Not every Apple design is magical. Last year, Apple abandoned its long-standing design for the music-only iPod shuffle, moving from a square-shaped player with buttons to an uberminimalist design whose only buttons were located on the headphone cord. However, Apple must have received a boatload of complaints about its ergonomics, because the shuffle once again has a square shape with buttons. Last year's shuffle wasn't a complete loss; its Voice Over feature, which speaks the names of playlists, was added to this year's device. While we wish Apple had also kept last year's headphones and included more storage, the newest shuffle ($49) is an easy-to-use MP3 player at a great price.
Design and User Interface
In a sense, the shuffle's design is the opposite of evolutionary: After a brief stint as a button-less sliver, it's reverted, more or less, to the design it used to have. Like shuffles of generations past, this one has a square aluminum casing, physical buttons, and comes in an array of bright colors (silver, orange, blue, pink, and green).
If the white navigation pad, from which users can adjust the volume and skip tracks, looks familiar, that's because it's basically the classic scroll wheel, only without the scrolling. In the middle of the circle sits a Pause/Play button. It's generally easy to press these buttons without looking. (We can't say the same of the new nano, which, for the first time, has a multitouch display). Occasionally, we accidentally paused the music when we meant to boost the volume, but this happened only two or three times during several days of testing. The shuffle is durable, too; its aluminum finish resisted scratches, even after we tossed it in our bag.
Like every other shuffle, this one has a clip on the back, which is sturdy enough to cling even to thin layers of clothing. (With a weight of 0.3 ounces, you're less likely to notice it than you are the 0.7-ounce nano.) This version still charges through its own USB dongle that connects through the 3.5mm headphone jack, and has a switch letting users turn the device off, or play playlists in order or in Shuffle mode.
New to this form factor is the Voice Over button on the top of the shuffle, in between the headphone jack and On/Off switch. This feature, introduced in the last-generation shuffle, announces the names of playlists, tracks, and artists, as well as the battery status. Just press the Voice Over button to hear the name of the track and artist you're listening to, and press and hold it to hear the names of various playlists loaded on the device. (You can also press the button twice to hear the battery status.) While listening to the names of playlists, simply press the button again when you hear the name of the one you'd like to switch to.
All in all, it's a straightforward design, and we can appreciate that Apple reverted to a square shape with buttons after too many customers complained. For us, though, the perfect shuffle would combine buttons with headphones that have inline controls. That way, people on the go (especially athletes, perhaps), could pinch the headphone's controls to adjust the volume or skip tracks if necessary.
The shuffle, a music-only device, holds 2GB of music. (The last-generation shuffle was offered with 4GB for $79.) Although it's a shame this one holds less music, at $49 it's also the least expensive iPod Apple has ever sold.
Like every other iPod, the shuffle requires that users store their music on iTunes, even if they didn't purchase it through the store. Syncing nearly 2GB of music took several minutes on our aging MacBook, but the process went smoothly.
The included headphones are the same classic white earbuds Apple ships with other iPods. While they didn't irritate our ears as they have other reviewers', they started to slip out during a workout as we began to sweat. Fortunately, because the shuffle once again has buttons on the device itself, users don't have to use Apple's proprietary earbuds; they can plug any headphones, including a sportier pair, into the 3.5mm headphone jack. (The shuffle does not have Bluetooth, so wireless headphones aren't an option.)
The shuffle is rated for 15 hours of music playback. Indeed, we always had plenty of battery life left after an afternoon of walking around and working out with headphones on. By comparison, the nano is rated for 24 hours of music playback, but because its LCD drains battery life, we found that it lasted closer to 9 or 10 hours.
While we wish the iPod Shuffle ($49 for 2GB) still had inline headphone controls and were offered with 4GB of storage, we think Apple's redesign of this pint-size, music-only player is pretty smart. Thanks to physical buttons, it's easier to use than the last generation, but it still offers Voice Over, which lets users switch playlists easily. For people who don't mind that they can't choose a particular song (especially gym-goers, who wouldn't want to look at their iPods while working out anyway), the shuffle is well-designed, easy to use, and in a word, a steal.