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.
As far as charging goes, the shuffle comes with a 10cm (4-inch) USB adaptor that connects between the headphone output and your computer. The shuffle is rated at 10 hours of playback time -- 2 hours less than the previous generation, but still enough to get you through a week's worth of casual use. A full recharge should take about 3 hours.
It's also worth noting that the shuffle can be used on your computer in disk mode, allowing you to store and transfer files without interfering with the audio content on your iPod. As expected, you can't access the music files stored on the shuffle without going through iTunes (version 8.1 or later is a required download for the shuffle).
Compared with other sub-£60 MP3 players on the market (for example, the SanDisk Sansa Clip or Creative Zen Stone Plus), the shuffle's microscopic design isn't enough to make up for the limited features, relatively high price, diminished battery life, quirky navigation and a headphone remote system that reeks of planned obsolescence.
MP3 players like the shuffle that are aimed at the gym and jogger crowd are particularly susceptible to issues of headphone fit, comfort, and wear and tear, and Apple's headphone remote needlessly complicates the process of replacing or upgrading the shuffle's earbuds. This is not to say that the headphone control is a bad feature, but also having controls on the actual device would help avoid navigation-related confusion and improve the product's usefulness in the long term.
The third-generation shuffle's audio quality is noticeably better than that of the previous generation, and sounds comparable to that of the fourth-generation iPod nano and second-generation iPod classic. The sound has a fuller range, with better bass response and less background hiss. Of course, the improvement in audio quality is hard to notice using the bundled earbuds, and standard headphones lack the remote control necessary for adjusting volume and skipping tracks. But, when the shuffle is connected to a standard pair of headphones and then powered on, it automatically starts playing music at the volume level it was last set to.
Third-party accessories such as replacement headphones, headphone adaptors and remote-equipped auxiliary cables will soon be available for the third-generation shuffle. If you expect to use the shuffle with an existing pair of headphones, a home stereo or a car stereo, you should add the cost of some of these accessories to the purchase price.
The third-generation shuffle has plenty going for it: the aluminium and steel construction is sturdy, the design is unobtrusive, there's a whopping 4GB of storage, and the VoiceOver technology allows you to control playback without taking your eyes away from what you're doing. But sacrifices have been made elsewhere to achieve the small size and minimalistic design, and we have a hard time giving the shuffle an unqualified thumbs-up.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet