Of the five machines that constitute Apple's late 2007 iPod lineup--the iPod shuffle (see my review), iPod nano (see my review), iPod classic, iPod touch, and iPhone (see my review)--none stands out, and for all the wrong reasons, quite like the iPod classic. Sure, the shuffle hasn't really been updated this year per se, but the shuffle costs less than $100 and is limited by design. No, it's the iPod classic, the successor to the iPod with video (see my review) and the latest in a long line of devices that can be traced back to the original iPod (see my review), that is something of a lame duck this season. In previous years, the iPod classic's predecessors were the top of the line, the Big Dog, the iPod that true technophiles simply had to have. This year, it's all changed: Sandwiched right in the middle of the iPod lineup, the iPod classic offers exactly one advantage over its siblings: Massive amounts of hard drive-based storage. Beyond that, it's considerably less cool than the iPod touch and iPhone, and considerably bulkier and less attractive than the iPod shuffle and nano. Even the name, with the coolness-averse "classic" moniker, suggests something that's past its prime.

Classic doesn't always mean lame

And sure enough, the iPod classic is a decent if unexceptional player, borrowing as it does a design--and more problematically, a screen size--that's been around for about six years now. As with the new iPod nano, the iPod classic picks up a "full metal" enclosure, though I'm still unclear why this distinction is so important to Apple. More important to me, and I suspect to most users, is that the iPod classic now sports a smooth, somewhat curved fascia that drops the sharp edge that made previous versions so hard to hold. (Apple still makes this same mistake with their Macbook notebook computers.)

As with last year's models, Apple offers two iPod classics, a thin version and a thicker version that offers more storage. This year, storage is up considerably, while the thickness (or more appropriately, the thinness) of each model is dramatically improved over their predecessors. Now, the low-end iPod classic includes 80 GB of hard drive-based storage space (all non-classic iPods use flash storage) and is svelter, thinner, and more attractive than the 30 GB low-end iPod with video from late 2006. The high-end model jumps to a whopping 160 GB of storage (up from 80 GB) and is quite a bit thicker than the 2007 iPod classic with 80 GB of storage, but thinner than its 80 GB predecessor from 2006.

New UIs and games

As with the new iPod nano, the iPod classic sports the new "Halfie" user interface and CoverFlow. (See my iPod nano 3G review for more information.) Sadly, the interface is as slow on the iPod classic as it is on the nano. In fact, it might be even slower: Perhaps the sheer amount of content you can put on these devices overloads what must be by now a fairly ancient processor. Also, hard drives like those in the classic offer slower access speed than does flash memory. This thing certainly chugs along slowly when you navigate around the UI.

The iPod classic also comes with the same three games as the new nano--iQuiz, Klondike, and Vortex--and is similarly incompatible with the 18 iPod games that Apple currently sells from the iTunes Store. That's just silly.

What's interesting is, starting with this year's models, how the iPod classic is suddenly so clearly a bigger, hard drive-based version of the iPod nano. Previously, there were lots of differences between these two products, but now it seems to be down to size (including screen size) and capacity (and minor issues like enclosure color schemes).

More facts and figures

In addition to massive amounts of storage--heck, 160 GB is more hard drive space than what's included on most notebook computers these days--the two iPod classic models sport impressive battery life. The low-end (80 GB) model is rated for 30 hours of life for audio and 5 for video, while the high-end (160 GB) model is rated for an astonishing 40 hours of battery life for audio and 7 for video. These are huge improvements over the late 2006 models, which were rated at 14/3.5 hours for the low-end (30 GB) iPod with video and 20/6.5 hours for the high-end (80 GB) version.

Of course, any gains on the video side are somewhat offset by the small size of the iPod classic's screen. This is a tough way to watch video, especially if you've used bigger displays on devices like the Microsoft Zune (see my review), the iPod touch/iPhone, or the much larger screen on various Archos devices. (See my portable media player screen size comparison for more information.) On the other hand, wily Apple fans can skip the Apple TV (see my review) entirely and just connect the iPod to their HDTV with Apple's separate AV cables (for $49 extra) and, perhaps, Universal iPod Dock.

Pricing is reasonable given the capacities. The 80 GB iPod classic costs $249, while the 160 GB version can be had for $349. Both versions are available in black or gunmetal gray (but not white, as before). Apple continues to eschew bright colors in its classic iPod line.

Like the iPod nano, the iPod classic comes with Apple's sub-par earbud headphones, an iPod Dock adapter, a USB-based charging/syncing cable, and some light documentation. There's no protective sleeve to speak of, though any iPod classic owner will certainly want such a thing.

Final thoughts

The iPod classic is an enigma: It's the only iPod that can hold a serious amount of video, but because of its small screen, it's not particularly well suited for video on the go. For this reason, the classic, like the iPod with video it replaces, is best suited for massive audio collections and only occasional video use, or at least only when connected to a TV. On the good news front, its massive hard drive storage allotments mean the device can also do double duty as a PC backup device for those who travel. It's an extremely svelte external hard drive.

A year ago, the classic iPod design was top of the line, but a lot has changed in a year, and new form factors like those found on the iPod touch and iPhone have rendered the iPod classic somewhat pass?. It's still the only serious option for those with lots of storage needs, but that's just a temporary condition. Once Apple ships a hard drive-based iPod touch--as it will no doubt do next year--the iPod classic may no longer be necessary. Frankly, I can't wait for that to happen.