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 all iPods, Apple’s on-the-box listed capacity—here, 4 Gigabytes—is actually diminished somewhat once the iPod shuffle is actually formatted and given its system software. A blank 4GB shuffle actually has 3.77GB of storage space and 53.2MB of system software installed before the iTunes VoiceOver kit works its magic on song titles, adding anything from half a Megabyte to roughly 100 Megabytes of additional content to the device’s “Other” section in iTunes. Using VoiceOver also modestly increases transfer times.
At a minimum, English-language users can expect to have 3.7GB of usable storage space for music, which Apple calls “1,000 songs” at “nearly CD quality” 128kbps; this is more like 500 songs when purchasing new 256kbps iTunes Plus songs from the iTunes Store. As with prior shuffles, iTunes continues to offer an automatic checkbox to convert anything higher than 128kbps down to a 128kbps AAC file, which increases transfer times but enables the shuffle to hold closer to 1,000 songs.
Though we initially ran some comparative transfer speed tests with a mixed format 1GB playlist comparing the third-generation shuffle against a second-generation shuffle and fourth-general iPod nano, we decided to redo them to make sure that VoiceOver and other factors wouldn’t interfere with the results. The initial playlist contained a number of files that worked on the nano, but not on the other devices, such that the two shuffles took longer to transfer files and yet didn’t even receive the full 1GB. Here, the iPod nano took just 1:27 for the full list, while the third-generation shuffle required 2:02 for the 392MB it could handle, and the second-generation iPod shuffle took 2:33 for the same songs. We didn’t feel comfortable comparing partial transfers to full ones, so we ran the test again.
Our second playlist consisted of 1GB of pure music, varying in format and bitrates. For this playlist, which transferred fully to all three devices, the third-generation shuffle required 5 minutes and 14 seconds of transfer time, the second-generation shuffle required 6 minutes and 44 seconds, and the fourth-generation iPod nano needed an identical 1 minute and 27 seconds to its prior performance—not surprising as it will generally take the same time to transfer whatever format of media it has to transfer. What this means, though, is that the current nano is actually 3.6 times faster than the current shuffle when given the same audio files to transfer.
Thus, in any case, the third-generation iPod shuffle lags considerably behind the current iPod nano in transfer speeds, though it improves a little on the sluggish second-generation shuffle’s times. If you’re planning to use the new shuffle as a flash drive, or completely refill with music, bear in mind that it may take 20 minutes from time of initial connection to the point when it’s ready to use, versus 6 minutes for the iPod nano; it’s only an improvement over the even worse prior shuffle.
We also tested transfers and playback of podcasts and audiobooks to the third-generation shuffle. Though audiobooks are synchronized into their own quasi-playlist, they’re oddly identified by VoiceOver as “Audiobook 1” and “Audiobook 2” rather than by name, while podcasts go into a separate quasi-playlist and similarly aren’t named; you can only skip forward and back through the tracks. Like several of its other recent products, the audiobook and podcast features feel a bit unfinished for a shipping Apple product; the company still has some work to do to make these features work as people might well expect them to.