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 (s aapl) 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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
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.