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 the first major update to the iPod shuffle since late 2006, the third-generation iPod shuffle represents yet another step towards minimalism in the shuffle line, moving all control buttons off the device itself and onto an in-line capsule on the earphone cabling. The iPod shuffle 3G also features a new VoiceOver feature, allowing users to hear the name of the currently playing track and artist, and — for the first time on a shuffle — navigate between different playlists. Available in silver or black, the device is similar in size to Apple’s prior iPhone Bluetooth Headset, and roughly half the volume of the prior model. Our first impressions of the device appear below.
Apple is smarter than you are. You never said so, but it knows you always want your devices to be thinner than they were before. Even if you complain about some high price or a proprietary new connector that makes you replace perfectly fine items you’ve already purchased—fancy headphones, a car stereo, whatever—it doesn’t care: you or someone you know will buy its latest product anyway. All it has to do is show a silhouetted guy dancing around with its latest music player and people will stand in line to pay full retail for it, even in a bad economy. Right?
For the first time in iLounge’s history of reviewing iPod and iPhone hardware—one that has previously seen these devices rate everywhere from a flat A “high recommendation” to a B- “limited recommendation”—the answer should be “no.” Yes, the third-generation iPod shuffle ($79/4GB) is Apple’s smallest and highest-capacity shuffle yet, defying those who thought that there wouldn’t be a need to carry 1,000 songs in a device without a screen. It comes with those famous shiny white earbuds and a remote control, there’s an Apple logo on the back, and it plays music. Plus, it talks! Well, sort of: a feature called VoiceOver plays simple, computerized song and playlist titles that are created by iTunes and transferred to the device.
But despite significant technical accomplishments, it’s also the worst iPod the company has ever released—designed not for the value-conscious consumers who originally wanted shuffles, but apparently, for the ever-narrowing niche of athletic users who want to listen to music but for whatever reason find the similarly shrinking, Nike-friendly iPod nano unappealing. In brief, the third-generation iPod shuffle is more challenging to use for simple things than the versions that came before, the least distinctive visually, and the most overpriced relative to what it actually delivers. It may be a clean design visually and impressive electronically, but conceptually, it’s a mess.
Made almost entirely from silver or charcoal gray anodized aluminum, the third-generation iPod shuffle has literally no facial features, and similarly nothing on its sides or bottom to reveal that it’s an iPod. There’s no screen, no Click Wheel, not even the recognizable circular five-button controller found on the last two iPod shuffles. Only a mirror-finished stainless steel shirt clip on its back, etched with the Apple logo, and the aforementioned pair of included white earphones give away its Apple lineage.
Those headphones—specifically, the fact that they require the user to learn and use an integrated three-button remote control—are the new iPod shuffle’s single biggest Achilles’ heel. They needlessly and foolishly complicate a device that was originally designed to be Apple’s easiest to use, forcing the user to learn a series of tricks to coax the shuffle to skip, fast forward, or rewind tracks, or even to reveal its current battery life: it is, in sum, the Microsoft-like opposite of the Apple we once knew, making users adapt to a product’s quirky interface rather than designing the interface for a great user experience.
Taking no joy in rendering such a harsh verdict, we comprehensively discuss the new iPod shuffle in full throughout the pages that follow. Inside, you will see the results of our battery, audio, accessory and transfer tests—some positive, some negative—as well as details on the new model’s packaging, controls, VoiceOver feature, and more. [Editor’s Note: This review was updated on September 14, 2009 to add a page on the late 2009 addition of four new colors to the third-generation iPod shuffle family, as well as a less expensive $59 2GB model.]
Packaging and Pack-Ins
The third-generation iPod shuffle follows in the packaging tradition of its predecessor and most other iPods of the past two years. It ships in a clear hard plastic box that prominently spotlights the device through its front window, listing the 4GB storage capacity on its top, computer requirements on the back, and serial number details on its bottom. All that’s noteworthy about the package is its simultaneous display of the device’s remote control alongside the iPod, a first for Apple’s clear packages, and its size: unlike the second-generation shuffle’s originally iPod nano-sized box, the new one is barely larger than the shuffle itself in height, and wider solely to allow room for accessories and inserts.
