Pros: A smarter, redesigned sequel to Apple’s entry-level iPod, containing the best features from prior iPod shuffle generations with relatively few and small compromises. Restored five-button control scheme is augmented by new VoiceOver and battery level button, while support for remote controls remains. New polished metal body may appeal to some users; size is nearly as small as one could expect a device with these features to become without compromising the usability of the button-based control system. Available in five different colors, each with a matching rear clip for easy wearing. Affordable.
Cons: Features are not competitive with rival products at the same price. Even slower than unimpressive predecessor for music and file transfers. Initial collection of colors is muted and somewhat dull by comparison with the best past iPod models; some may find the polished texture to be too slippery. Included USB cable is tiny. Only one storage capacity.
Apple’s original iPod shuffle was easy to understand when it debuted in January 2005. Back then, Apple was on the cusp of becoming a mass-market retailer, and the least expensive model in its iPod lineup was the $249 iPod mini. Apple needed something really cheap for kids and grandparents, an iPod it could sell at Walmart and use to build market share in developing countries. So the original screenless, Click Wheel-less, fancy box-less $99 iPod shuffle made sense. It had a big play button, a ring with small track and volume buttons, one port for earphones, one port for charging, a necklace so that you could wear it, and a rechargeable battery inside. Dead simple.
But as the years passed, it became confusing. Every competing device in its price range grew a screen, and Apple refused to follow suit. Instead, Apple tried to find justifications to keep the shuffle around, switching its plastic body to metal with the second-generation version, and making it even smaller. Then, with the release of last year’s third-generation model, the shuffle officially became silly, losing its buttons entirely and becoming a bland-looking metal stick with a clip on the back. It looked and felt like a designers’ in-joke that had somehow made it to market, ease of use and iconic looks be damned. We called it the “worst iPod ever,” and time proved the design to be even more problematic than we’d expected: moisture-related shorting problems with its remote-controlled earphones eventually forced Apple into a rare public recall and replacement program.
To Apple’s credit, the fourth-generation iPod shuffle (2GB/$49) arrived faster than its predecessors, which typically survived for two or so years before receiving refreshes. This time, the company has played things safe: the new iPod shuffle isn’t fancy, revolutionary, or “impossibly” anything—on the surface, it looks like a more conservative redesign of the second-generation model than last year’s version. It also debuts at the lowest launch price point ever for a new iPod, matching the mid-lifecycle $49 asking price of the 1GB second-generation shuffle prior to its discontinuation. And the feature set will be completely familiar to anyone who has followed the shuffle family for the past two years.
But there’s more to the story than that. Some of the third-generation iPod shuffle’s better design and electronic changes have made their way into the new version, so we discuss them—and more—in our comprehensive review below. While you can skip straight to our conclusion that the fourth-generation model is the best overall iPod shuffle yet, there are audio, battery, and transfer speed details worth noting, and we explain the reasoning behind our rating below, as well. Read on for the details, and our buying advice, by selecting from the seven pages above and below.
Body, Colors, Packaging and Pack-Ins
Apple has used every new iPod shuffle as an opportunity to shrink the size of both its music players and its packaging, and though the fourth-generation model breaks a little from that tradition, it continues in the same general direction. Like the second- and third-generation models, it’s made primarily from aluminum, this time either silver with black plastic controls, or colored pink, blue, orange, or green with white plastic controls. There’s still a metal clip on the back, adorned with the Apple logo, while a model number, international electronic certification tags, and a “Designed by Apple in California” inscription are found underneath the clip, invisible unless you’re looking for them. The serial number is hidden on the pinching edge of the clip in squint-inducing text.
While our pictures make the size differences between the models fairly obvious, the specific numbers are worth noting for spec-obsessed readers. The most obvious comparison is between the new model and its second-generation predecessor, which it most resembles: this year’s version measures 1.14” tall by 1.24” wide by 0.34” deep and weighs 0.44 ounces, slightly taller than the second-generation iPod shuffle (1.07”) but smaller in each other dimension (1.62” wide by 0.41” deep) and lighter (down from 0.73 ounces), besides.
