Arguably the most offbeat iPod yet, the 4GB shuffle houses plenty of storage, excellent audio quality, and divine little details into a gorgeous fashion accessory. Apple's new entry-level DAP is not the value choice you might expect from the lowest-priced iPod.
Apple's 3rd generation 4GB iPod shuffle once again breaks new ground, this time by eliminating its trademark circular control ring and shrinking its physical size to unbelievable proportions. Truly a sight to behold, and now with double the capacity, Apple's entry-level iPod packs its slim feature set into an even slimmer aluminum body. With the headlining new multi-lingual VoiceOver feature, is it enough to make you part with your cash? Read on and find out.
Reviewing Apple's new 4GB iPod shuffle may just be the hardest assignment I've yet had with everythingusb.com. That's because this impossibly small thing is as much jewelry as it is electronic gadget. It would be easy for me to rave about how small the shuffle has become (I could), or how the anodized aluminum casing is machined so perfectly (it is), or how the whole thing is so easy to use (or lose). But somehow I feel that's not enough to do this product justice. And yet, after three weeks of living with the 4GB shuffle, I'm left wondering if this baby iPod fulfills its main mission as well as it should considering its $99 asking price.
iPod shuffle 3G took out the USB connector in favor of a 'special USB cable'.
Cracking open the casing, all of Apple's legendary attention to detail becomes readily apparent. The shuffle is packaged in a clear transparent case, with the shuffle and its new headphone cable-mounted remote control exposed for all to see. Lift the thick plastic sheet and you'll find a brand-new style of Apple headphones, along with a very short (4 inch) proprietary cable with a special 1/8" stereo plug on one end, and a USB Type A plug on the other. At the bottom of the box, you'll find a few pages of "getting started" information, actually more than you would expect for a product so simple. I personally think that with all of Apple's eco-friendly advertising with respect to their new MacBooks and packaging, that Apple deliberately went against their own benchmarks for the shuffle. The package is plastic rather than paper, and certainly bigger than it needs to be. It's almost as if the shuffle ships in an earring box. If any of you remember the original shuffle's green super slim packaging, that was pretty cool stuff for 2005. The new 4GB shuffle's packaging really should just continue the eco-theme for everybody's benefit.
Second from left is the iPod shuffle 3G.
Minimalist - to a Fault?
Briefly touring the exterior of the new 4GB shuffle, one finds a beautifully finished anodized aluminum housing, available in your choice of silver or black. As you can see from the photos, the black version is not really black, but more of a dark gunmetal. Featureless on its front surface, sides and bottom, your eyes are immediately drawn to the beauty of the back with its polished shiny surface, laser etched Apple logo, and spring loaded hinging mechanism - with hidden spring. I literally spent hours trying to figure out how the clip is sprung, obviously from the inside, but HOW? Etched into the back surface are tiny markings that would be familiar to any shuffle owner - OFF, REPEAT and SHUFFLE. The top surface contains a multipurpose stereo headphone jack, a pinpoint LED, and a machined three position switch to set the play mode.
When you think things cannot get any smaller...
Size-wise, the 4GB shuffle is tiny. Miniscule. Molecular. The first-generation shuffle dwarfs it in comparison, and four years ago everyone though that 240 songs in an iPod thinner than a stick of gum was amazing. This new 4GB shuffle represents 1000 songs in a matchbox. And it's about half as thick as grandpa shuffle. Still, with the aluminum housing, it has a nice heft and rounded sides but sharp edges. There really is no other portable music player it can be compared to. Kudos, Apple. I finally understand why the shuffle can't have a screen. But I still want one...
The iPod shuffle 4GB takes the now infamous approach to simplified user interface design. No buttons. No display. No shuttle controls for PLAY, STOP, ADVANCE and the like. No USB port for crying out loud. Wait. Remember that 4 inch cable? Well it plugs into the headphone jack, making USB charging and synching possible. Nifty, elegant, and well, it just means that no matter how hard you try, soon you will lose the special cable.
If you lose this 4" 3.5mm to USB cable, Apple has some extras for $19 for a pair.
Back to what's missing. No volume controls. On the shuffle itself. The trademark design feature of past shuffles was the simplified click wheel. Well, Apple designers saw fit to remove that too. I am now left with this tiny strip of controls that hang about 6 inches south of the right earbud. More on this later.
First of all, the little machined switch next to the headphones jack is for turning the shuffle OFF, or putting it into one of two modes: SHUFFLE or SEQUENTIAL playback. Sequential playback is obvious - songs are played in order determined alphabetically by playlist and album order. Shuffle playback is pseudo-random, but apparently there is some extra logic in there to bias the shuffle to play highly ranked songs more often. This I could not test, but it became apparent to us that with 4GB capacity, songs certainly don't repeat very often at all. If you want to listen to a specific song and you don't have a well-structured playlist set loaded into the shuffle, forget it. You just have to accept that music will come out and you have little to no control over it. For some this could be good therapy. You can decide if accepting loss of control is therapeutic or irritating.
The ironic thing about the 4GB shuffle's simplistic and minimalistic design is that it's not really intuitive to use, unlike the 1st or 2nd generation shuffles that came before. With just three buttons, these are the functions you can access:
+ button: volume up
middle button click once to play, click once again to pause
middle button double click: advance to next song (either in sequence, or next shuffle selection)
middle button triple click: previous song
middle button hold: activate VoiceOver
middle button hold, hear tone, release: click when Playlist name is read by VoiceOver.
- button: volume down
VoiceOver, the headlining new feature, is capable of speaking in 14 different languages. It is smart enough to handle music in multiple languages, and will say the song title and artist in the language of the song (if it's one of the 14). You do have to set VoiceOver's "native" language, which is the language it will speak the Playlist names in. Naturally, it makes pronunciation errors when artist names are out of the ordinary, or titles are a strange combination of numbers and letters. The English voice is a slightly robotic male; the Chinese (Mandarin) voice is a pleasant-sounding female.
