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Summary:

Much has been said about the new iPod shuffle. Its size has been praised, lack of buttons grumbled about, and — as with most new Apple products — has caused a little controversy. I wanted to try the product out for myself as I’ve been needing […]

ipodshuffleMuch has been said about the new iPod shuffle. Its size has been praised, lack of buttons grumbled about, and — as with most new Apple products — has caused a little controversy. I wanted to try the product out for myself as I’ve been needing a small MP3 player for exercise. My iPhone is a little too cumbersome to carry while running.

I’ll be taking a look at the packaging, unboxing the iPod shuffle, and offering my thoughts on the hardware and software bundled with the gadget.

Unboxing

Apple seems to be continuing down the road of shrinking packaging material, and the box for the iPod shuffle is really small. It comes presented with the shuffle center stage, containing a simple manual, 3.5mm audio to USB adaptor, and the headphones.

 

Initial Impressions

The first thing to note, as you’d expect, is that the iPod shuffle is absolutely tiny. I’m fascinated to see where the constant shrinking of the shuffle will ultimately lead to, and I don’t think it’ll be long before you’ll struggle to find it in your pocket. The build quality is also remarkable, with the aluminum construction feeling bulletproof.

As with the previous generation, the entire device is fashioned into a large clip. You can easily attach it anywhere, and it’s sturdy enough that I wouldn’t be concerned about it falling off when running. The top of the shuffle sports a small switch which toggles between shuffling tracks or playing music sequentially.

The headphones are (unfortunately) exactly what you’d expect. They’re standard iPod headphones, albeit with a new and sleek in-line track/volume controller. They have the same ‘rubbery’ feel as recent iPod model earphones, and offer the same reasonable level of comfort and sound. Don’t expect to be blown away, though Apple should be working on an adaptor to allow you to use your own earphones in the near future.

iTunes Connectivity

Connecting to iTunes is as simple as ever, and includes a few options which haven’t been present before. Upon connecting, you’re asked to register your iPod (with a nice new graphic to show the new shuffle in the lineup):

Registering the iPod Shuffle

Registering the iPod Shuffle

When setting up, you’re asked if you’d like to enable VoiceOver. This works by generating spoken audio for the names of your tracks on your Mac (or Windows machine), before transferring them to your iPod along with the music. Because of this, you’re asked if you’re happy to install the VoiceOver desktop software.

Installing VoiceOver

Installing VoiceOver

This integrates silently into iTunes, and you don’t really notice anything is occurring. A short downloading status message appears, and then syncing music is handled as normal. You’ll be pleased to know that disk mode is supported as before, allowing you to transfer other files on the iPod. If you’d like, you can also set a volume limit and automatically reduce the quality of audio when syncing to fit more on the device.

iTunes Settings

iTunes Settings

Track Navigation & VoiceOver

There has been a decent amount of debate over how usable the headphone remote would actually be for skipping between tracks. I’d say it’s probably the least user-friendly interface that Apple has created for the iPod to date, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still function very well.

The annoying aspect of VoiceOver is that it isn’t the quickest method of navigating your iPod’s content. There’s quite a bit of waiting involved, and it’s tricky to skip through what is being read out. Not a problem if you have two or three playlists, but increasingly annoying as you add more. While the new computer voice in Leopard was noted as a decent improvement, I still think that artificial computer vocals have some way to come before they’re anything like the real thing. ‘Alex’ is perfectly coherent, but it’s a little odd to have your track information spoken to you by a digital voice.

Commendations, Complaints and Caution

On the whole, the size reduction and multiple playlist support do make the iPod shuffle a decent improvement. It’s brilliant if you’re exercising, and the controls do allow for simple track control without fumbling with the iPod itself. I’d really appreciate a way to use my own headphones with the shuffle, and look forward to some form of adaptor being released.

It is possible to trick the iPod, by setting the track and volume playing with the default phones and switching across to your own. Far from ideal, and doesn’t allow any subsequent control of the player. If you’d like to buy a better pair of supported in-ear phones, you can do so from Apple.

However, the general fact is that most shuffle owners don’t want to carefully select specific tracks to play; there’s been no way to do this in the past (even lacking multiple playlist support), so in many senses the new version is a step forward. I’ll certainly be happy with being able to use the new navigation method and appreciate the ability to flick through playlists.

Ultimately, the new iPod shuffle is a decent looking flash drive, backed up with a seasoned and fantastic piece of software — iTunes. The player has a few areas in which improvement is needed, but represents a solid advancement of Apple’s iPod device.

  1. It looks like one of those little mint cookies, which increases the odds I’d eat it by accident (or intentionally).

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  2. Regarding navigating with VoiceOver… Let’s not forget that this is an iPod shuffle. There was no expectation of being able to “navigate” through music in the previous generations other than being able to move back and forth and randomize. Apple may have unnecessarily created a problem by implementing the VoiceOver feature and setting the expectation of being able to “navigate” at all.

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  3. Richard Lomas Friday, March 13, 2009

    Agreed Josh.

    Just put a button or two on the thing (or a touch strip), kill Voiceover and all the complaints about adapters are gone and it’s a winner!

    It’s so simple, yet they over engineered it IMO.
    R

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  4. I wish someone would comment on the sound quality. I’ve found the previous Shuffles to sound superior to iPods of the same generation, perhaps due to lack of electrical interference from HDD or screen display. But this new one is so tiny, what kind of audio circuitry can it hold?

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  5. Nice review. Sounds to me like the new shuffle is pretty much what it purported to me, and that’s fine by me.

    You and I appear to disagree a bit over the remote controls. I’ve been using them a while with my iPhone and I now believe that grabbing the device, or fumbling for controls in your pocket or while wearing it, is a very clumsy method of controlling the most commonly used functions. I can’t imagine controlling the device that way now.

    Obviously, a full interface is necessary for the kind of artist, song, playlist navigation the bigger devices require, but that’s not what the shuffle is for. I think their playlist navigation was a nod to the fact that with 4GB some separation of songs would be desirable. Still, if you setup 24 playlists and complain about VoiceOver’s ability to navigate it I think it’s your fault. Apple’s not claiming this as a replacement for a “full” interface, but rather a (very nice) addition to the shuffle.

    My iPhone is 8GB and I have seven playlists. I suspect my shuffle will have maybe that many, maybe less. VO will be just fine for that. And remember that when it starts rattling off the names of your playlists you can use the + and – buttons to move forward quickly (they’re recited alphabetically).

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  6. Richard Lomas Friday, March 13, 2009

    I really think they need to continue to product both models (which I know they won’t), as the newer model just doesn’t work for the running crowd (which includes me).

    Gizmodo had a good review today that mentions all the problems with this new model for the exercise crowd.

    Does anyone else feel like this was “change for the sake of change”?

    Did anyone really look at the existing shuffle and say: “Man I just wish it wasn’t so big”… or…”Geez, why can’t they get rid of those pesky buttons”??

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  7. Richard Lomas Friday, March 13, 2009

    Oops. I meant “produce” both models. :-)

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  8. We should be allowed to choose the bitrate of the transcoded files, and that option should be available for ALL iPods!

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  9. I agree with Galley, I’d love to be able to have the encoding option for my iPhone. Then I could keep full quality on my computer and iPod, but have a bigger library on my phone. C’mon Apple!

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  10. The new iPod shuffle is talking, or should I say… Voice Over. Now you can track it and join the conversation with your friends. Given its size, the next generation will be built in the ear buds.

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