An 18% increase in the size of the circular “control pad” on the face of the device is obvious when doing comparisons, seemingly to leave as little empty space on the front as possible—a trick to make you think the new shuffle couldn’t be smaller if Apple tried. The overall slimming otherwise feels like a nice improvement if you use the late 2006 shuffle as a benchmark. Relative to the third-generation shuffle, however, the new model is a volumetric step back. Last year’s version was 1.8” tall by 0.7” wide and 0.3” deep, weighing 0.38 ounces and possessing a “true volume” of 0.26 cubic inches, relative to the 0.5 cubic inch second-generation shuffle and the 0.35 cubic inch fourth-generation model. Seeing the third- and fourth-generation models next to each other leaves no doubt that the new one is a little larger overall, though the improved functionality will guarantee that no one complains about the increased size.
The fourth-generation iPod shuffle also features a subtly redesigned housing, using a smart engineering trick from the third-generation iPod shuffle to create the impression that its body is sculpted from a single piece of aluminum, contrasting with the aluminum frame and plastic core of the second-generation model—and most past iPod nanos. As with last year’s shuffle, the new model’s top, bottom, sides, and back are now entirely metallic save for the controls; a circular metal button and three-way switch are found on the device’s top surface, off to the right of its headphone port and a tiny status indicator light. Apple has done away with the scratchable stainless steel shirt clip it introduced last year, replacing it with a color-matched aluminum version like the second-generation model’s, only smaller than the rest of the shuffle’s back, a change that parallels the reduced-size clip of the third-generation shuffle. The clip fits within the outline of a thin seam in the shuffle’s back, exposing the second metal piece of the shuffle’s body: a rear compartment that service technicians can use to assemble and disassemble the device.
Apple has also tweaked the new shuffle’s metals in some interesting ways. Except for a single special edition stainless steel version, prior models were generally made from a matte-finished anodized aluminum in a wide variety of colors; that’s changed. The five current versions use metal that’s been polished to a finish that’s not as glossy as the car paint-like fifth-generation iPod nano, but still shiny; some users may find the rear surface to be too slippery to handle with wet fingers. More important in our view are Apple’s latest color choices, which include tones that aren’t necessarily as bright as their predecessors—a change that detracts from the otherwise positive design attributes of the new shuffles.
Apple’s new orange, for instance, is a dull copper color by comparison with the vibrant second-generation shuffle and more recent iPod nanos; the blue is just on the edge of purple, while green and pink are somewhat muted. As always, you’ll need to see the new models in person to determine whether one of the new tones calls out to you; we found them to be less than thrilling across the board. Apple also decided to remove the swirled metal finish from the circular top controls; they’re now just flat gray metal surfaces regardless of the color of the shuffle, a small but cheapening touch.
One thing that can’t help but impress iPod fans is the new shuffle’s box, which has the smallest footprint ever for an iPod package while preserving the clear plastic and white cardboard combination that has worked so well for the past two shuffle generations. The rounded cube box opens to reveal the shuffle suspended on its own plastic insert in front of a compartment for accessories—a short USB-to-headphone-port charging and synchronization cable identical to the one packed with third-generation shuffles, a pair of earphones, plus one Apple logo sticker, a diminutive but almost completely explanatory “Quick Start Guide,” and a comically small warranty booklet.
The iPod shuffle USB Cable is 45mm (1.6”) long, or too short to wrap from the back of most of Apple’s desktop computers all the way around to the front, while the Earphones have enough length to stretch from the average user’s ears all the way down to his or her waist. Note that the earphones no longer have the in-line remote control that was included with last year’s model and so troubled by moisture during workouts; they’re just a plain pair of Apple earbuds.
Using the Fourth-Generation iPod shuffle
As with all iPod models, you’ll need to download Apple’s free media management program iTunes before you can use the new iPod shuffle, then connect the device with its special USB cable to any free USB port on your computer. iTunes organizes your music, podcasts, and audiobooks for individual or collective transfer onto the device. Once again, Apple includes a feature in iTunes that will shrink your songs down to a maximum 128kbps to take up less space on the shuffle, enabling you to store up to 500 tracks on the 2GB device at once. You can also use the iPod shuffle as a flash storage drive for your Mac or PC, using the computer’s desktop to drag and drop files into its modestly-sized main folder.
