Review: Apple iPod shuffle Power Users’ Review | iLounge

Review

Review: Apple iPod shuffle Power Users’ Review

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Company: Apple Computer

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPod shuffle

Price: $99.99 512MB, $149.99 1GB

Compatible: Windows, Mac

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Jeremy Horwitz

Pros: Apple’s smallest, lightest, and cheapest iPod yet, with an industry-leading price point and enough music playback features to satisfy some users.

Cons: Major compromises on features (especially the absence of a screen) will suit new iPod users more than experienced ones, and force old users to adapt to the shuffle’s limited ways of organizing and playing back music. By no means a must-have product for current iPod owners; not an innovative product in any way except bottom line price, size, and aesthetic style, which are of less interest to savvy iPod and competing product owners than new and mainstream buyers.

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 shuffle drops virtually every feature a power user would want in favor of a highly simplified user interface and favorable low price-to-capacity ratio.

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 extended review for power users glosses over some details that only new iPod users would 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.

Background Context

    “I’m buying [five] so I can give three to my kids.”

    “[The nine I’m holding] are for all my friends back at the Expo who couldn’t get over here.”

    “Look at the stuff I’m carrying in my pockets here… I’m replacing my USB flash drive with one of these. ...it will store audiobooks, music, whatever.”

        - Comments from customers at Apple Computer’s San Francisco retail store, January 11, 2005.

    “Someone bought 24 of them.”

        - Apple spokesman, speaking to iLounge on Macworld Expo floor.

Welcome to the iPod shuffle. It’s Apple’s first $99 iPod, and also the first to lack a screen, wheel controller, hard drive, and 1,000-song storage capacity - a product that doesn’t entirely make sense until you realize that until today, the market for competing flash memory-based music players was based on diverse consumer motivations, low price points, and desired simplicity. Thanks to Apple’s entry, that low-end market is about to change in a dramatic way.

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Apple is now offering the simplest and cheapest 512 Megabyte ($99) and 1 Gigabyte ($149) portable music players on the market, with the ability to hold ten or twenty albums worth of music in an iconic white casing the size of a pack of chewing gum. Featuring super-simplified controls with none of the “ROOT Folder” or other decidedly non-mainstream visual interface oddities of earlier devices, the iPod shuffles are designed so that anyone can use them.

iPod shuffle is therefore highly likely to be the first iPod a person owns. And because of its limitations, it’s equally likely not to be the last. Think of it as 2005’s gateway drug to full-sized iPod ownership.

Regardless of any review it receives, iLounge believes that the iPod shuffle will be a tremendous success for Apple this year based on price alone. As always, however, our product reviews are less concerned with how products may sell than how well they’re designed and how much of a value they are for consumers. This review and its accompanying rating are solely based on the iPod shuffle’s value to power users rather than iPod newbies.

Branding

The iPod shuffle is named after a feature Apple claims has become a phenomenon with iPod users - the “shuffle songs” playback mode that randomizes either portions or the entirety of your music library. Since iPod shuffle hardware includes only an eighth to a fourth the storage capacity of the smallest previous iPod (4GB iPod mini), it can only hold ten or twenty albums worth of songs. And since it has no screen, there’s no way to choose a specific song. So Apple is encouraging users to transfer over a bunch of great tracks, hit the play button, and enjoy whatever comes out of the headphone jack. However, users don’t need to use randomized playback; they can easily toggle between ordered and randomized playback from either a playlist or the unit’s complete content.

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There was never any doubt that the appeal of an inexpensive, flash memory-based iPod would not depend on its ability to pocket an entire music library; rather, affordability, unique design, and price would be key. Apple’s decision to base the unit’s title and features on simplified, perhaps even randomized playback is a deft marketing move for new and mainstream customers, if not exactly what any current iPod owner was originally hoping for.

Packaging

Packed in a two-tone green box with black and white text, the iPod shuffle is the first iPod to entirely discard Apple’s famous fold-open, origami art packaging. Instead, a clear window on its front displays the actual iPod shuffle unit, which is encased inside the box in an entirely clear plastic shell. The back contains product specifications and a somewhat self-informed explanation of the hardware. When the box is opened, you peel a sticker off the front of the clear shell to remove the shuffle and its two packed-in accessories, a lanyard necklace and a set of earbuds. As with all other iPods, two sets of black foam earbud covers are also in the package.

