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.
There is one and only one minor offset to the messy button implementation: VoiceOver. Unlike the prior iPod shuffle models, which were limited to storing and playing back a single playlist that could contain a melange of music, individual podcasts, and audiobooks, Apple has given the new shuffle the ability to store multiple playlists and/or separately section off your music, podcasts, and audiobooks. You select between them by holding down the unmarked center button until after a semi-robotic voice appears—the “VoiceOver” feature—and quickly reads to you the name of the track and artist you’re currently hearing. Rather than interrupting the song, VoiceOver—as the name suggests—dims the song’s volume and plays the voice on top of it. Then, if the button’s still held down, you’ll then hear the names of your playlists, with separate divisions for audiobooks and podcasts. A click of the center button switches to whichever playlist’s name is currently being spoken; you can’t use the + and - buttons to scroll through the list.
That’s almost all VoiceOver does. If you flick the power switch quickly enough, which we found hard to do with adult-sized fingers and trimmed nails, it is also supposed to tell you the battery status: “Battery Full,” “Battery 75%,” “Battery 50%,” “Battery 25%,” and/or “Battery Low” (1-10%). We say “and/or” because in our testing with two shuffles, VoiceOver sometimes told us “Battery 50%” and “Battery Low” at the same time, and skipped “Battery 25%” altogether. It also doubled up on “Battery Low” statements towards the end of a shuffle’s run time. Once the battery hits the less than 1% level, VoiceOver disappears in favor of a triple-tone and the shuffle’s light blinks red; the shuffle also stops playing music. At 0%, the tone, light, and shuffle stop working.
The amount of storage space consumed by VoiceOver will depend on the number of songs on your device, as iTunes pre-creates the track and playlist names in advance for the shuffle to play back when you hold down the remote’s center button. With zero songs on the device, the shuffle’s software—including English-language VoiceOver—consumed a little under 54MB of the iPod shuffle’s storage space, rising a little for non-English languages, and swelling to 145MB to accommodate all of the song details for a completely filled 4GB device. The number could go higher if you have more small songs rather than fewer large ones. For those who care, VoiceOver can be deactivated, saving less than half a Megabyte in the case of a near-empty device, and anything above the 54MB basic shuffle software in the case of a more full one.
Unfortunately, though Apple bills the third-generation iPod shuffle as “The first music player that talks to you,” it’s not: last year’s iPod nano did so, too, and much better, besides. At best, the third-generation iPod shuffle is “the first music player that needs to talk to you because of its lack of any other way to change playlists or check battery life,” and that’s not something to brag about: it’s a sign of just how much easier to use Apple’s iPod shuffle competitors have become.