Once you’ve loaded the shuffle with audio, you can either leave it connected to your computer to fully recharge its battery—the level of which is indicated upon disconnection with a green (“50% to full”) / amber (“25%”) / red (“battery low”) light on its top—or start using it right away. Thankfully, there’s nothing intimidating this time about the controls. Last year’s buttonless model required a convoluted scheme to navigate tracks, but with the return of the shuffle’s built-in buttons, the challenge is gone: the new model is nearly as easy to use as the first- and second-generation models.
On its face are five of its six buttons: the oversized play/pause button is strictly for those features, with + and – volume buttons above and below it, plus track backwards and forwards buttons to its left and right. As with all iPod shuffles, this version’s screenless design restricts you to navigating either in a linear fashion through your collection of songs, or randomizing (“shuffling”) playback so that hitting the forward track button moves to something unexpected. You flip between ordered and shuffled play by moving the top power switch from its far right “off” position into far left “Shuffle” position or middle “ordered playback” position, all control carry-overs that have survived from the very first iPod shuffle.
Last year’s shuffle introduced an additional feature, VoiceOver, which speaks the name of the currently playing song or playlist, for the first time enabling the shuffle to contain and switch between multiple playlists. Previously, you activated VoiceOver by holding down the play/pause button, but Apple now wisely gives this feature its own button—the one that’s on top of the shuffle alongside the power switch. Pressing this button quickly says the song title, holding it says the playlist’s title, and hitting it twice provides verbal battery status so that you needn’t rely solely upon the three-colored power indicator on the shuffle’s top, or flip the power switch back and forth as was necessary in the past, a small but welcome improvement. Hitting the track forward or backward button while you’re in VoiceOver mode switches to a different playlist, while the play/pause button selects it. The new iPod shuffle can also synchronize “Genius Mixes” from iTunes, which are just automatically created playlists of songs iTunes says will sound good together.
If you loved last year’s shuffle or just want to know whether you can still control it with an in-line remote, good news: the answer’s yes.
Plug in any Apple or authorized third-party three-button remote control and the volume, play/pause, track control, and VoiceOver features work just as they did before, relying very heavily upon the central remote control button and a sometimes confusing system of multiple clicks and holds to change tracks.
In summary, the fourth-generation iPod shuffle combines the second-generation version’s ease of use with the third-generation model’s multiple playlist, VoiceOver, and battery status verbalization support. From a user experience standpoint, it’s a lot easier to like than last year’s model, and we’d be a lot more likely to actually clip this one on than its predecessor. Notably, the rear clip is firm enough that the shuffle’s not going anywhere when it’s on your shirt; wristband, armband, and other accessories should be considered strictly optional for wearing this model.
Capacity, Transfer Speeds, and Value
Over the years, Apple has offered iPod shuffles in either one or two storage capacities at a time, twice introducing the device with only one capacity and later adding a second at a higher or lower price point. For the time being, the fourth-generation iPod shuffle comes only in a single version that officially has 2 Gigabytes of storage capacity, but actually provides 1.88GB of usable space, with 1.83GB initially available for audio content. That’s enough for between 250 and 500 songs, depending on the size of the songs, and to a minor extent whether you turn VoiceOver on. If so, iTunes will pre-generate spoken song titles and artist names that add roughly 10MB per gigabyte of songs—not much, but enough to cut the capacity down a little.
Every year, we test new iPod models against prior models to see whether Apple has improved, held constant, or noticeably diminished the quality of their internal components. Since it’s so small and limited in features, the iPod shuffle doesn’t have much to evaluate, save for audio quality, transfer speeds, and battery life. To compare iTunes transfer speeds—the time that it takes to fill an iPod shuffle with music—we used a 1-Gigabyte test playlist with 180 songs of various lengths and sizes, starting with an empty third-generation iPod shuffle and an empty fourth-generation iPod shuffle. As we’ve noted in the past, shuffles are generally very slow compared with Apple’s other iPods, so you wind up sitting around for a while waiting for a relatively small amount of music to transfer. Last year’s tests showed the iPod nano to be 3.6 times faster than the shuffle, a sluggish pace that may matter to people who want to quickly load up their shuffles with new music and run out of the house.
