Apple's third-generation iPod shuffle, available for around £60, is the smallest MP3 player you can buy. Its unique size and uncommon, remote-controlled design won't suit every purpose, but people looking for the next best thing to an invisible iPod will appreciate the player's minimalistic style.
At first glance, the shuffle looks almost like a practical joke -- as if someone is trying to convince you that their tie clip plays MP3s. The aluminium-encased hardware measures just a few hairs larger than a paper clip -- 18mm by 46mm by 8mm -- and includes not a hint of button, knob or screen. The headphone jack sits on the top edge, along with a switch that controls playback mode (shuffle or consecutive) and power.
Fortunately, Apple doesn't expect you to control the shuffle's volume and playback using mind control (not yet, at least). The earbud-style headphones bundled with the shuffle include a remote control on the cable, just below the right ear. The remote offers three buttons: two for volume control (up and down), and a central button with multiple functions. You press the centre button once to pause music playback, twice to skip forward and three times to skip back. Of course, the downside to this headphone-controlled design is that, if you lose your headphones, you also lose control of your iPod. Apple's own replacement earbuds for the shuffle cost £19, but it's possible to grab third-party headphones and adaptors for less.
The headphone cable is about 90cm (3-feet) long, which should be more than enough, considering that the shuffle is meant to be clipped to your clothing. A hinged, chromed metal clip runs the length of the shuffle on one side and includes a slot for attaching a lanyard or keychain. An Apple logo is engraved on the clip, and custom engraving is offered on orders placed through Apple's online store.
The shuffle is purely a digital audio player. There's no FM radio, no voice recording, and, obviously, no photo or video playback. Audio formats supported include MP3, AAC, Audible, WAV, AIFF and Apple Lossless, but not WMA or FLAC.
The third-generation version of the shuffle offers a few new features over previous models, though. For one, this is the first shuffle that tells you what you're listening to -- no small accomplishment, considering the player doesn't have a screen. The shuffle uses a synthesised voice to announce artist and song-title information whenever you hold the headphone clicker down. This VoiceOver feature offers support for 14 languages, with voice quality hinging on what type of computer and operating system you're using. Even though the shuffle can speak, it doesn't respond to your voice -- so don't go talking to your iPod like a crazy person.
We found the voice feature useful when a great song popped on that we couldn't identify, but we're glad the shuffle doesn't announce each song automatically. If you just can't stand the thought of a talking iPod, it's possible to turn the feature off, using Apple's iTunes software.
Another new shuffle feature is the ability to sync and navigate between multiple playlists, audio podcasts and audiobooks. Again, Apple uses the VoiceOver feature and headphone remote to accomplish this, announcing your playlists, podcasts or audiobooks one by one if you hold down the clicker for approximately 3 seconds. Once VoiceOver starts listing your content, just press the clicker again to select the content you want to play. If you've got a tonne of playlists, you can use the remote's volume keys to quickly skip back and forth through the list.
The shuffle handles the playback of audiobook and podcast content differently to playback of music files, and assumes you'd prefer to always play this type of content sequentially -- even if the playback switch is set to shuffle. Audiobook and podcast content is also kept out of the shuffle's start-up music mix, ensuring that a stray chapter of A Tale of Two Cities never ruins the mood of your workout. But, if jogging to classic literature is your thing, you'll be relieved to know that any audiobook synced to the shuffle is treated as a separate playlist. Podcasts all get thrown into a shared podcast playlist, and play in order of show title, not release date. Like any other iPod, the shuffle automatically resumes your podcasts or audiobooks where you last left off, allowing you to enjoy them in small doses without scanning back and forth to find your place.