.11 per gig.
The Classic's sound quality is equal to past iPods, so we've no complaints there. It has been said that the player won't send video content to a TV unless it's connected to a new, Apple-authorised dock or video cable, and while we don't have suitable add-ons to confirm this, we couldn't change the Classic's TV output settings, which default to off. Other reviewers are finding that there is an issue here, so if you've made a big investment in iPod peripherals it may well be worth waiting for Apple to clarify the situation before upgrading to a Classic.
Apple's iPod Classic: shiny white, not flat grey, please
Likewise folk who bought games for the previous iPod. The ones sold on iTunes aren't compatible with the new players. Apple says new versions of three titles - Ms Pac-Man, Tetris and Sudoku - are on their way "soon".
Apple claims the 80GB iPod's battery life comes in at up to 30 hours' music playback and five hours' video. The 160GB - presumably thanks to a bigger battery - scores 40 hours and seven hours' respectively. The company's managed to meet or even exceed its claims in past iPod generations and we experienced nothing to suggest it hasn't this time round.
As the latest hard drive iPod, the Classic - with its extra capacity and metal casing - is a good extension to the series. Yes, the silver model falls flat, but the black version is spot on.
We'd say the same about the revamped user interface if it wasn't for its inconsistencies. Some backgrounds are white, others black. Some screens have iPhone-style widgets, others are more like the old-style iPod UI. Buyers will benefit from many of the improvements - the search, the extra info, the new-style Settings menu - but others, like Cover Flow, will fall by the wayside. It'll be great on the iPod Touch, but not here.