Editors' note, August 18, 2009: Rumors strongly suggest that a new line of iPods will be unveiled early in September of this year. For those considering the purchase of an iPod, we recommend holding off until these new models become available. Check out CNET's iPod Central for all iPod news updates.
The iPod Classic is Apple's iconic hard-drive-based MP3 player, with design roots that date back to 2001's original iPod model. If you can resist the fashion appeal and gee-whiz features of Apple's slimmer iPods, such as the iPod Nano and iPod Touch, the 120GB iPod Classic ($249) still delivers the most bang for the buck.
The second-generation iPod Classic is indistinguishable from 2007's original model, except that the thicker 160GB version is no longer available. An anodized-aluminum faceplate covers the front of the Classic in either black or silver, while the back of the iPod is covered in the same scratch-showing, smudge-loving chromed steel found on most iPods.
The second-generation iPod Classic fits a whopping 120GB hard drive into the same enclosure as its 80GB predecessor, coming in at pocket-size 2.4 inches by 4.1 inches by 0.41 inch. The screen is still made from plastic, making it the only remaining iPod that hasn't yet switched to a scratch-resistant glass screen.
The second-generation iPod Classic is also now one of the only iPods to use a split-screen main menu layout, displaying menu items on the left half of the screen and a picture related to the selection on the right. For example, highlighting Music on the main menu causes the right half of the screen to display a drifting close-up of cover artwork from your music library. This split-screen effect is more beautiful than it is distracting, and applies to menu items such as movies, podcasts, and photos, as well. You also have the option to browse your music using the Cover Flow view made popular by the iPhone, however, the novelty of Cover Flow wears thin without a touch-screen display. Users with large music collections to sort through will prefer browsing using the list mode or search function.
The only new feature distinguishing the second-generation iPod Classic from its predecessor is the ability to create instant Genius playlists. The Genius feature lets you create an instant 25-song playlists based on the musical characteristics of a single song, offering a new way to group together similar songs in your collection. Genius is easy to use, and the results are fun, provided your music collection holds enough songs to make interesting connections (with 120GB of storage, that shouldn't be hard). You can create and save Genius playlists directly onto your iPod, and with automatic syncing enabled in iTunes you can also transfer them back to your computer. Oddly, the Genius feature won't work if you haven't enabled Genius on your computer's iTunes software. If you find iTunes' Genius feature too demanding on your computer's resources or too invasive of your privacy (the feature reports your listening habits to Apple), then you'll need to live without the feature on your iPod as well.
Apple has also made it easier to record voice memos with the second-generation iPod Classic, although you'll need to pay a little extra to get the feature working. Many third-party iPhone headsets are compatible with the Classic's voice recording feature and beginning in October 2008, Apple will sell their own line of compatible headsets, as well. Without purchasing a compatible headset, however, there is no built-in way to create voice recordings with the iPod Classic right out of the box.
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 or rent 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 be switched on and off for video files that support them.
Apple's audio file format support remains the same. The iPod Classic allows for manually adding and deleting music and video files, but with 120GB of storage, many users will prefer to have their entire media library sync automatically. The Classic can also double as a USB hard drive in a pinch.