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.
Over the years, Apple has offered iPod shuffles in either one or two storage capacities at a time, twice introducing the device with only one capacity and later adding a second at a higher or lower price point. For the time being, the fourth-generation iPod shuffle comes only in a single version that officially has 2 Gigabytes of storage capacity, but actually provides 1.88GB of usable space, with 1.83GB initially available for audio content. That’s enough for between 250 and 500 songs, depending on the size of the songs, and to a minor extent whether you turn VoiceOver on. If so, iTunes will pre-generate spoken song titles and artist names that add roughly 10MB per gigabyte of songs—not much, but enough to cut the capacity down a little.
Every year, we test new iPod models against prior models to see whether Apple has improved, held constant, or noticeably diminished the quality of their internal components. Since it’s so small and limited in features, the iPod shuffle doesn’t have much to evaluate, save for audio quality, transfer speeds, and battery life. To compare iTunes transfer speeds—the time that it takes to fill an iPod shuffle with music—we used a 1-Gigabyte test playlist with 180 songs of various lengths and sizes, starting with an empty third-generation iPod shuffle and an empty fourth-generation iPod shuffle. As we’ve noted in the past, shuffles are generally very slow compared with Apple’s other iPods, so you wind up sitting around for a while waiting for a relatively small amount of music to transfer. Last year’s tests showed the iPod nano to be 3.6 times faster than the shuffle, a sluggish pace that may matter to people who want to quickly load up their shuffles with new music and run out of the house.
In this year’s testing, the third-generation shuffle took 5 minutes, 23 seconds to transfer the 1GB of music with iTunes 10—nearly identical to the time we saw during last year’s test with iTunes 9. Surprisingly, the fourth-generation shuffle took an even longer 5 minutes and 54 seconds to transfer the same 1GB playlist with iTunes 10, plus an additional 5 seconds to complete the synchronization process. Another way of looking at these results: if you’re planning to completely refresh the contents of your 2GB iPod shuffle with frequency, leave yourself roughly 11 minutes per refill plus the time it takes to select the new songs, with fewer minutes necessary if you’re only adding or removing handfuls of songs at a time.
Then there’s the issue of value for the dollar. Though doing straight GB-for-the-dollar value assessments isn’t entirely fair with some iPods given the other features they include, the iPod shuffle’s extremely bare and only modestly evolving feature set makes such comparisons reasonable. Back in February 2008, Apple introduced the first 2GB iPod shuffle for $69; in September 2009, it released a $59 2GB model, and the new 2GB model sells for $49—the lowest price yet for an iPod with this storage capacity. It goes without saying that this fourth-generation shuffle offers the most affordable way to enter the iPod family and to give an iPod as a gift, although as with all previous iPod shuffle models, you give up so much of the functionality of a full-fledged iPod that you need to go in with modest expectations.
Other sub-$100 options include refurbished iPod nanos, which at press time sell for $99 with 8GB of storage capacity, video playback, recording, and gaming capabilities, superior battery life, and nine color options, and products from Apple’s competitors, which have been considerably more aggressive in adding screens, radios, and other features to their $50 and similarly low-end models. While the iPod shuffle is an affordable iPod, and one of the smallest music players out there, it’s just not a great value when the broader marketplace of options is considered.