Those items are obviously spartan: the remote control is obviously attached to the headphones, which ship wrapped and hide behind the shuffle’s white mounting board, and the only other accessory is a 40mm (1.8 inch) USB sync and charging cable that’s designed specifically for the new shuffle; gone is the larger and less than popular iPod shuffle Dock that Apple packed in with the prior model. In keeping with tradition, both the headphones and the cable are a mix of white and light gray plastic, regardless of the color of the shuffle in the package.
You also get three paper inserts: a set of two tiny Apple stickers, a warranty book, and a tiny “Start here” manual that gives users only the briefest explanation of the device and its controls. Consistent with all iPods and iPhones released in recent years, users are directed to download the iTunes music, audiobook, and podcast management software themselves, but unlike past shuffles, users may well need to look at a manual or Apple’s web page just to learn how to use the third-generation model’s controls.
Body and Earphones with Remote: The Basics
As with its predecessors, the biggest selling point for the latest iPod shuffle is size, not features, though in this particular case, the numbers don’t totally speak for themselves. The third-generation iPod shuffle measures 1.8 inches tall by 0.7 inches wide and 0.3 inches deep, a “true volume” of 0.26 cubic inches, with a weight of 0.38 ounces. It resembles Apple’s iPhone Bluetooth Headset in materials, size, and design, though its proportions are a little different.
To put the new shuffle in perspective relative to its father and grandfather, the original iPod shuffle was 3.3 inches tall by 0.98 inches wide by 0.33 inches thick—around 1.1 cubic inches in volume—and weighed 0.78 ounces. If you turn its successor on its side for proper comparison, the second-generation shuffle was 1.62 inches by 1.07 inches by 0.41 inches thick, weighing 0.55 ounces; though technically wider and deeper, it was half the height, sporting a thick rear shirt clip, and so occupied a comparatively small 0.5 cubic inches of volume.
The third-generation model is around 1/4 the volume of the first shuffle, 1/2 the volume of the second shuffle, and also comparatively light in weight: 1/3 the weight of the first, and 1/2 that of the second.
Thus, while the new shuffle doesn’t “wow” in person, it does impress: it’s as tiny as the smallest USB flash drives we’ve seen, yet still manages to pack a headphone port and battery inside, the latter occupying almost half of the anodized aluminum case’s innards. Apple’s engineers have once again done a stunning job of miniaturizing a basic MP3 player: though the new shuffle is already the thinnest in the family, it would be even thinner without the sturdy, polished stainless steel shirt clip on its back—apparently preserved solely to keep the shuffle wearable like its predecessors, and also to keep from getting lost. It is easy to clip on a shirt, and for some, to accidentally leave on that shirt as it goes into the wash.
Unfortunately, Apple cheated a little to achieve its shrinkage this time: even though there’s room for a series of buttons on the new shuffle’s face, Apple includes only a single control on the device: a tiny, three-position swirled metal switch off to the left of the headphone port. Between these parts is a pinhole-sized status light that can change from yellow-green to orange to red, but stays almost exclusively off while the device is playing. To actually use the shuffle, you need to attach the included three-button remote control headphones, a similar Apple replacement pair, or third-party accessories that are not expected to become available for three or more months. More on that below.
While we won’t completely revisit the topic of the largely familiar earphones Apple includes with the iPod shuffle, several points are worth noting. The earphones are identical to the late December, 2008 Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic, only they’re missing the microphone, the cord is around 8 inches shorter, and three almost imperceptible changes have been made. The shuffle’s remote is now around half an inch lower on the right earbud than it was on the mic-equipped version, a change which strikes us as odd given that a mic-less remote could and should have dropped much lower on the cable for added convenience. Additionally, the hard plastic-coated headphone plug is just a hair thinner than the prior rubber one, with a radius that matches the new shuffle’s rather than slightly hanging off of it.
