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.
As with its predecessors, the biggest selling point for the latest iPod shuffle is size, not features, though in this particular case, the numbers don’t totally speak for themselves. The third-generation iPod shuffle measures 1.8 inches tall by 0.7 inches wide and 0.3 inches deep, a “true volume” of 0.26 cubic inches, with a weight of 0.38 ounces. It resembles Apple’s iPhone Bluetooth Headset in materials, size, and design, though its proportions are a little different.
To put the new shuffle in perspective relative to its father and grandfather, the original iPod shuffle was 3.3 inches tall by 0.98 inches wide by 0.33 inches thick—around 1.1 cubic inches in volume—and weighed 0.78 ounces. If you turn its successor on its side for proper comparison, the second-generation shuffle was 1.62 inches by 1.07 inches by 0.41 inches thick, weighing 0.55 ounces; though technically wider and deeper, it was half the height, sporting a thick rear shirt clip, and so occupied a comparatively small 0.5 cubic inches of volume. The third-generation model is around 1/4 the volume of the first shuffle, 1/2 the volume of the second shuffle, and also comparatively light in weight: 1/3 the weight of the first, and 1/2 that of the second.
Thus, while the new shuffle doesn’t “wow” in person, it does impress: it’s as tiny as the smallest USB flash drives we’ve seen, yet still manages to pack a headphone port and battery inside, the latter occupying almost half of the anodized aluminum case’s innards. Apple’s engineers have once again done a stunning job of miniaturizing a basic MP3 player: though the new shuffle is already the thinnest in the family, it would be even thinner without the sturdy, polished stainless steel shirt clip on its back—apparently preserved solely to keep the shuffle wearable like its predecessors, and also to keep from getting lost. It is easy to clip on a shirt, and for some, to accidentally leave on that shirt as it goes into the wash.
Unfortunately, Apple cheated a little to achieve its shrinkage this time: even though there’s room for a series of buttons on the new shuffle’s face, Apple includes only a single control on the device: a tiny, three-position swirled metal switch off to the left of the headphone port. Between these parts is a pinhole-sized status light that can change from yellow-green to orange to red, but stays almost exclusively off while the device is playing. To actually use the shuffle, you need to attach the included three-button remote control headphones, a similar Apple replacement pair, or third-party accessories that are not expected to become available for three or more months. More on that below.
While we won’t completely revisit the topic of the largely familiar earphones Apple includes with the iPod shuffle, several points are worth noting. The earphones are identical to the late December, 2008 Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic, only they’re missing the microphone, the cord is around 8 inches shorter, and three almost imperceptible changes have been made. The shuffle’s remote is now around half an inch lower on the right earbud than it was on the mic-equipped version, a change which strikes us as odd given that a mic-less remote could and should have dropped much lower on the cable for added convenience. Additionally, the hard plastic-coated headphone plug is just a hair thinner than the prior rubber one, with a radius that matches the new shuffle’s rather than slightly hanging off of it.
If the old earbuds didn’t fit your ears, these won’t, either, but if they did, you’ll find—as we have—that the sound quality is actually quite good for a pair of pack-ins, with a bass-skewed but nice overall balance of sound. Unfortunately, users who prefer to replace Apple’s earbuds with others will find that the shuffle has some serious problems in this regard, details that will be discussed later in this review.