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Other than its colors, Apple’s fold-open green manual and CD case is almost identical to earlier such pack-ins. One of its faces is imprinted in four languages with Apple’s “Don’t steal music.” marking, replacing the sticker that covers the screens of other iPods. Inside, there’s a new 32-page iPod shuffle User’s Guide, a business card-sized easy reference guide to the device’s controls and indicators, Apple logo stickers, a CD containing the latest versions of iTunes and the iPod Software Updater, warranty information, and an iTunes flier. The unit’s instructions aren’t available in PDF form on the installer CD, as with other iPods, but no one will notice its omission.

Overall, we found the packaging highly appropriate to a low-end iPod - it preserves the classy materials, layout, and matte lamination of older iPod boxes while shrinking their sizes and still displaying a dimensional view of what’s inside the package. A miniature cube would have been cooler to look at, but less practical for any number of reasons. We still remain partial to earlier iPod boxes, but score another one for Apple’s packaging designers: rear text aside, this one’s almost perfect for its intended audience and purpose.

Appearance

With only a single exception, the iPod shuffle is as simply executed as a portable digital music player could be. At 3.3” x 0.98” x 0.33” and only .78 ounces, it is cigarette lighter-sized and weighted, dramatically smaller than any earlier product to bear the iPod name. Made almost entirely from iPod signature white glossy plastic, the iPod shuffle is iconically simple in its own right, resembling a large pendant with two detachable white cords. One cord is an included optional white lanyard that you can wear around your neck, and the other is a new pair of standard iPod pack-in headphones, which now includes a plastic sizer to limit cord dangling around your neck.

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The lanyard is attached to one of two detachable white plastic end caps in the iPod shuffle’s box; the other cap is plain, and intended for times when you’re carrying the shuffle in your pocket or hand. If both caps are detached, the iPod shuffle is revealed to have a USB 2.0 jack flanked by gray FCC and CE logos on the unit’s plastic underside, plus its capacity (“512MB” or “1GB”) engraved on the USB jack’s front. The caps snap on to the shuffle’s bottom with a ball-bearing system that prevents them from accidentally falling off - a nice touch.

If carried in your hand, the iPod shuffle’s headphone port is at its top, and the detachable cap is at 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 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. The lines “Designed by Apple in California” and “Made in China. Serial No. XXXXXXXXXXX.” are so small beneath the logos that they could be used as a vision test. Three small lights are all but hidden on the iPod shuffle - two (green and amber) stacked vertically above the buttons, and a pinhole-sized multicolored one on the battery indicator button.

Overall, though the new iPod lacks all of the visual touches that previously defined the iPod line - visible external metal, clear acrylic coating, a screen and wheel controls - its use of white plastic, iconic white earphones, and utter simplicity instantly identifies the hardware as an iPod. 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.

Specifications

Unlike prior-generation iPods, the iPod shuffle is stripped down to the barest minimum hardware specifications required to store and output both music and data. Powered by a new SigmaTel processor coupled with a flash memory chip for storage, the shuffle includes a rechargeable twelve-hour battery, the aforementioned indicator lights instead of a screen, USB 2.0 and headphone ports, the three-position power switch, and five playback control buttons. Each of these components is new to the iPod platform, and they all merit individual attention.

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The iPod shuffle replaces earlier iPods’ multi-functional PortalPlayer CPUs and Wolfson audio chips with a new multipurpose, inexpensive SigmaTel processor that performs roughly the same tasks, only without its predecessors’ added frills, size, and expense. Instead of a moving, battery draining hard disk for storage purposes, the shuffle includes a flash memory chip - a tiny, non-moving part that stores either 120 songs (512 Megabytes) or 240 songs (1 Gigabyte) by Apple’s count. The numbers are accurate to real-life usage conditions give or take ten or twenty songs, and while the least expensive iPods in dollars, also represent the family’s lowest value for the dollar by a considerable margin.

ModelCapacityPriceRatio
shuffle512MB$99$198 per gigabyte
shuffle1GB$149$149 per gigabyte
mini4GB$249$62.25 per gigabyte
iPod 4G 20GB$299$14.95 per gigabyte
U2 iPod 20GB$349$17.45 per gigabyte
iPod 4G40GB$399$9.98 per gigabyte
iPod photo40GB$499$12.48 per gigabyte
iPod photo60GB$599$9.98 per gigabyte

These numbers are of course offset by numerous other factors, and the iPod shuffles specifically should be considered in the context of their direct non-Apple competition: competing Creative and Rio flash players start at $220-320 per gig at the 512MB level, so even if the $99 iPod shuffle isn’t as attractive per Gigabyte as other Apple devices, it’s more attractively priced than major players’ cheapest non-Apple devices.

