Think back to the first new car you owned, how you loved its smell, its glimmering paint, its awesome newness. Then recall, four years later, when it--with its scratches, stains, dings, and unattractive habits--becomes nothing more than a reliable mode of transportation. This is the kind of utility we find in today's iPod classic.
Lacking the wide-screen wonder and connectivity of the iPod touch () and the 4G iPod nano's gee-whiz accelerometer and shake-to-shuffle feature, the iPod classic doesn't feel new or innovative. Rather, it's a tested and reliable way to carry around your digital media.
The old familiar
That's not to say that the iPod classic is a bad iPod. In fact, it's a perfectly wonderful iPod if you want to take a large collection of your media library with you. It's just that compared to the iPod touch and 4G iPod nano, its utility isn't very sexy.
That utility comes in many forms. The iPod classic has the best gigabyte-to-dollar ratio of any display-bearing iPod at just over $2 per gigabyte of storage, compared to the worst ratio being the 8 GB iPod touch, which demands $28.62 per gigabyte. It has the largest storage capacity at 120 GB (approximately 30,000 4-minute tracks encoded at 128Kbps AAC). It also offers impressive continuous audio playtime at 42 hours and 17 minutes; video playback also exceeded Apple's six-hour estimate. As I did with the 2G iPod touch, I set brightness and volume to their mid-points and repeatedly played Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl until the battery died 7 hours and 28 minutes later. Respectable.
But, unlike the newest iPod nano, you can't shake it to shuffle tracks (and given that its music is stored on a spinning hard drive, that's just as well). Because it has no accelerometer, you can't turn it sideways with the expectation that its display will flip its orientation. Unlike the iPod nano, the iPod classic offers no spoken menus, nor does it have an Energy Saver feature. In nearly every respect, it's the same iPod classic introduced last year.
I said nearly, not completely. The new features it does include are also found on the new iPod nano and are just as worthwhile. First, the iPod classic supports the Genius playlist feature. Select a song you want to build a related playlist around, press and hold the Center button, and a screen appears that offers these choices: Start Genius, Add to On-The-Go, Browse Album, Browse Artist, and Cancel. Choose Start Genius, press the Center button and the iPod creates a playlist of 25 related tracks. You can save the Genius playlist by selecting Save Playlist and a new playlist is created with the name of the selected track. To populate the playlist with other tracks related to your originally selected track, select the Refresh command in the Genius playlist screen and press the Center button.
The iPod classic is available in black or silver, but only at a capacity of 120GB.
The Add to On-The-Go command indicates how On-The-Go playlist creation has changed on the latest iPod classic. Select the item you want to add to the On-The-Go playlist and press and hold the Center button. In the resulting screen, select that Add to On-The-Go command, and press Center again. I admit that I miss the old behavior when all I had to do was select an item and press and hold Center until that item flashed, telling me that it had been added to the On-The-Go playlist. Under the old system I had one less screen and command to futz with.
But it's nice to see the addition of the Browse Album and Browse Artist commands on this screen. Just as with these commands on the 4G iPod nano, they make it easy for those shuffling through their music collection to quickly move to the album or artist from which the currently playing track comes. I've longed for this feature during those "I love this song, I wish I could listen to the rest of the album in the press of a button!" moments.
Apple has made a couple of minor tweaks to the iPod classic. First, the clickwheel has a rougher surface than the previous classic. This allows your finger to grip a bit better, causing that finger to slip off the clickwheel less often than it might have with the original iPod classic. The 2G iPod classic's display is also a bit brighter and, unlike the 2G iPod touch, a bit cooler (read: bluer) in tone.
And while this isn't a change, it's worth noting: The 2G iPod classic is the only current iPod that charges with a FireWire connection. If you have a lot invested in older iPod accessories that charge an iPod over FireWire, keep this in mind.
Macworld's buying advice
Apple has done very little to improve the iPod classic with this iteration--that's not necessarily a bad thing. It remains the iPod to own if you want to carry a lot of media with you. The Genius feature is a nice addition as is the ability to quickly browse albums and artists based on the currently playing track, but those additions will convince very few people to trade in their old reliable (and perhaps, higher-capacity) iPod classic for this year's model.
[Senior editor Christopher Breen is author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide, fourth edition (2008, Peachpit Press).]