Review: Apple iPod shuffle (Third-Generation)
Pros: Apple’s smallest, lightest iPod yet, and first iPod shuffle with remote control functionality. Offers modestly better transfer speeds and audio quality than prior shuffle, replaces prior dock with simpler USB sync and charge cable. Adds VoiceOver feature to let you switch playlists, identify certain tracks, determine battery levels. Fall 2009: Now available in six total colors, and either 2GB or 4GB capacities.
Cons: Needlessly and seriously complicates controls by switching to a buttonless body, which cannot be controlled without Apple headphones or not-yet-manufactured third-party proprietary remote control solutions; presently next to useless with car or home stereos. Confusing interface will be hard for many users to totally grasp and use. Poor value as either a 4GB media player or 4GB flash drive. Very slow at file transfers by current iPod standards. Battery power diminished considerably from prior model. Boring design.
Apple is smarter than you are. You never said so, but it knows you always want your devices to be thinner than they were before. Even if you complain about some high price or a proprietary new connector that makes you replace perfectly fine items you’ve already purchased—fancy headphones, a car stereo, whatever—it doesn’t care: you or someone you know will buy its latest product anyway. All it has to do is show a silhouetted guy dancing around with its latest music player and people will stand in line to pay full retail for it, even in a bad economy. Right?
For the first time in iLounge’s history of reviewing iPod and iPhone hardware—one that has previously seen these devices rate everywhere from a flat A “high recommendation” to a B- “limited recommendation”—the answer should be “no.” Yes, the third-generation iPod shuffle ($79/4GB) is Apple’s smallest and highest-capacity shuffle yet, defying those who thought that there wouldn’t be a need to carry 1,000 songs in a device without a screen. It comes with those famous shiny white earbuds and a remote control, there’s an Apple logo on the back, and it plays music. Plus, it talks! Well, sort of: a feature called VoiceOver plays simple, computerized song and playlist titles that are created by iTunes and transferred to the device.
But despite significant technical accomplishments, it’s also the worst iPod the company has ever released—designed not for the value-conscious consumers who originally wanted shuffles, but apparently, for the ever-narrowing niche of athletic users who want to listen to music but for whatever reason find the similarly shrinking, Nike-friendly iPod nano unappealing. In brief, the third-generation iPod shuffle is more challenging to use for simple things than the versions that came before, the least distinctive visually, and the most overpriced relative to what it actually delivers. It may be a clean design visually and impressive electronically, but conceptually, it’s a mess.
Made almost entirely from silver or charcoal gray anodized aluminum, the third-generation iPod shuffle has literally no facial features, and similarly nothing on its sides or bottom to reveal that it’s an iPod. There’s no screen, no Click Wheel, not even the recognizable circular five-button controller found on the last two iPod shuffles. Only a mirror-finished stainless steel shirt clip on its back, etched with the Apple logo, and the aforementioned pair of included white earphones give away its Apple lineage.
Those headphones—specifically, the fact that they require the user to learn and use an integrated three-button remote control—are the new iPod shuffle’s single biggest Achilles’ heel. They needlessly and foolishly complicate a device that was originally designed to be Apple’s easiest to use, forcing the user to learn a series of tricks to coax the shuffle to skip, fast forward, or rewind tracks, or even to reveal its current battery life: it is, in sum, the Microsoft-like opposite of the Apple we once knew, making users adapt to a product’s quirky interface rather than designing the interface for a great user experience.
Taking no joy in rendering such a harsh verdict, we comprehensively discuss the new iPod shuffle in full throughout the pages that follow. Inside, you will see the results of our battery, audio, accessory and transfer tests—some positive, some negative—as well as details on the new model’s packaging, controls, VoiceOver feature, and more. [Editor’s Note: This review was updated on September 14, 2009 to add a page on the late 2009 addition of four new colors to the third-generation iPod shuffle family, as well as a less expensive $59 2GB model.]