Apple’s iPod hard drives were power efficient, but nowhere near as efficient as these memory chips. Consequently, the iPod shuffle can promise rechargeable 12-hour battery life just like a fourth-generation iPod, but like the shuffle’s casing, the battery is tinier than ever before. Better yet, the battery actually beats Apple’s official estimates. In our first informal test after fully topping it off, the battery ran for exactly 18 hours and 30 minutes - roughly 17 hours before its red “battery low” light came on. Our second and more formal test, using 50% volume and a totally random set of files plucked from our iTunes library, ran for 16 hours and 42 minutes before ending. Both tests beat Apple’s stated estimates by more than a third.  Recharging took around three hours, though Apple says four - good news all around on the power front.

Battery drain is also limited by Apple’s decision to omit a screen from the iPod shuffle - a decision that has fueled vigorous debate from iPod fans. It was almost inconceivable - and certainly not inevitable - that Apple would release an iPod-branded hardware product that lacked both its iconic screen and Click Wheel controls, but the shuffle does both. Consequently, you can’t see anything about the contents of the iPod shuffle without connecting it to a computer, a design decision we’ll explore further below.

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Instead, the device includes 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 on the front signal playback, data transferring, and hold status. 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 battery is dying 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 only 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, there’s the aforementioned three-position rear switch 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.

Notable Specification Omissions

Though the iPod shuffle’s SigmaTel processor is capable of offering iPod-like alternate equalizer settings, including bass and treble control, that feature isn’t currently supported in the unit - perhaps not a surprise given that it doesn’t have a screen or other indicators to show its current or possible state. (Note, however, that Oakley managed to find a way to include this feature in its screenless, flash-based, five-buttoned Thump player via simultaneous two-button presses.) As a workaround, you can tweak your songs’ equalization in iTunes, but don’t expect to change those settings without using a computer.

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The iPod shuffle also lacks support for two of Apple’s proprietary audio formats - AIFF and Apple Lossless Audio - which are similarly not surprising omissions given that their files are both huge and relatively unlikely to be played on such low-capacity devices. Power users may mind, but no one else will. Audible’s lowest-quality format 1 files aren’t supported, but aren’t common, either. Apple makes up for these absences by adding even lower bitrate MP3 and AAC playback support to the iPod 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 most people are already using.

Obviously, the iPod shuffle leaves out all of the non-music, screen-dependent features that older iPods have included - the ability to display notes, contacts, calendar information and games - and the music rating and playlist making features that appear in most recent iPods. Again, most new users won’t mind their absence, especially for the price, but power users might.

And finally, Apple also dropped three other familiar iPod features from the shuffle: gone are its top four-pin headphone extension port, its hold switch, and its bottom Dock Connector port. Consequently, you cannot use Apple’s iPod Remote control or any other four-pin accessory with the iPod shuffle, nor can you use any of the numerous 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, connect it to a USB port for data and charging, and put it in “hold�? mode by holding down the unit’s central button until the amber LED flashes. Unfortunately, the iPod shuffle doesn’t include either a power cable or wall adapter, but will offer such accessories in the future as described below.

Apple Accessories

In an unusually pre-emptive move designed to test the market for a wider range of Apple-branded accessories, Apple introduced the iPod shuffle concurrently with five of its own add-ons, each priced at $29. Two are case-like accessories, one an Arm Band and one a transparent and orange plastic Sport Case, while the other three are chargers of various sorts. The iPod shuffle Backup Battery Pack uses two AAA batteries to add an extra 20 hours of portable juice to the shuffle, while a USB Power Adapter is identical to older iPods’ packed-in white wall chargers, only with a USB port instead of a FireWire one.

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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. We didn’t see an audio line-out on the unit we photographed, and the iPod shuffle has no screen to watch when docked, so we’re not sure exactly what non-cosmetic purpose the new Dock serves. Regardless, we’ll review this and all of the other new accessories as soon as they’re available over the next month.

Third-Party Accessories and Industry Reactions

We gauged iPod third-party developer reactions to the iPod shuffle on and off the show floor of the Macworld Expo where the product was launched, and heard two themes repeated again and again. Members of one camp - the strongly dominant one - liked the iPod shuffle, even if they didn’t intend to buy or personally use the device themselves. Most were trying to figure out how to produce accessories that Apple hadn’t already preempted. Since the product’s starting price is so low, most (but not all) of these developers were talking about releasing cheap novelty iPod shuffle accessories rather than expensive electronic add-ons.

