Editor's note: This review has been updated to include battery life data resulting from CNET Labs' testing.
The iPod Classic is the latest revamping of Apple's iconic hard drive MP3 player, formerly known as the Video iPod or fifth-generation iPod. As Apple's only remaining high-capacity MP3 player, the iPod Classic comes in both 80GB ($249) and 160GB versions ($349), available in black or silver.
Cosmetically, the iPod Classic's improvements over its predecessors are minor. An anodized-aluminum faceplate now replaces the glossy, all-plastic facade found on the previous generation. Overall thickness has also improved, with the 80GB iPod Classic now measuring 2.4x4.1x.41 inches--just a fraction of an inch thinner than the 30GB Video iPod we had in our lab. The screen, however, is still made from scratch-prone plastic (unlike the iPhone's and iPod Touch's), and the chrome found on the back cover still begs for smudges.
The Classic's most impressive design improvement is its dramatically overhauled menu system. One of the most striking changes is a split-screen main menu that displays the selections on the right half of the screen and a picture related to the selection on the left. For example, highlight the Music selection on the main menu, and the right half of the screen displays a random, drifting close-up of cover artwork from your music library. This same effect accompanies menu items such as movies, podcasts, and photos. Some might write off this split-screen effect as pure novelty, but the end result is quite beautiful. The Cover Flow system, for browsing your music collection with an emphasis on album artwork, finally makes its Classic debut, although Cover Flow does lose some appeal when not on a touch-screen device such as the iPhone. We also found a noticeable amount of lag using Cover Flow. Users with large music collections to sort through will prefer browsing using the list mode or search function. That said, Cover Flow makes for a scenic and engaging, if slow, way to browse your music.
The iPod Classic has very few new features to talk about. Support for video and music playback, as well as photos, podcasts, and video games, are virtually unchanged.
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 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 now be switched on and off for video files that support them.
Looking past the obvious big-ticket improvements, the new Classic includes some small touches that are easy to miss. Apple's music shuffle function, for instance, has made a subtle evolution, now letting you easily engage and disengage the shuffle function on the fly, with just a few clicks of the scroll wheel's center button. By placing the shuffle setting options (Shuffle Song, Shuffle Album, or Shuffle Off) in a song's Now Playing window, Apple is effectively giving you the ability to randomize songs until you find an artist you like--a lazy listener's dream come true. We're also happy to see that Apple has bundled three video games into both the iPod Classic and the Nano, giving us yet another way to stay distracted.
Apple's audio file format support remains the same. Copy-protected AAC files purchased through iTunes are supported, of course, as well as MP3, Apple lossless, AIFF, WAV, and Audible files. We're happy to see that despite the iPhone's unique file management requirements, the iPod Classic allows for manually adding and deleting music and video files without the hassles of playlist syncing. The Classic can also double as a USB hard drive in a pinch.