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.
By comparison with the earlier, higher-profile launches of the 2008 iPod nano and iPod touch models, Apple’s press release debut of the 4GB, $79 third-generation iPod shuffle in March 2009 debut had all the impact of a dull thud: the buttonless, plain-looking model, complete with its requirement that users use either new headphones or buy a remote control adapter for their old headphones, struck us as causing more trouble than it was worth. Six months later, Apple updated the shuffle in three ways, each discussed below.
First, it introduced a 2GB version of the iPod shuffle for $59, which has become the iPod family’s least expensive offering, with half the capacity of the prior 4GB model. The 2GB version is in every way cosmetically identical to the 4GB original, with no capacity indication anywhere on its body. They weigh the same, feel the same, and work the same, but the 2GB unit holds 500 songs versus the prior model’s 1,000. A battery test with virtually no use of VoiceOver showed a run time of 13 hours and 58 minutes, higher than Apple’s 10-hour estimate, and slightly higher than the better of two tests we previously ran with VoiceOver in somewhat greater use.
Second, it unveiled three new colored anodized aluminum shells for both the 2GB and 4GB shuffles, such that $59 or $79 now buys users the choice of silver, charcoal black, blue, green, or pink models. The pink, green, and blue shuffles do not precisely color-match any of the past four generations of iPod nano colors. Blue is similar in tone to the second-generation iPod mini, green is close but not identical to the second- and fourth-generation iPod nanos, and pink is a rose shade unlike any of the nanos, but possibly similar to some of the pink iPod minis during a period in which pink was not uniform between production batches. Each model has the same stainless steel rear clip, the identical white and gray plastic Earphones with Remote, and the mini USB charging and synchronization cable.
Finally, it introduced a “special edition iPod shuffle,” with 4GB of storage capacity and a polished stainless steel body for $99—a $20 premium over the standard 4GB models. All of the anodized aluminum iPod shuffles weigh the same 0.38 ounces, while the stainless steel model expands in weight to 0.61 ounce, entirely attributable to its heavier body casing. Each of its surfaces is finished to a chrome-like reflectivity except for its top and bottom, which are matte-finished; it is otherwise identical in dimensions (1.8” x 0.7” x 0.3”), pack-ins, and features. While we prefer the look of the stainless shuffle to the anodized ones, the fingerprints and scratches attracted by steel iPods always mar what starts out looking beautiful.
A comparatively trivial change saw the new model’s clear plastic box increase in size from its predecessor, hiding the required three-button remote control and emphasizing the included earphones, instead. This is an extremely rare example of Apple packaging actually becoming larger rather than smaller for an existing product.
As our original and now unchanged flat C rating indicates, we continue to believe that the new iPod shuffles are not worth purchasing; the trivial improvement in size accomplished by losing the prior model’s controls is well outweighed by the inconveniences of not having those controls, as well as its diminished battery life. To the extent that something so plainly designed can be made mildly more interesting by adding color or polished metal, the late 2009 models are a little more appealing than the early 2009 ones, but not enough so to merit our higher rating, or your dollars. If size is important, we’d strongly recommend spending the additional dollars for an iPod nano, or holding off in favor of a better future shuffle design.