iPod vs. Zune: January 2008 High End MP3 Player Roundupby Ryan Smith on January 21, 2008 12:00 AM EST
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The iPod Classic (6th generation), as the name implies, is the latest successor in Apple's long line of mainline iPods.
If you're looking for a major change in hardware or design from the previous 5/5.5G iPod, you're not going to find it here. Apple knows when they've hit a good thing, and has changed the Classic very little over its lifetime; other than some minor tweaks it's still practically the same design as even the original iPod. With the addition of video with the 5G iPod in particular, there is little left that's practical to add, leading to the hardware capabilities having gone virtually unchanged with this revision.
Underneath, the iPod operating system has received a major GUI facelift with the Classic, which is the focus of what's new with this model. The previous text-based UI has been split down nearly the middle, with a right-pane for graphics to go with most of the menus. Frankly we don't have much nice to say about the UI, so we won't beat around the bush on it trying to say something nice before we go in to the negatives.
There's nothing wrong with the new UI, but the change doesn't bring about anything useful either. It's a very good analogy of Apple's own two-faced nature when it comes to UIs: half of Apple earns all of the praise it gets for what it's done with its UIs over the years for the iPod and OS X, and the other half completely ignores the good practices they've built and tries to be cutting edge for the purpose of being cutting edge.
We hope we're not spoiling things too much for this review when we say that we still think the Classic has the best UI out of all of our MP3 players (in so much as they're comparable), but Apple has definitely shot itself in the foot here. One of the cornerstones of the iPod design that enabled Apple to blow right past their early competition was the vastly superior UI, a minimalist design that was very effective and worked very well with other cornerstone: the scroll wheel. At the end of the day Apple has traded roughly half the horizontal resolution of the iPod's screen for useless graphics, and while it's still better than anything else out there we saw a better UI in the previous iPod. This is a very good lesson in not trying to fix something that isn't broken.
In spite of managing to make the UI worse however, Apple hasn't affected the core functionality of the iPod Classic. The iPod started as a audio player and while Apple has since added features it's still a top-notch audio player. The credit here goes to the scroll wheel, which after 7 years is still the benchmark for input on a MP3 player thanks to the high level of precision it affords and the buttons being so close together for easy reach. Combined with the hierarchical design of the UI, the Classic is the easiest to use among all of the MP3 players we're looking at today, particularly when it comes to blind navigation.
Meanwhile the technical abilities of the Classic when it comes to audio are fairly standard, but there's nothing wrong with this. All of the usual audio formats are supported (MP3/AAC/Audible) along with AIFF/WAV/Apple Lossless for lossless file formats. However open source software proponents will once again be disappointed to find that the Classic doesn't support OGG Vorbis lossy audio or the popular FLAC lossless format.
Where the Classic falls short however is where every other ancestor of the Classic has also fallen short: everything else. For video and photos, the Classic's 2.5" 320x240 screen is simply too small to be practical to watch videos on. The resolution is appropriate for the screen's physical dimensions, it's the physical dimensions that are the problem. With widescreen material in particular the screen just isn't big enough to allow you to watch from a comfortable distance. It's a shame too, with hard drives going up to 160GB there's plenty of space for video or photos, you just can't see them without a magnifying glass.
As has become the de-facto standard for MP3 player video, the Classic supports H.264 and MPEG-4 Simple Profile for its video codecs. For compatibility purposes the Classic can handle video up to 640x480, although any self-encoded content at this resolution would be wasteful given that the screen is only one-quarter of this resolution. Since the Classic can't handle AVI containers, DivX/XviD encoded video is out, even if the device does support the MPEG standard those codecs are based on.
Besides media player functionality, the Classic also throws in a few utilities and games. The story is much the same as it is for video, with this extra functionality just not well suited for the device. The utilities (Clock/Calendar/Alarms/Notes/Stopwatch) and games (iQuiz, Klondike, and Vortex) are designed well, the problem boils down to the scroll wheel which just isn't designed for this kind of use. The wheel as a limitation means most of the utilities can't accept and store new data and the games are made either overly simplistic or hard to play. The wheel works great for media, but not for anything else. If you want real PDA functionality in an MP3 player, you should be looking towards the iPod Touch whose touch screen offers the kind of input system required to make these features work.
The build quality of the Classic is excellent, and we can identify no significant outstanding flaws. The dimensions on our 80GB unit are a holding-comfortable 4.1in x 2.4in x 0.41in and the weight 4.9 ounces. The Classic is thin enough that it's pocketable in big pockets, but some users may find it a bit bulgy in smaller pockets. The matte coating of the front is fingerprint-resistant, but perfectionists will have a problem with the chrome rear, which is both a scratch and fingerprint magnet. An inadvertent drop of 4' on to a tile floor produced no problems with our Classic, although it did contribute to the quickly scratched-up back.
If we have one real problem with the Classic, it's the included earbuds. While we use our own set of headphones regardless, Apple's standard earbuds included with all of their iPod products are nothing but incredibly cheap. The sound is mediocre, the fit is wrong, and they fall out very easily. Considering that most consumers will not buy separate earbuds for an iPod and that the MSRP on an 80GB iPod is $249, Apple would be much better off including better earbuds. There's just no reason they need to be this poor.