Ten Surprises – Good + Bad – in Apple’s Third-Gen iPod shuffle

It’s a great day whenever Apple releases a new iPod—even if it’s just a new iPod shuffle, the model that has historically been better known for its size and low pricing than anything else. Today, the iPod shuffle evolved for the third time, losing all of its buttons in favor of a remote-laden pair of earphones like the ones we’ve previously reviewed for 2008 iPods; it also gained VoiceOver, the ability to speak song titles and let you change playlists, a first for the shuffle.

There are 10 important points—half positive, half negative—that you should know about what the new shuffle means for the iPod family. We’ll start with the positive ones, but encourage you to read through the whole list; some of the negatives are pretty serious.

10. Black! Finally! Sort Of. You and we have been waiting for a black iPod shuffle for years—now Apple is finally selling one. Well, it’s actually that nearly black, more like dark charcoal gray color that the iPod nano and iPod classic now use, but we like that one, too. Gone are the brighter blue, green, pink, and red versions we’ve seen over the years—at least, for now.

9. Podcasts. Though the prior-generation model was capable of playing individually synchronized podcasts, the new iPod shuffle supports sequential audio podcast synchronization—it can automatically synchronize a series of podcasts, rather than just specific episodes. To that end, it now has an iTunes tab for podcasts, unlike the prior-generation model. This feature will appear in iTunes 8.1, due out in very short order.

8. Goodbye, Chunky Dock. When the first iPod shuffle was released, Apple equipped it with an integrated USB plug—brilliant, some said—and then replaced it with a chunky plastic dock for the second-generation model. Third-party accessory vendors rushed out smaller, cheaper, and frankly more convenient replacements. Now Apple has followed their lead, replacing the Dock with a USB cable, called the Apple iPod shuffle USB Cable. The version packaged with the shuffle is 1.8 inches long; for $19, Apple will sell you a package with two cables, one similarly short, the other slightly under 40 inches long.

7. It Works With Apple’s Recent Remote Headphones. Though this won’t be of any consolation to those with remote-less third-party earphones, the iPod shuffle is officially listed as compatible with Apple’s recent mic-equipped $29 Earphone and $79 In-Ear Headphone models, though Apple explicitly notes that the new shuffle doesn’t support the microphone functionality. This is somewhat good news for those who already have one-button-remote equipped headphones released for the iPhone over the past couple of years; they won’t be able to adjust volume, but track controls should work.

6. The Size. While this arguably isn’t a “surprise,” the new shuffle—like the two prior-generation iPod nanos and the preceding shuffle—is going to be a lot smaller and lighter in person than the photos suggest. At 0.38 ounces, it’s 30% lighter than the prior model, and 50% lighter than the original shuffle. Think disposable lighter, then think smaller; like a money clip with a more bulbous front side.

So those are some of the unexpected positives of the third-generation shuffle. The negatives are, in our view, more surprising and thought-provoking.

5. It’s The First iPod That Won’t (Yet) Work With Your Car or Home Stereo. Prior iPod shuffles could be connected to a car or home stereo through the headphone port, but try to do this with a line-out cable today and you’ll be faced with a small problem – there’s no way to control the shuffle or even hit play. A line-out cable with remote controls, or a remote-adding adapter, will be necessary if you want to use this model with anything other than headphones.

4. It’s The First iPod That You Can’t (Yet) Use Fully With Non-Apple Earphones. To date, no headphones except for Apple’s have been released with the three-button remote control design that’s required to actually change volume on the new iPod shuffle. Some headphones, including a number we’ve reviewed for the iPhone, do feature a single button that controls play/pause and track-swapping features, but not volume.

While we would guess that the shuffle remembers the last volume setting that was entered with its own remote, and that you could conceivably set the volume with Apple’s included earphones and then switch to your favorite pair of one-button headphones—you do have one, right?—differences in impedance between different types of headphones means that the volume settings won’t be identical. As with the car and home stereo issue above, the inconvenience factor here may inspire a remote add-on for the shuffle, solely to let old earphones work with the new model.

3. Price Point Changes. Recession? What recession? The new iPod shuffle goes back to the $79 price point that accompanied the second-generation model’s release in September 2006. Thus, the iPod family’s entry point—at least, for current models—now starts at $79 rather than $49.

2. Battery Life Drop. Both the first- and second-generation versions of the iPod shuffle promised 12-hour battery life on a single charge, but the new model drops down to 10 hours. Given Apple’s varied recent history of battery life measurements—it’s sometimes conservative, sometimes right on the money, sometimes a little optimistic—it will be very interesting to see just how much actual run time the third-generation shuffle achieves. Our tests of the first-gen shuffle achieved between 16-18 hours of play time, and the second-gen model ran for nearly 18 as well. It’s hard to imagine that Apple would show a drop in this model’s battery life if there wasn’t actually a hit; the only question is, how much.

1. The Clip. Whenever Apple releases an all-aluminum iPod, like the prior-generation iPod shuffle, readers cheer. But every time the company goes back to polished, scratchable steel, they boo. Virtually all of the official pictures of the new shuffle focus on its aluminum body, while only one shows the reflective rear clip. Hopefully this clip will prove to be less scratchable than the backs of iPod classics and touches.

Would you add anything to the list above? We’d like to hear your thoughts. Share them with us in the comments section below.

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