If the old earbuds didn’t fit your ears, these won’t, either, but if they did, you’ll find—as we have—that the sound quality is actually quite good for a pair of pack-ins, with a bass-skewed but nice overall balance of sound. Unfortunately, users who prefer to replace Apple’s earbuds with others will find that the shuffle has some serious problems in this regard, details that will be discussed later in this review.
Using the iPod shuffle: Controls and Status Light
As simple and limited as the first iPod shuffle was back in early 2005, Apple unquestionably got the core execution of a screenless iPod right; some users were thrilled see a music player’s controls distilled down to a simple six-button, one-switch scheme. Press the big play/pause button, or its smaller surrounding track and volume control buttons, and you’d know exactly what they do, same with flipping the power switch on, or toggling it to either ordered or randomized play, and pressing the battery life button to see how much juice remains. These smart concepts became the basis of the shuffle’s sequel, and the circular audio controller even appeared in other Apple products: the iPod Radio Remote, and the Apple Remote, which shipped with everything from MacBooks and iMacs to Apple TVs and iPod Hi-Fis.
So when we say that the third-generation iPod shuffle completely screws up a control scheme that worked well across two predecessors and multiple other Apple products, you can understand what a break it is with the past. Instead of using the prior, intuitive control scheme, it tries to squeeze all the same features into the aforementioned three-button in-line remote controller. There’s an unmarked, recessed central button, which generally replaces “play/pause,” plus comparatively elevated “+” and “-” buttons that serve as volume controls.
If you want to change tracks, skip forward or backwards through them, or check the battery’s status, you’ll need to learn a bunch of new controls, which don’t all fit into the “Start here” guide that comes with the shuffle. Instead, Apple lays them out in two separate web-based instruction pages: “Using Apple Earphones with Remote with iPod shuffle (3rd generation)” and “iPod shuffle: Checking the battery charge”. In brief, you need to double-click (forward), triple-click (backward), or click-and-hold (seek) the remote’s unmarked central button to change tracks or your position within them. To determine battery life, you have to quickly flick the shuffle’s power switch back and forth.
Rather than going into excruciating detail about these “mapped” button commands—equivalent to the secret key combinations that only power users learn for software—we will say only that they should have never been the primary or exclusive interface for a device aimed at users seeking simplicity. In the absence of on-device controls, Apple should have just created and included a five-button remote; repurposing the three-button version that was designed for screened iPods was a truly bad idea here.
VoiceOver: A Gimmick with One Advantage
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.
Battery and Charging
“Unpredictable” is the only word we can use to describe Apple’s recent history of battery tweaks to iPods and iPhones: while there was previously a trend in favor of ever-improving run times in new models, and the company has unquestionably made its devices more power-efficient, it has in the last year unfortunately sacrificed real performance gains in order to achieve marginal size and cost reductions. The iPhone 3G, fourth-generation iPod nano, and third-generation iPod shuffle are all examples of recent Apple devices that fall behind their predecessors in important measures of battery life rather than improving upon them.
The first- and second-generation iPod shuffles were both touted by Apple as offering 12-hour audio battery life—notably, equivalent to the full-sized iPods and more than the iPod minis that were available at the first shuffle’s launch—yet they actually did better: the first one ran for 16-18 hours when it was fresh out of the box, and the second-gen model ran for nearly 18 as well. This time, Apple has dropped from a promised 12 hours down to 10, noting that its tiny lithium polymer battery will fully charge in three hours and reach 80% of capacity in two. Interestingly, the entire shuffle becomes hot rather than just mildly warm to the touch when it is being recharged, though not scaldingly so.
