Review: Apple iPod shuffle New Users’ Review
Pros: Ultra-simplified and stylish iPod music devices at industry-leading price points, sized and weighted to be worn or carried literally anywhere. A $99 box with everything a new user needs to enter and enjoy the world of digital music.
Cons: Limited features (particularly the lack of a screen) will turn off some potential users, high price-to-storage capacity ratio, requires powered USB port to charge battery and doesn’t include standalone charger.
Since there are different types of iPod owners - first-timers and experienced ones - iLounge always reviews new iPods twice, once for new users and once for power users. No new iPod has demonstrated the value of this double review system as fully as Apple’s new iPod shuffle. An entry-level iPod in all senses of the world, the 512 Megabyte ($99) iPod shuffle drops virtually every feature a power user would want in favor of a highly simplified user interface and low entry price. A one-Gigabyte ($149) version is identical, but with twice the capacity.
Not surprisingly, the appeal of the iPod shuffle differs from audience to audience, and thus our new and power iPod users’ reviews reach different conclusions. This shorter review for new users also omits some of the comparative and other details that power users may care about, so if you’re looking for the full picture, be sure to check out both reviews. Our extensive iPod shuffle unpacking and comparison photo gallery can be seen here as well.
Shuffle in a Nutshell
The two iPod shuffles are Apple’s smallest, lowest-capacity, and cheapest iPods to date. Measuring 3.3” x 0.98” x 0.33” and weighing only .78 ounces, each glossy white plastic shuffle is accurately touted as the size of a package of chewing gum and the weight of four quarters - a significant drop in size from last year’s cell phone-sized iPod mini. Neither shuffle is capable of holding the typical person’s entire music collection: the $99 model stores around 120 songs (approximately 10 CDs), while the $149 model can fit roughly 240 songs (20 CDs), depending on the tracks’ size and compression.
But in several critical ways, an iPod shuffle does not resemble, or even replace earlier iPods. Most glaring is the shuffle’s almost monolithic white face, which includes a gray ring of button controls, two hidden LED lights, and no screen. Rather than using Apple’s well-established accessory ports, the iPod shuffle has a plain headphone port at its top, with a metal USB jack at its bottom. The USB jack is covered by a white cap, and is exposed only to charge the unit’s 12-hour battery and fill it with music. Unlike full-sized iPods and iPod minis, you can use the iPod shuffle to play music and store data, but nothing more.
There are still some similarities between all members of the iPod family, however. Shuffles are fully compatible with PCs and Macs, include Apple’s market-leading iTunes music library software on a free CD, and play back MP3 files and 99-cent-per-song iTunes Music Store downloads, as well as several other formats. You can allocate a portion of either shuffle’s memory to store data files for plug-and-play storage and USB transfer to another computer.
And virtually everything you need is in the $99 or $149 box. Every iPod shuffle package includes a pair of white earbud headphones, two plastic detachable end caps, and a collection of user guides and brochures. One of the end caps includes a fabric lanyard necklace so that you can wear the device on your neck, while the other just covers the shuffle’s metal USB charging and data jack.
Why the odd name? Apple claims that the “shuffle songs” random playback mode on earlier iPods has become a phenomenon, and that many users prefer to load their iPods with music, press play, and enjoy whatever comes on. With only a fraction the storage capacity of the smallest previous iPod (Apple’s 4GB iPod mini), and no screen, the iPod shuffle offers no way to choose a specific song - but far less music to choose from in the first place. So Apple is encouraging people to transfer over their favorite tracks, hit the play button, and enjoy whatever comes out of the headphone jack - clearly a self-interested way of sidestepping the shuffle’s hardware limitations, but for many potential users, not an unforgiveable one. Thankfully, you don’t need to use randomized playback, and can easily toggle between ordered and randomized playback. iTunes even lets you create a preferred order of songs.
Creating the Bargain Basement iPod
The iPod shuffle was clearly designed to attract cash-conscious new iPod owners. Having utterly dominated the markets for medium- and high-priced portable digital audio players with the iPod and iPod mini platforms, Apple Computer decided in mid-2004 to conquer its final frontier: low-end flash memory-based devices. Despite its strengths as a producer of premium, cutting-edge products, Apple was entering a new market dominated by inexpensive, limited technology, and needed to choose one of two strategies: go high-tech and pressure consumers to spend more to get more, or go lower-tech at a lower price point.
After trying the first strategy with the iPod mini, Apple chose the latter route with the iPod shuffle, which on first appearance is not so much a stripped down version of a full-sized iPod as a self-powered USB flash memory drive with a headphone port and iPod-style music playback buttons. However, as with earlier iPods, the elegance of Apple’s design belies that characterization, causing even seasoned iPod owners to question whether the average user of such a low-capacity device really needs layers-deep library menus or the ability to see the name of the song she’s listening to.