Navigating between playlists was rather difficult to understand at first. While a song is playing, hold the center button until you hear the title and artist for that song announced. Then you'll hear a short beep. Then let off the button and listen carefully. The shuffle will read each playlist name to you, one by one. Immediately upon hearing the playlist you want, click to select that one. The shuffle will then commence playing your chosen playlist. I had a few playlists with one word names, and if I didn't click immediately during the reading of that playlist name, nothing would happen. It's quite a lengthy and error-prone system. Previous shuffles assigned a triple-click to advancement of the playlist, a much better solution. Navigating a particular song is something that is not possible anymore. Older shuffles allow you to hold the forward or reverse buttons to seek. This is not possible at all with the 4GB iPod shuffle.
While obvious, I feel it's worth mentioning that a screen and a few more buttons would go a long way to simplifying the user interface of this miniature iPod. Random access throughout your song library would be really nice, however, with 4GB capacity, songs don't repeat all that often. While that is why the iPod nano exists, the lack of screen has other implications, such as no calculator, clock, stopwatch timer or games capability. You buy a shuffle for the music, a watch to tell time, and an iPod touch or iPhone to play games. At least that's what Apple wants us to do.
After all discussion of the controversial size, design and controls is over with, what really matters is the sound quality. With the shuffle, as has always been the case, there are no audio controls whatsoever, except for volume. No EQ, no bass boost, no tone curves or sound presets, no special "spatial effects". However, none of that is needed. The 4GB shuffle sounds great, and must of the credit goes to the new and improved headphones. I could hear details I never heard before when using my old Apple headphones with both the MacBook Pro and the old 512MB shuffle. Sure enough it's true. I took the new headphones, attached them to the old shuffle, and voila! The singing highs and the full bodied lows were there all the same.
I see no faults with the audio performance of the new 4GB iPod shuffle, as long as you are happy with the included headphones. Unfortunately, you are limited in not being able to plug the shuffle into your home stereo system to project the iPod's tunes over your speaker system. So again, this new 4GB shuffle is all about travel, and only for the road.
Battery Life & USB Performance
I never used the iPod shuffle for a ten-hour listening session all at once, but I can report that in my tests, a full charge gave well in excess of ten hours of playback time over multiple sessions. That's not a bad showing, considering the size of the Li-Po battery in this thing must be the size of an aspirin. Charging performance was also hard to judge, but Apple's claim of 2 hours to 80% and another hour to top up to 100% seem about right. I did notice the shuffle got quite warm during charging, as the aluminum case efficiently transfers heat away from the insides.
Synching with iTunes was as intuitive and easy as any other iPod. As with other iPods, you can choose to manually manage the songs you place on your iPod, or allow iTunes to create playlists automatically, which get changed and resynchronized each time you plug in your iPod for charging.
I allowed iTunes to automatically manage the music, and it created a playlist of 743 songs, 3.58GB total (out of 3.77GB available). Total transfer time was 21 min, 45 sec, for an average transfer rate of 2.8MB/sec. Just for kicks, I allocated 50% of the space for disk use, and fired up our favourite peripheral benchmarking app: SISoft Sandra 2009 on Windows XP. Here's how the 4GB shuffle performed:
The shuffle is no speed demon, but it performs acceptably for casual file transfer and storage use, topping out at around 10MB/sec reads and just over 4MB/sec writes.
Unfortunately, Apple's decision to move the button controls off the shuffle itself means that in order to operate a 4GB shuffle, you need to have these headphones plugged in. Those of you who currently use 3rd party headphones, such as active noise canceling headphones, or snug-fit earbuds that fit the contours of your ear better, are out of luck. I definitely see companies rushing to design little remote controls that plug into the shuffle's headphone jack and provide an inline set of controls, but until then, it's Apple's solution or nothing. I see this as a potential deal-breaker for some.
Apple does offer one alternative to the shuffle's bundled 'phones. Dubbed "Apple In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic", these are premium-priced 'phones for iPhone or iPod, with a similar remote control, presumably better sound, an in-line microphone, and a whopping $79 USD price tag. Others have resorted to hacking to get a customized set of headphones to work with the 4GB shuffle. Here's one:
Some other companies are making adapters that change the shape and fit of the stock Apple earbuds to better suit. You can read about 3 viable options from the Chicago Tribune.
Outstanding minimalist design
Excellent audio quality
Improved bundled headphones
Buttons poorly located on headphone cable
Small size makes it easy to misplace
VoiceOver not substitute for LCD screen
Overall, the iPod 4GB shuffle can be thought of as a modern interpretation of wearable electronic jewelry. I would expect that style-conscious folks who may already have a full-featured iPod or iPhone would be likely candidates for a shuffle as an exercise companion, or second carryabout music player. Its faults are many and its charms few, but anyone who cross-shops practically any other portable music player with the shuffle just doesn't get it. This is minimalism at its finest. If you're like me, you get energized by cradling such a beautiful object and the melodies that gush forth through the improved headphones are just icing on the cake. Close your eyes and imagine the heated debates that must have occurred during the design. And yet I feel thankful for what they left: a headphone jack, a pinpoint LED, and the power switch. Don't be surprised if all three get eliminated in the next generation.
I see the next shuffle being no shuffle at all, but just a set of elegant, cordless headphones. At which point, the masses will get it and no one will complain. Apple's on a mission, and they don't care what you think. Mainstreamers, buy a nano and be happy. For those of you still reading, this shuffle's a timeless gem. Go get one and learn to listen to accept that you have little control over your new gadget. There you go: less time for fiddling and more time to enjoy life. That, my friends, is what it's all about.