The other camp understood but didn’t like the new design, and didn’t think there was any serious way to make money on accessories. These vendors saw the shuffle as essentially disposable, and planned to sit out the iPod shuffle-specific market while focusing their attentions on developing new products for full-sized iPods and iPod minis.

However, both camps agreed that the iPod shuffle would be highly successful at attracting new iPod owners, regardless of whether an accessory industry popped up to support it. We think that one will. In addition to Apple’s accessories, two vendors (first Marware, then Speck Products) were already showing prototype case designs on the show floor within days of the product’s release. Other vendors had already found ways to pull audio signals directly from the shuffle’s USB port and were planning related accessories. Within several months, between Apple and third-party developers, iPod shuffle owners will have no lack of new accessory options. The only question is whether consumers will spend the money to buy them.

A small number of older third-party accessories do work with the iPod shuffle: car cassette adapters, for example, and virtually any stereo headphones you’re likely to buy, as well as Belkin’s TuneCast FM transmitters. But most popular third-party iPod accessories such as Griffin’s iTrip and iTalk won’t fit on or work with the iPod shuffle. 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.

Practical Use and Performance: the Positives

Much of what has been said above shouldn’t surprise you, but this section will: overall, we’ve liked the iPod shuffle more than we thought we would. Our editors have put three of them through their paces since the product’s Tuesday launch, using them on streets, in convention halls, and in our homes, and while we had mixed feelings on some of Apple’s design decisions, we ultimately felt that we could comfortably recommend the newest iPod to certain specific audiences.

We must emphasize that despite the lack of a screen, the iPod shuffle is 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. Its ability to act as a cross-platform USB data storage device also adds a bit to its geek chic appeal.

And that’s really what the iPod shuffle is. It plays music, stores data, doesn’t require any effort or brainpower to use, 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. Regardless of what the existing iPod community thinks, or what critics may say, millions of new iPod users are going to find these features absolutely perfect for their needs.

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Simplicity aside, the shuffle’s primary appeal is obvious: price. Major competitors such as Creative’s $110+ 512MB MuVo TX or Rio’s $160+ 512MB Forge may have more features, but Apple’s offering a simpler interface, full iTunes support, and more capacity for the dollar than the others. Even if these companies - and cheaper clone makers - are soon able to offer cheaper alternatives, Apple’s low-price, easier iPod formula is a winner.

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.

Practical Use and Performance: the Negatives

On the other hand, many people will take issue with the iPod shuffle’s limitations, and we found certain ones hard to ignore. Competing 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.

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In a 128MB (30 song) or 256MB (60 song) configuration, the lack of library management tools and controls is almost forgivable. Months ago on iLounge Backstage, we noted that we could almost deal with Oakley’s choice to forgo a display in its Thump sunglasses, which featured half the capacity of the smallest iPod shuffle. Skipping songs was only occasionally inconvenient. But it’s a lot harder to find one song in Apple’s 120 or 240 than in Oakley’s 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 care a lot, 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. Otherwise, you’ll chafe and hold out for an iPod mini - unless something better comes along.

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Conclusions

We think that Apple knew exactly what it was doing when it picked the iPod shuffle’s features and price point. It is looking to utterly slay the competition for new portable digital music consumers by blending the iPod brand name with a fair amount of capacity and an ultra-low price point, yet keep its profits strong regardless of the iPod someone buys. Barring the unforeseeable, we think that Apple will succeed in dramatically expanding the iPod’s market share with the iPod shuffle, moving at least four or five million units in 2005, perhaps more.

Overall, as noted in our New Users’ review, we recommend the iPod shuffle far more heavily to iPod newbies - particularly young, old, or price-conscious Apple admirers. The iPod shuffle’s super-small body, ease of use, and once unthinkable price point 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 - it’s almost equally workout-friendly and more resilient in case of an accident. The 20GB 4G iPod’s a substantially better value, if not quite as portable. Only those current iPod owners who have a need for a nearly disposable alternative - for themselves or their kids - need apply for iPod shuffle membership. It’s a product tailor-made to those with less cash to spend, and by design doesn’t lessen the need for Apple’s substantially better and more expensive iPod designs. Therefore, while recommendable to some power users for certain applications, it’s not right for all, and chiefly appealing because of its price tag and convenience, not its features.

Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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