Instead of trying to cram an entire iPod mini worth of technology into a smaller and cheaper case, the iPod shuffle puts strong emphasis on only four major features. The first feature is storage capacity: the new iPods trump their competitors dollar-for-dollar when measured solely by how many megabytes of music they hold. One new iPod holds 512 Megabytes (120 songs) of music, while the other holds one Gigabyte (240 songs), both at prices at or below the cost of last year’s competing 128 Megabyte (30 song) players. Second is ease-of-use - Apple eliminated some of the earlier iPods’ most innovative control simplifications in favor of even simpler buttons and switches. Third is style; even absent many distinctive iPod characteristics, the new units look sleek and memorable. Fourth and critical is price: rather than trying to convince potential flash customers to step up and spend an extra $50 or $100 as with the iPod mini the year before, Apple now undercuts even its aggressive major competitors on price.
The resulting product isn’t what existing iPod owners had hoped for, but just may be exactly what Apple needed to win new converts: simple, stylish, iTunes-compatible, inexpensive, and with plenty of storage space. Unless you need more capacity and/or the ability to carry a large music library, the iPod shuffle has everything you need to listen to music on the go.
Carrying or Wearing the Shuffle
With only a single exception, the iPod shuffle is as simply executed as a portable digital music player could be. Made almost entirely from iPod signature white glossy plastic, the iPod shuffle resembles a cigarette lighter with two detachable white cords. One cord is the aforementioned detachable lanyard necklace, and the other is a revised pair of standard iPod pack-in headphones, now including a plastic sizer that limits cord dangling around your neck.
If carried in your hand, the iPod shuffle’s headphone port is at its top, and a plain white detachable cap sticks to its bottom. Worn on the neck, the shuffle’s headphone port is on its bottom, and the plain cap is replaced by the lanyard cap, which holds the shuffle upside down on your neck so that its controls face your eyes.
Those controls are simple: the shuffle’s top front includes a gray circle of four small buttons with a larger white play/pause button in the center, while its back features a flat three-position on-off switch that reveals a neon green strip when turned on, a thumbnail-sized battery indicator button, and the Apple and iPod logos underneath them. Three small lights are all but hidden on the iPod shuffle - two (green and amber) above the buttons, and a pinhole-sized multicolored one on the battery indicator button.
Even though Apple’s changed the iPod shuffle from top to bottom, its headphones, necklace and body leave no doubt that you’re carrying a member of the company’s famous family. Because of its necklace, the shuffle threatens to be downright ubiquitous and backlash worthy, and actually begs to be worn as jewelry wherever you go. Even the longest-term iPod fans will find themselves attracting renewed attention thanks to the shuffle’s added white visual presence.
Key Internal Components
Apple’s older iPod hard drives were power efficient, but nowhere near as efficient as the shuffle’s memory chip. Consequently, the iPod shuffle promises 12-hour rechargeable battery life just like a fourth-generation iPod, but in our testing, the new battery beat Apple’s official estimates. In our first test, the battery ran for exactly 18 hours and 30 minutes - roughly 17 hours before its red “battery low” light came on. Another test ran for 16 hours and 42 minutes, almost 40% more than Apple’s stated numbers. Recharging took around three hours, though Apple estimates four - there was good news all around on the power front.
Instead of a screen, the iPod shuffle uses LED lights as rudimentary status indicators. They don’t remain on at all times, and signal only that the iPod shuffle has started or stopped playback, is transferring data, charging its battery, or is in hold mode. Two of these LEDs are hidden beneath plastic on the iPod shuffle’s front face, above its controls, green on top of amber. A third pinhole-sized multi-color LED is on the left side of a battery indicator button on the back of the shuffle; pressing it shows green, yellow, or red, flashing red or going blank when the unit’s battery is unusably low or dead.
The last major change to the iPod shuffle is its control system. Every previous iPod has included the same five buttons: menu, play/pause, track backwards, track forwards, and a central “action” selection button. Holding down the play/pause button turned the iPods on, and a scrolling wheel let you change volume, scroll through menus, and so on. Since the iPod shuffle includes no screen, it doesn’t need a “menu” button, and since it has no menus, you neither need to scroll on a wheel nor use an action/selection button. That leaves the need for volume controls, a play/pause button, and track backwards and forwards buttons. That’s all the face buttons iPod shuffle has, and they’re arranged in concentric circles, play/pause in the center with the others in a surrounding ring.
Holding down the iPod shuffle’s play/pause button won’t turn the unit on - instead, that puts the shuffle in “hold” mode, and there’s a three position power switch on the rear that moves from off to ordered playback to randomized (shuffle) playback. Turn the unit on with ordered playback and you’ll move through either the shuffle’s contents in song number or pre-specified playlist order; turn it on with shuffle playback and you’ll hear songs in randomized order.
