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[nextpage title=”Introduction”]

A year ago when we reviewed the 1 GB iPod shuffle, we noted that it was the cheapest, lightest and smallest MP3 player from Apple. This year’s shuffle (a.k.a. third generation) is still the cheapest, lightest, and smallest. In fact, the device itself is about half the size of last year’s model. It is not just small. It is amazingly small. And new features have made it do more than just shuffle music. It actually talks to you. So we set out to find out just how this new shuffle works and how it has improved.

Apple is known for their mininalistic simplicity of design and that shows in both the packaging and the shuffle itself. The shuffle comes in a small, simple, clear plastic box, as shown in Figure 1.

Talking iPod Shuffle ReviewFigure 1: The box.

Inside the box (Figure 2) you find the shuffle itself, a three-inch USB connector, headphones with an in-line control, and a small “Start here” guide. The dock that was included with previous versions is not included and the USB cable is, as you can see in Figure 2, much shorter. The shuffle comes in two color choices: black and silver.

Talking iPod Shuffle ReviewFigure 2: What’s in the box.

As you can also see in Figure 2, the shuffle itself is very plain. The size and shape reminded us of a short stick of gum. It is made of aluminum. The front is brushed aluminum. The back, shown in Figure 3, is almost completely covered by the shiny stainless steel clip which can be used to attach the shuffle to your clothing or other possessions.  Because the shuffle is now much smaller than previous versions, the clip is also smaller and therefore not as strong. Although the clip is adequate, it is not one of the toughest on the market.

Talking iPod Shuffle ReviewFigure 3: The back of the shuffle.

When we say that the shuffle is tiny, it is no exaggeration. It measures 1.8 inches (45.2 mm) by 0.7 inch (17.5 mm). It is only 0.3 inch (7.8 mm) thick including the clip. And it weighs 0.38 ounce (10.7 grams). To give you an idea of just how small the new shuffle is, we have photographed it next to a pair of nail nippers in Figure 4. As you can see the shuffle and the nail nippers are of similar size. Figure 5 shows that the shuffle is also about the same thickness as the nail nippers.

Talking iPod Shuffle ReviewFigure 4: The shuffle compared to nail nippers.

Talking iPod Shuffle ReviewFigure 5: Side view of comparison.

[nextpage title=”Using the Shuffle”]

After buying your iPod shuffle the first thing you need to do is to charge it. That is done by attaching the included USB cable to the headphone port on the shuffle and the USB port on any computer. Then, as with all iPods, you install iTunes on your computer and either copy or purchase music. iTunes works with any newer version of Windows or Mac. You then attach the shuffle to the computer to copy the music to the shuffle.

The new shuffle is so simplistic in design that the device itself has only one switch, one very small LED light, and one port. As shown in Figure 6, all are on the top of the shuffle. Flicking the power switch on and off quickly will activate the tiny LED-light that will show the amount of battery left. The port is a standard 3.5-mm jack which is used to attach the included headphones.

Unfortunately the headphones have the standard hard round ear buds that many of us find uncomfortable. Even more unfortunate is the fact that since the controls are built into the headphone cord (more on that later), you must use these ear buds if you want to have full control over the music on the shuffle. Although some manufacturers have promised shuffle-compatible headphones, at the writing of this article, none are yet available.

At first glance, the switch on the top of the shuffle looks like a simple on/off  switch, but closer investigation reveals that it has three positions. Figure 7 shows that the side of the shuffle sports icons etched in the aluminum to signify the functions of the switch. As you can see from the picture, the icons are so small that they are barely readable, but the switch is easy to use. Flip it to the left to play music in the whatever comes first “shuffle” mode. Flip the switch to the middle and you have the normal play mode, which plays the songs in the order they are stored inside the player.

Talking iPod Shuffle ReviewFigure 6: The top of the shuffle.

Talking iPod Shuffle ReviewFigure 7: The three-way control.

In an effort to simplify the shuffle itself, the main music control is now inline on the right ear bud cord, as shown in Figure 8.

Talking iPod Shuffle ReviewFigure 8: The inline control.

One of the things that made the iPods so popular is that they are easy to use that in many cases, you don’t even have to read the manual. Not so with this shuffle. Apple’s simplification of the device has actually made it a bit more difficult to use. You will not only want to read the instructions, but might want to create a cheat sheet for yourself until you fully learn and remember the functions. But once you do, the system is easy enough to use.

