With its usual mind for style and superlative thinness, Apple released the third generation of its iPod shuffle with a sleek, aluminum body--and no buttons. In addition to being the first shuffle to support multiple playlists, it's also the world's first MP3 player to speak the names of songs. While the sound quality and VoiceOver feature are excellent, it's a drag having to rely on the bundled earbuds, whose inline controls are awkwardly placed.
To the untrained eye, the shuffle could easily be mistaken for a Bluetooth headset. Its rectangular 1.8 x 0.7 x 0.3-inch frame is impossibly thin, even with a stainless steel clip attached. At 0.4 ounces it's so light that we were able to clip it to our clothes and forget it was there. As thin as it is, the clip clung tightly to our clothes, making it a low-maintenance choice for exercisers in particular.
The player, which comes in either silver or a charcoal gray, has a tough anodized aluminum exterior. Unlike the previous generation shuffle, it has no buttons: just a small switch on the side to turn the power off and toggle between shuffle mode and a regular mode that plays songs in the order they're listed on a playlist. There's also a 3.5mm headphone jack, which right now only works with the included earphones (more on that later).
The latest shuffle borrows a design element from the iPhone: it places the controls not on the device itself, but on the cord to the earbuds. The inline controls include a small rocker with labeled volume controls on either end (the button to increase the volume is closer to the face; the decrease button, closer to the ground).
In the center is a multi-purpose button that you can click once to pause or play music, twice to skip forward, and three times to skip backward. Holding down the button will activate VoiceOver.
The controls are intuitive: if you're skipping you have to press the button quickly in sequence. If you're pausing the music, just pinch it; hold it down to start VoiceOver. Although the controls were easy to master, using them felt clumsy at times, as the rocker is too close to the face.
The new shuffle features VoiceOver, a technology originally developed to narrate onscreen text and processes for Mac owners who were either blind or had poor vision. The voice in the shuffle speaks the names of the current song and artist, as well as playlists (this is the first shuffle that supports multiple playlists). Users can choose from 14 languages.
If you think this feature sounds annoying, rest assured that the voice only speaks when you hold down the button in the center of the control pad. You can even disable it in the iTunes software (by default, it's not enabled; you have to check a box during installation to turn it on).
When you hold down the button, the song fades to a lower volume while the voice says the name of the song. Although the default voice has a clearly masculine sound, it's also unmistakably robotic: its cadence is stilted, and it occasionally botches syllables (its pronunciation of the artist "Eve," for instance, sounded like a cross between "ere" and "ewe"). Nevertheless, he's easy to understand.
Other than the ability to clarify what playlist you're listening to, the appeal of this technology mostly lies in its novelty. Granted, in our vast, eclectic library we have several albums by artists, such as Billie Holiday, who we enjoy but don't listen to often; in these cases, we appreciated being able to hold down the button and learn the name of the current song. But for the most part, we activated VoiceOver because it was unique (and because hearing its deadpan pronunciation of vulgar song titles is funny).
The shuffle has a 4GB capacity, which Apple says can store up to 1,000 songs. For now, users can only listen to music on the player if they wear the included headphones (replacements cost $29). Apple is working with headphone manufacturers to create compatible headphones, which contain the same authentication chip, as well as adapters for older earphones.
We found the audio quality to be balanced and full, even while listening to an eclectic playlist that included rap, alternative rock, folk, and Motown. We listened to the same Ella Fitzgerald song on both the shuffle and our last-generation MacBook; although the orchestral interludes sounded slightly distant on the shuffle, both devices managed to hit all the right notes. In short, the sound quality is more than adequate for everyday users, and particularly the workout crowd Apple is targeting.
The earbuds don't do a great job at blocking out ambient sound. While traveling on the New York City subway on the way to work, we had to raise the volume fairly high to hear our songs over the noise of the train as it pulled into the station. Fortunately, the music didn't sound distorted at that level.
Battery Life and Warranty
The shuffle has a rated battery life of 10 hours, and comes with a short USB cable for syncing and charging. After two hours of listening, the battery was still going strong, whereas our iPod touch would be half-dead in that time. (We'll update this review once we have full battery test results.)
The shuffle comes with a one-year warranty including 90 days of free phone support. The AppleCare Protection Plan ($39) extends both the warranty and phone support to two years. While we might encourage you to buy the extended warranty for a MacBook, we say skip it for an MP3 player this cheap.
The latest shuffle offers good sound quality and a sleek design, and its support for multiple playlists makes it an improvement over the last generation model. The VoiceOver feature, which works like a charm, makes it unlike any other MP3 player on the market. Unfortunately, by removing all the buttons from the device and placing them on the earphones, Apple has designed a product that some users might find more cumbersome than intuitive. If the buttonless design doesn't work for you, Apple is still selling the 1GB version of the last-generation shuffle for $49, which holds 250 songs.