The costs of Apple’s choice to go low-tech are instantly apparent. The iPod shuffle only vaguely resembles its older brothers, lacking their screens, scroll wheel controls, proprietary ports, and partially metal bodies. Instead, the iPod shuffle goes low-tech on the outside, using LED light indicators, flip switches and simple buttons, a standardized USB jack, and an all-plastic casing. It’s incompatible with most of the accessories developed for older iPods, and doesn’t even serve the same broad purpose: not meant to hold and ease access to a full library of music, it’s merely a way to effortlessly carry the best fraction of your music collection wherever you go. If your love of music is bigger than 10 or 20 CDs, you may quickly grow out of the iPod shuffle or never quite fit into it.
The iPod shuffle also lacks support for two of Apple’s proprietary audio formats - AIFF and Apple Lossless Audio - which are not surprising omissions given that their files are both huge and relatively unlikely to be played on such low-capacity devices. Apple makes up for their absence by adding even lower bitrate MP3 and AAC playback support to the shuffle than is supported in other iPods: you can play back anything from 8Kbps to 320Kbps files, which means that even smaller (though lower-quality) files will play on the diminutive new iPod, in addition to virtually all of the same high-quality MP3, WAV, AAC, and Audible files everyone already loves.
In these respects, the iPod shuffle’s not a perfect product, but we think that people who will pay the $99 starting price aren’t looking for perfection - they’re looking for something cool, convenient, and cheap. We’ve already seen people purchase as many as nine iPod shuffles at a time for their families and friends, and heard from Apple that someone bought 24 on the day the new product launched. Even for devoted fans of older iPods, these are unthinkable feats, and begin to suggest just how different the market for cheap, flash-based players really is. Many new and prospective iPod owners won’t think about all the things shuffle can’t do, but rather will be impressed by how much it can for the dollar.
One of the biggest selling points of any iPod is the guarantee that it will be supported by a variety of cool Apple and third-party accessories, and the iPod shuffle is no exception: in fact, Apple will be shipping an unusually robust selection of self-branded items over the next month, followed soon thereafter by third-party cases and other items.
Five Apple accessories will sell for $29 each: an Arm Band will mount the iPod shuffle for workouts, while a transparent and orange plastic Sport Case will protect the shuffle on your neck. The iPod shuffle Backup Battery Pack will use two AAA batteries to add an extra 20 hours of portable juice to the unit, while a USB Power Adapter will let you plug your shuffle into any wall power outlet. Finally, Apple’s iPod shuffle Dock is a simple white stand with a USB cable that lets you stand your iPod straight up on a table for charging and synching.
Though we do not expect the scope of the iPod shuffle third-party accessory market to compare with the iPod and iPod mini markets, vendors are already working on inexpensive shuffle-friendly offerings. Marware and Speck Products were already showing prototype case designs within days of the product’s release, while other vendors have already found ways to pull audio signals directly from the shuffle’s USB port and are planning related accessories. We’d expect to see plenty more on offer in the near future.
The only bummer on the accessories front is that the majority of older iPod accessories are highly unlikely to work on the iPod shuffle. Apple didn’t include either the top four-pin headphone extension port and bottom Dock Connector port in the new product, which means that no remote control or other four-pin accessory will work with the iPod shuffle. Nor will any of the numerous and great Dock Connector accessories developed for use with full-sized iPods.
On the bright side, you can still use virtually any pair of headphones you desire with the shuffle, as well as car cassette adapters, and Belkin’s TuneCast FM transmitters, amongst other peripherals. As a general rule, and ironic as it may seem, any product made specifically for the iPod won’t work on the shuffle, but any accessory made to work with any old MP3 player will. In other words, be cautious and ask for assistance when choosing iPod shuffle accessories.
Use and Performance: The Positives
After extended testing, we all agreed that the iPod shuffle was especially impressive because it’s actually fun to use. Six or seven minutes after picking your 120 songs, it will be full of music and ready to wear on your neck. You’ll put it on, fit your earphones, flip on the power and press play. Just that easily, the music will start, and you’ll be in another world. There’s no denying the appeal of a sleek, ultra-simplified piece of techno-jewelry.
Because of iTunes and the iPod shuffle’s USB data transfer interface, it’s highly easy to organize and move both music and data from your computer onto the new device. No cables or extra software is needed. As described in numerous other iLounge articles, music organization software doesn’t get any better than iTunes, which converts CDs to digital files, automatically names and organizes virtually all of your tracks, and is relatively bug free. Music is shifted quickly - 7 minutes for a full 512MB transfer, 14 for 1GB - from iTunes, and data can be moved over using either your Windows or Mac operating system. The iPod shuffle is compatible with and recognized on both platforms.