The volume up and the volume down buttons at the top and bottom of the control were quite intuitive, but the middle button is not. You use a single click of the middle button to play/pause the music. A double click takes you to the next track and a triple-click goes to the previous track. The same center button is also used to control the new VoiceOver feature.

We found that it was somewhat difficult to get used to this control. Although you would think that having it hanging near your chin would be very convenient, we also found that having to hold your hand up to control the device was often more cumbersome than having to look down at the device. And if you live in a
cold climate, don’t even bother trying to use the tiny control with gloves on.

[nextpage title=”The Talking iPod”]

While we weren’t particularly fond of the new device controls, we were impressed by the new VoiceOver feature, which in effect, turns the shuffle into a talking iPod. You press and hold the center button to hear the title and artist of the song that is playing. In our testing, the VoiceOver feature worked seamlessly. Although the voice was a bit robotic, it even recognized and correctly pronounced songs in foreign languages. In fact, Voice Over speaks an impressive number of languages including Chinese (Mandarin), Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish.

The quality of the voice actually depends on your operating system. The voice used by Mac OS X Leopard is excellent. When using Windows, the device used the iTunes VoiceOverKit which is good, but not quite as good as the voice built into Leopard.

Although a talking device that can announce the song and artist is notable, the most useful feature of VoiceOver  is that it allows the shuffle to support the use of playlists.  If you press and hold the center button and release after you hear a tone, the device will announce the playlists that are on the device. When you hear the name of the playlist you want you click the same button to select it. This makes this version of the shuffle much more useful than previous versions.

The VoiceOver and the use of playlists allows you to listen to different music for different activities or to suite different moods. This control over your music was unavailable in previous shuffles. And it makes an inexpensive and  screen-less device like the shuffle much more useful. Because you have more control over your music, you will also appreciate the fact that this shuffle has a 4 GB flash drive that holds up to 1,000 songs in 128 Kbps AAC format.

The VoiceOver is also used for information and alerts. If you try to use your shuffle before you put any music on it, it will say, “Please use iTunes to sync music.” It will also give you battery low alerts.

Like other iPods, the battery is built-in and can only be factory replaced. It does, however, last for about 10 hours which will give you a full day of listening.

Since this shuffle only has a headphone port, you will be limited to the type of external speakers like home stereo speakers or FM-transmitters that you can attach. Although we were able to use an in-car system like Griffin’s iTrip Auto Universal Plus but attaching any external speakers that are not made specifically for the shuffle will give you limited control of the player while it is attached to the speakers.

Like other iPods, audio quality is great. Even without a user-selectable equalizer, the bass sounds are excellent. In fact, given the miniscule size of the device, the crisp and clear sound quality is amazing.

[nextpage title=”Specifications”]

The new (third generation) iPod shuffle main features are: 

  • Colors: Black or silver
  • Dimensions: 1.8" x 0.7" x 0.3" (45.2 mm x 17.5 mm x 7.8 mm)
  • Weight: 0.38 oz (10.7 g)
  • Capacity: 4 GB
  • Supported audio formats: AAC, MP3, AIFF, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV
  • Battery: Rechargeable lithium-ion
  • Bundled accessories: Earphones with built-in controls, USB cable.
  • More Information: https://www.apple.com
  • Suggested retail price for the US market: USD 79.00

[nextpage title=”Conclusions”]

The new 4 GB iPod shuffle is half the size of the previous version, but holds four times the music. The audio quality is amazing for such a small device. The new VoiceoOver when used to announce the name of the song and the artist is a striking feature, but not necessarily very valuable. However, when VoiceOver it is employed to announce playlists, it becomes an extremely useful feature allowing the user to control the music without a screen.

With this control, this lowest priced iPod becomes more useful and appealing for a larger audience. However, it is still not for everyone. Those needing a small discreet player will love it. Some, however, may not be happy using the included earbuds and some may not like inline headphone control. And although its small footprint will be a plus for many, those who are prone to losing things may want to stay away.

Pros:

  • Support for playlists
  • Large capacity
  • Low price
  • Great audio quality
  • Miniscule size

Cons:

  • Controls in the headphones limits the choice of headphones you can use with the device.
  • Inline headphone controls slightly difficult to learn
  • Miniscule size