In this year’s testing, the third-generation shuffle took 5 minutes, 23 seconds to transfer the 1GB of music with iTunes 10—nearly identical to the time we saw during last year’s test with iTunes 9. Surprisingly, the fourth-generation shuffle took an even longer 5 minutes and 54 seconds to transfer the same 1GB playlist with iTunes 10, plus an additional 5 seconds to complete the synchronization process. Another way of looking at these results: if you’re planning to completely refresh the contents of your 2GB iPod shuffle with frequency, leave yourself roughly 11 minutes per refill plus the time it takes to select the new songs, with fewer minutes necessary if you’re only adding or removing handfuls of songs at a time.
Then there’s the issue of value for the dollar. Though doing straight GB-for-the-dollar value assessments isn’t entirely fair with some iPods given the other features they include, the iPod shuffle’s extremely bare and only modestly evolving feature set makes such comparisons reasonable. Back in February 2008, Apple introduced the first 2GB iPod shuffle for $69; in September 2009, it released a $59 2GB model, and the new 2GB model sells for $49—the lowest price yet for an iPod with this storage capacity. It goes without saying that this fourth-generation shuffle offers the most affordable way to enter the iPod family and to give an iPod as a gift, although as with all previous iPod shuffle models, you give up so much of the functionality of a full-fledged iPod that you need to go in with modest expectations.
Other sub-$100 options include refurbished iPod nanos, which at press time sell for $99 with 8GB of storage capacity, video playback, recording, and gaming capabilities, superior battery life, and nine color options, and products from Apple’s competitors, which have been considerably more aggressive in adding screens, radios, and other features to their $50 and similarly low-end models. While the iPod shuffle is an affordable iPod, and one of the smallest music players out there, it’s just not a great value when the broader marketplace of options is considered.
Battery and Charging
Thanks to its built-in lithium-ion rechargeable battery, the fourth-generation iPod shuffle promises 15 hours of audio playback—a number that is a little more complex than it initially seems. First, that’s up by 50% from a claimed 10 hours in the third-generation shuffle, versus 12 promised hours in the first- and second-generation models. Second, Apple’s promised run times for iPod shuffles have always been conservative, with actual battery life surpassing the claims by variable amounts from model to model. First-generation shuffles actually ran for 16-18 hours, while second-generation models hit nearly 18, and third-generation models ran for around 12.5 in our tests.
Our battery testing for the fourth-generation iPod shuffle showed performance almost precisely in line with Apple’s claims: set at 50% volume with a pair of Apple’s Earphones connected, and randomly playing audio files at various bitrates ranging up to Lossless quality, the new shuffle ran for 15 hours and 10 minutes before chiming and turning off. While different audio settings and files can yield slightly better or worse results, this playtime places the fourth-generation shuffle ahead of the third-generation model in run time, but modestly below the first- and second-generation versions—an acceptable rather than impressive performance.
Charging the fourth-generation iPod shuffle is just like charging its predecessor. Apple’s included 45mm USB cable connects to the device’s headphone port, and provides a full charge within 3 hours, bringing a dead shuffle back to 80% of peak capacity within 2 hours. The company also sells a $19 accessory set called the iPod shuffle USB Cable with a spare 45mm cable and a 1000mm (39”) version in the same box if you want additional cables; any spare USB port or Apple iPod wall charger will work to refuel the little device. Note that the iPod shuffle remains the only iPod model that cannot simultaneously recharge and play music through headphones, as the headphone port is occupied by the special USB cable.
Audio Performance and Accessories
The single best piece of news about the fourth-generation iPod shuffle relates to its sound quality, which has—at least under certain circumstances—noticeably improved over the third-generation version. Since the 2005 release of the original iPod shuffle, Apple has played a somewhat unusual game with the iPod shuffle’s sound chips, initially claiming that the first model’s audio had become the gold standard for the entire iPod family, and subsequently making changes that saw later shuffle models fall short of improved and more expensive iPods.
This year’s iPod shuffle is the best-sounding member of its family to date, though the differences aren’t especially noticeable when the device is used with Apple’s packed-in earphones—the ones that most people will wind up using with the shuffle until they break. We currently test all iPods, iPhones, and iPads with extremely high-end Ultimate Ears UE-11 earphones that reveal all of the hiss, clicks, and beeping noises that a device inadvertently puts out, as well as the crispness of treble, smoothness of midrange, and richness of bass heard when music is playing—all of the details that can be heard with earphones that cost $150 and up, plus some that are only audible with the most deluxe gear.