And that’s all the iPod shuffle is. It plays music, stores data, doesn’t require serious effort or brainpower to enjoy, and attracts positive attention. You can charge its battery wherever you find a powered USB port, quickly transfer content on and off, and flip back and forth between organized and random playback. Wear it bare on your neck, toss it in your pocket, or stick it in your computer. Even if it’s not a full-sized iPod, millions of new iPod users are going to find these features absolutely perfect for their needs.
It also sounds great - just like a full-sized iPod. We did a comparison and could discern no difference between the sound of a $599 iPod photo and the $99 iPod shuffle, which is to say that the cheapest iPod presents a well-balanced, low-distortion listening environment that will be more than adequate for newbies, and entirely acceptable to almost every more serious listener. As a straight music player, the iPod shuffle offers precious little to complain about, so long as you accept the simple controls and size.
Use and Performance: The Negatives
Regardless of its positive characteristics, many people will take issue with the iPod shuffle’s limitations, and we found certain ones hard to ignore. Competing - but more expensive - flash devices can record audio, tweak equalization, display ID3 tag and library menu information on a screen, and run for more than 20 hours on a single battery charge. Some even permit expandability via plug-in flash cards, offer FM tuners, and have resilient casings. The iPod shuffle doesn’t offer any of these data functions, and its body is actually fairly easy to scratch, though the marks aren’t visible from a distance, and younger users won’t care.
Some will say that each of these issues is pointless, but they’re not. There’s value in being able to record conversations, change sound balance, hunt through a library for a song, and so forth; earlier iPods acknowledged this in their own ways. But we’ve come to the conclusion that only one of these omissions will limit the iPod shuffle’s appeal.
In a 128MB (30 song) or 256MB (60 song) configuration, the lack of library management tools and controls is almost forgivable. But it’s a lot harder to find one song in Apple’s 120 or 240 than in 30 or 60. Unless you have a library entirely comprised of music you always love to hear - and who does? - the only way to really use the iPod shuffle is to create a situation-appropriate playlist ahead of time, or not to care. Some people will hate either randomized or pre-managed play, and skip the iPod shuffle as a result.
Apple clearly anticipated that risk, partially hedged against it, and accepted that others would not buy anything less than a smaller, cheaper iPod mini. The hedge is AutoFill, a feature new to iTunes 4.7.1 that detects an iPod shuffle and uses a set of simple rules to load it up with music. With one button press, AutoFill pulls 100 or 200 files randomly, from a subset of your library, and/or mostly from your higher-rated songs. Alternately, you can create your own playlist and transfer it over. iTunes can also now automatically convert any of your music into smaller, lower-quality files when transferred to the shuffle, a smart simplifying addition that competing software has overlooked.
Assuming that you’ve in some way identified your favorite music and told iTunes to transfer it, and also assuming that you don’t mind playing back one of 120-240 songs without always knowing what’s next, you’ll like iPod shuffle just fine. Many people will. Otherwise, you’ll chafe and hold out for an iPod mini - unless something better and equally affordable from a competitor comes along.
For the majority of price-conscious customers looking for a digital music player, Apple’s new iPod shuffle is a winner - both on price and the key components of its performance strategy. Yes, major competitors such as Creative’s 512MB MuVo TX ($110+) or Rio’s 512MB Forge ($160+) may have more features, but Apple’s offering a simpler interface, full iTunes support, and more capacity for the dollar than they are. Even if these companies - and cheaper clone makers - are soon able to offer cheaper alternatives, Apple’s affordable, easier iPod + iTunes formula remains a winner. And even if currently shipping products offer more features and a higher capacity-to-dollar value, the iPod shuffle’s lower price point preserves its niche.
While no one should confuse the iPod shuffle with a full-sized iPod in functionality, it clearly represents a formidable opponent to higher-priced and arguably more needlessly complex products from low-end competitors. We only hope that it does not diminish the iPod brand name or encourage Apple to pare features from future models; its simplicity is tolerable only given its low price points and intended audiences.
Overall, we would recommend the iPod shuffle far more heavily to iPod newbies - particularly young, old, or price-conscious Apple admirers - than to power users, and iLounge’s high recommendation is based heavily on the attractively low price point. The iPod shuffle’s super-small body, ease of use, and once unthinkable price will lure millions of new people into the iPod community. To them, we say “welcome.”
To everyone else, we say “keep watching.” Power users with cash will unquestionably find the iPod mini a better value, and almost equally suitable for all of their needs. Similarly, the 20GB 4G iPod’s a substantially better value, if not quite as portable. While we feel confident that a fair number of current iPod owners will buy shuffles for one reason or another, first-time initiates to the digital music world will find the iPod shuffle a lot easier to appreciate. It’s a product tailored generally to their needs, but specifically to their pocketbooks.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.