Review: Apple iPod shuffle (Fourth-Generation)
Pros: A smarter, redesigned sequel to Apple’s entry-level iPod, containing the best features from prior iPod shuffle generations with relatively few and small compromises. Restored five-button control scheme is augmented by new VoiceOver and battery level button, while support for remote controls remains. New polished metal body may appeal to some users; size is nearly as small as one could expect a device with these features to become without compromising the usability of the button-based control system. Available in five different colors, each with a matching rear clip for easy wearing. Affordable.
Cons: Features are not competitive with rival products at the same price. Even slower than unimpressive predecessor for music and file transfers. Initial collection of colors is muted and somewhat dull by comparison with the best past iPod models; some may find the polished texture to be too slippery. Included USB cable is tiny. Only one storage capacity.
Apple’s original iPod shuffle was easy to understand when it debuted in January 2005. Back then, Apple was on the cusp of becoming a mass-market retailer, and the least expensive model in its iPod lineup was the $249 iPod mini. Apple needed something really cheap for kids and grandparents, an iPod it could sell at Walmart and use to build market share in developing countries. So the original screenless, Click Wheel-less, fancy box-less $99 iPod shuffle made sense. It had a big play button, a ring with small track and volume buttons, one port for earphones, one port for charging, a necklace so that you could wear it, and a rechargeable battery inside. Dead simple.
But as the years passed, it became confusing. Every competing device in its price range grew a screen, and Apple refused to follow suit. Instead, Apple tried to find justifications to keep the shuffle around, switching its plastic body to metal with the second-generation version, and making it even smaller. Then, with the release of last year’s third-generation model, the shuffle officially became silly, losing its buttons entirely and becoming a bland-looking metal stick with a clip on the back. It looked and felt like a designers’ in-joke that had somehow made it to market, ease of use and iconic looks be damned. We called it the “worst iPod ever,” and time proved the design to be even more problematic than we’d expected: moisture-related shorting problems with its remote-controlled earphones eventually forced Apple into a rare public recall and replacement program.
To Apple’s credit, the fourth-generation iPod shuffle (2GB/$49) arrived faster than its predecessors, which typically survived for two or so years before receiving refreshes. This time, the company has played things safe: the new iPod shuffle isn’t fancy, revolutionary, or “impossibly” anything—on the surface, it looks like a more conservative redesign of the second-generation model than last year’s version. It also debuts at the lowest launch price point ever for a new iPod, matching the mid-lifecycle $49 asking price of the 1GB second-generation shuffle prior to its discontinuation. And the feature set will be completely familiar to anyone who has followed the shuffle family for the past two years.
But there’s more to the story than that. Some of the third-generation iPod shuffle’s better design and electronic changes have made their way into the new version, so we discuss them—and more—in our comprehensive review below. While you can skip straight to our conclusion that the fourth-generation model is the best overall iPod shuffle yet, there are audio, battery, and transfer speed details worth noting, and we explain the reasoning behind our rating below, as well. Read on for the details, and our buying advice, by selecting from the seven pages above and below.