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 has used every new iPod shuffle as an opportunity to shrink the size of both its music players and its packaging, and though the fourth-generation model breaks a little from that tradition, it continues in the same general direction. Like the second- and third-generation models, it’s made primarily from aluminum, this time either silver with black plastic controls, or colored pink, blue, orange, or green with white plastic controls. There’s still a metal clip on the back, adorned with the Apple logo, while a model number, international electronic certification tags, and a “Designed by Apple in California” inscription are found underneath the clip, invisible unless you’re looking for them. The serial number is hidden on the pinching edge of the clip in squint-inducing text.
While our pictures make the size differences between the models fairly obvious, the specific numbers are worth noting for spec-obsessed readers. The most obvious comparison is between the new model and its second-generation predecessor, which it most resembles: this year’s version measures 1.14” tall by 1.24” wide by 0.34” deep and weighs 0.44 ounces, slightly taller than the second-generation iPod shuffle (1.07”) but smaller in each other dimension (1.62” wide by 0.41” deep) and lighter (down from 0.73 ounces), besides.
An 18% increase in the size of the circular “control pad” on the face of the device is obvious when doing comparisons, seemingly to leave as little empty space on the front as possible—a trick to make you think the new shuffle couldn’t be smaller if Apple tried. The overall slimming otherwise feels like a nice improvement if you use the late 2006 shuffle as a benchmark. Relative to the third-generation shuffle, however, the new model is a volumetric step back. Last year’s version was 1.8” tall by 0.7” wide and 0.3” deep, weighing 0.38 ounces and possessing a “true volume” of 0.26 cubic inches, relative to the 0.5 cubic inch second-generation shuffle and the 0.35 cubic inch fourth-generation model. Seeing the third- and fourth-generation models next to each other leaves no doubt that the new one is a little larger overall, though the improved functionality will guarantee that no one complains about the increased size.
The fourth-generation iPod shuffle also features a subtly redesigned housing, using a smart engineering trick from the third-generation iPod shuffle to create the impression that its body is sculpted from a single piece of aluminum, contrasting with the aluminum frame and plastic core of the second-generation model—and most past iPod nanos. As with last year’s shuffle, the new model’s top, bottom, sides, and back are now entirely metallic save for the controls; a circular metal button and three-way switch are found on the device’s top surface, off to the right of its headphone port and a tiny status indicator light. Apple has done away with the scratchable stainless steel shirt clip it introduced last year, replacing it with a color-matched aluminum version like the second-generation model’s, only smaller than the rest of the shuffle’s back, a change that parallels the reduced-size clip of the third-generation shuffle. The clip fits within the outline of a thin seam in the shuffle’s back, exposing the second metal piece of the shuffle’s body: a rear compartment that service technicians can use to assemble and disassemble the device.
Apple has also tweaked the new shuffle’s metals in some interesting ways. Except for a single special edition stainless steel version, prior models were generally made from a matte-finished anodized aluminum in a wide variety of colors; that’s changed. The five current versions use metal that’s been polished to a finish that’s not as glossy as the car paint-like fifth-generation iPod nano, but still shiny; some users may find the rear surface to be too slippery to handle with wet fingers. More important in our view are Apple’s latest color choices, which include tones that aren’t necessarily as bright as their predecessors—a change that detracts from the otherwise positive design attributes of the new shuffles.
Apple’s new orange, for instance, is a dull copper color by comparison with the vibrant second-generation shuffle and more recent iPod nanos; the blue is just on the edge of purple, while green and pink are somewhat muted. As always, you’ll need to see the new models in person to determine whether one of the new tones calls out to you; we found them to be less than thrilling across the board. Apple also decided to remove the swirled metal finish from the circular top controls; they’re now just flat gray metal surfaces regardless of the color of the shuffle, a small but cheapening touch.
One thing that can’t help but impress iPod fans is the new shuffle’s box, which has the smallest footprint ever for an iPod package while preserving the clear plastic and white cardboard combination that has worked so well for the past two shuffle generations. The rounded cube box opens to reveal the shuffle suspended on its own plastic insert in front of a compartment for accessories—a short USB-to-headphone-port charging and synchronization cable identical to the one packed with third-generation shuffles, a pair of earphones, plus one Apple logo sticker, a diminutive but almost completely explanatory “Quick Start Guide,” and a comically small warranty booklet.
The iPod shuffle USB Cable is 45mm (1.6”) long, or too short to wrap from the back of most of Apple’s desktop computers all the way around to the front, while the Earphones have enough length to stretch from the average user’s ears all the way down to his or her waist. Note that the earphones no longer have the in-line remote control that was included with last year’s model and so troubled by moisture during workouts; they’re just a plain pair of Apple earbuds.