It's probably to Apple's credit that it's not averse to tinkering with its most popular products. It's not a strategy that always pays off, however -- the third generation iPod shuffle had us tearing our hair out with its headphone-cable navigation system and distinctly easy-to-lose size. The fourth-generation Apple iPod shuffle looks to remedy some of those gripes and, available for just £40, it's surely a tempting proposition...
Put the buttons back on the box
One thing we weren't counting on was Apple introducing more buttons. But contrary to the Cupertino company's longstanding less-is-more philosophy, they've reintroduced the circle of navigation keys that adorned the second generation shuffle. On the off chance you never laid eyes on that particular specimen, let's review the new shuffle's design and layout.
Firstly, this shuffle is tiny. Really tiny. Almost a perfect square, the whole thing measures just 29 by 32 by 9mm. On the front, you'll find a play/pause button surrounded by a tasteful ring of buttons -- volume up and down, and track-skip. Along the top of the shuffle, you'll find a 3.5mm socket for plugging in your headphones and charging (via the included USB cable), and a three-way switch that cycles between shuffle play, repeat play and uh... off. There's another button that triggers the VoiceOver feature, too.
This shuffle is extremely light at 12.5g -- if you're carrying it around you won't even notice it's there. That said, it doesn't feel cheap. With an aluminium body, this miniature marvel feels sleek to hold, and the build quality is very impressive.
Push for the burn
The shuffle is very much aimed at those who want to listen to a few tunes while pumping some serious iron. To that end, Apple has attached a helpful clip to the back of the shuffle, so you can fasten the MP3 player to your microfibre-weave sweat-absorbent jogging gear before burning those calories.
Indeed, we're impressed with the shuffle's usefulness as an exercise buddy. The clip on the back grips tightly -- we can't see it flying off your clothes and into the treadmill's inner mechanism, causing a catastrophic gear failure that propels you head first through the gym's mirrored wall (for example). Additionally, the lightweight build and incredibly simple interface means you can keep your eyes on your heart rate monitor without getting distracted.
One of our major gripes with the previous shuffle was that it forced you to use the infamously shocking earbuds that Apple bundles with every iPod. The reason was that there were no buttons on the shuffle -- instead, they were built into the headphone cabling.
Luckily that's not a problem anymore. With the buttons happily reinstated on the shuffle's body, you're free to plug in your more upmarket earbuds and retain control over what's playing. That said, while it'll suit most people just fine, the sound quality from this shuffle probably won't satisfy audiophiles, even with a stonking pair of cans attached.
Apple has kept the VoiceOver feature that it first introduced with the third-generation shuffle. Assigned to the middle button on top of the device, when you activate this feature an eerie robotic voice will inform you of exactly what you're listening to. Tap once for the track name and artist, double-tap for the battery status and hold the button down for a moment to cycle through playlists using the track-skip buttons. The music fades into the background while the disembodied voice speaks, so it's easy enough to hear what's being said.
To be honest, with just 2GB of storage (not a great deal of space by anyone's standards), we imagine most people will recognise the tracks they've loaded as soon as they start playing. Still, it's a neat workaround and makes the lack of a screen a little more palatable -- and a little less alienating. The option to skip back and forth between playlists is probably the most useful function VoiceOver provides.
To get VoiceOver working you'll have to install it via iTunes. Installation is very quick -- when you first plug the shuffle in you'll be prompted to install the feature, so it's not too much hassle. Apparently, VoiceOver understands more than 25 languages. We weren't able to properly test this claim, but we can't imagine the shuffle stumbling over its words too often.
As for battery life, Apple reckons you'll get 15 hours of audio playback before needing to recharge. Generally, we don't expect any product to live up to its manufacturer's battery-life claims. But, since there's not much else the shuffle could be doing to put additional stress on its battery, we think you can expect a playback result close to the quoted duration.
The fourth-generation Apple iPod shuffle is a definite improvement on the last shuffle. We're glad Apple has decided to go back to buttons -- they make navigating your tunes much simpler and, crucially, mean you're able to use your own headphones rather than the appalling pair that come bundled. You'll find other MP3 players with a similar capacity for less money, but we reckon it's worth shelling out the extra few quid for the range of features and impressive build quality on offer here.
If you simply can't get over the lack of a screen, check out the new iPod Nano, which sports similar dimensions and a tiny touchscreen to boot. Bear in mind, though, that it's more than twice the price.
Edited by Emma Bayly