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.
As with all iPod models, you’ll need to download Apple’s free media management program iTunes before you can use the new iPod shuffle, then connect the device with its special USB cable to any free USB port on your computer. iTunes organizes your music, podcasts, and audiobooks for individual or collective transfer onto the device. Once again, Apple includes a feature in iTunes that will shrink your songs down to a maximum 128kbps to take up less space on the shuffle, enabling you to store up to 500 tracks on the 2GB device at once. You can also use the iPod shuffle as a flash storage drive for your Mac or PC, using the computer’s desktop to drag and drop files into its modestly-sized main folder.
Once you’ve loaded the shuffle with audio, you can either leave it connected to your computer to fully recharge its battery—the level of which is indicated upon disconnection with a green (“50% to full”) / amber (“25%”) / red (“battery low”) light on its top—or start using it right away. Thankfully, there’s nothing intimidating this time about the controls. Last year’s buttonless model required a convoluted scheme to navigate tracks, but with the return of the shuffle’s built-in buttons, the challenge is gone: the new model is nearly as easy to use as the first- and second-generation models.
On its face are five of its six buttons: the oversized play/pause button is strictly for those features, with + and - volume buttons above and below it, plus track backwards and forwards buttons to its left and right. As with all iPod shuffles, this version’s screenless design restricts you to navigating either in a linear fashion through your collection of songs, or randomizing (“shuffling”) playback so that hitting the forward track button moves to something unexpected. You flip between ordered and shuffled play by moving the top power switch from its far right “off” position into far left “Shuffle” position or middle “ordered playback” position, all control carry-overs that have survived from the very first iPod shuffle.
Last year’s shuffle introduced an additional feature, VoiceOver, which speaks the name of the currently playing song or playlist, for the first time enabling the shuffle to contain and switch between multiple playlists. Previously, you activated VoiceOver by holding down the play/pause button, but Apple now wisely gives this feature its own button—the one that’s on top of the shuffle alongside the power switch. Pressing this button quickly says the song title, holding it says the playlist’s title, and hitting it twice provides verbal battery status so that you needn’t rely solely upon the three-colored power indicator on the shuffle’s top, or flip the power switch back and forth as was necessary in the past, a small but welcome improvement. Hitting the track forward or backward button while you’re in VoiceOver mode switches to a different playlist, while the play/pause button selects it. The new iPod shuffle can also synchronize “Genius Mixes” from iTunes, which are just automatically created playlists of songs iTunes says will sound good together.
If you loved last year’s shuffle or just want to know whether you can still control it with an in-line remote, good news: the answer’s yes. Plug in any Apple or authorized third-party three-button remote control and the volume, play/pause, track control, and VoiceOver features work just as they did before, relying very heavily upon the central remote control button and a sometimes confusing system of multiple clicks and holds to change tracks.
In summary, the fourth-generation iPod shuffle combines the second-generation version’s ease of use with the third-generation model’s multiple playlist, VoiceOver, and battery status verbalization support. From a user experience standpoint, it’s a lot easier to like than last year’s model, and we’d be a lot more likely to actually clip this one on than its predecessor. Notably, the rear clip is firm enough that the shuffle’s not going anywhere when it’s on your shirt; wristband, armband, and other accessories should be considered strictly optional for wearing this model.