While there’s some good news to report—the new battery does exceed Apple’s performance estimates—it definitely has taken a hit relative to the prior model. We loaded two shuffles with different mixed-format test playlists, set them to 50% volume using the iTunes volume limitation feature, and hit play. Even with occasional VoiceOver interactions to check their batteries, one ran for 11 hours and 45 minutes, the other 13 hours and 5 minutes, for an average run time of 12 hours and 25 minutes. While this is an impressive feat given the new shuffle’s small size and battery, there’s no doubt that it lags significantly behind both of the prior shuffles in longevity, and gets 18.5 hours less music play time from a charge than the fourth-generation iPod nano. Even past shuffle owners should expect to have to recharge this one more frequently than its predecessors.
Though they were mentioned in the sections above, two quirks of the battery system merit repeating here: first, actually checking battery life is a pain, as it requires two quick flicks of the shuffle’s tiny metal top switch, and second, the status messages we received were sometimes contradictory: VoiceOver would tell us at the same time that the battery was at 50% and 1-10% of capacity. This is far from Apple’s best past standards of either battery performance or status indication.
Audio Performance and Accessories
For all of the bad news regarding the third-generation iPod shuffle: there’s one piece of qualified good news: this new model sounds a bit better than its predecessor. We noted back in 2006 that the second-generation iPod shuffle was a step below the first-generation model, as well as the then-shipping fifth-generation iPod and second-generation iPod nano, due to a staticy audio chip that revealed its imperfections when headphones better than Apple’s pack-ins were attached. The gulf only increased over time, as two successively better generations of iPods and iPhones continued to improve in audio quality, and the shuffle remained stagnant and comparatively very noisy.
While it hasn’t completely fixed the noise issues, Apple’s third-generation iPod shuffle has improved. It starts with a sound signature that’s very similar to the other current-generation iPods, offering a neutral balance of treble, midrange, and bass frequencies, and way more detail than the included earphones can discern. Apart from Apple’s continued lack of graphic equalization, the only issues some users have had with the family in recent years are in the bass department, where all of the iPods can be driven to distortion. In this regard alone, the fact that the shuffle isn’t more powerful than its current-generation siblings may come as a disappointment to users familiar with the first-generation shuffle, which used a different audio chip from the rest of the family and exhibited less bass distortion when pushed. In our view, however, the third-generation shuffle is a very solid sounding little audio player, all things considered.
But it’s not perfect. Though we were initially optimistic when doing early tests with the shuffle using ultra-high-end Ultimate Ears UE-11 Pro earphones, it turns out that the shuffle still has a little background hiss—not as much as before—and that there are also situations in which you can occasionally trigger a series of high-pitched signaling beeps that appear to be the shuffle body attempting to communicate with the chip in the remote control. We heard the beeps when we tried the UE-11s in a quiet room: they lack the remote control and make the beeps a bit more obvious. Most users won’t notice or care about these sorts of things, but they’re worth mentioning.
There is, however, something that many users will care about: the new shuffle doesn’t fully work with any headphones except Apple’s. Because of what Apple has done here—something sneaky and arguably terrible for consumers, especially if it continues with other iPod and iPhone products in 2009—if you plug your old third-party headphones of any sort into the new shuffle, you’ll find that you can’t do anything with the device other than have it continuously play music, without volume controls or interruption, unless of course of you turn it off. Surprise: the only third-party headphones that will work are ones that haven’t even entered manufacturing yet, because they’ll need to contain yet another new Apple authentication chip, which will add to their price. Your only alternatives will be third-party remote control adapters—also not yet available, as Apple’s not even making one—and using Apple’s earphones. The prices for the third-party adapters will be no less than $19, and quite possibly more like $29; compatible headphones announced thus far start at $49.
For the time being, what this means is that one or more pairs of earphones that you’d like to use for other purposes—running, indoor workouts, or just casual listening—will be generally useless with the shuffle. All you can do is turn on the shuffle and hope that the volume and song that play through the headphone port are acceptable to you.
This is, in short, a nightmare scenario for long-time iPod fans: are we entering a world in which Apple controls and taxes literally every piece of the iPod purchase from headphones to chargers, jacking up their prices, forcing customers to re-purchase things they already own, while making only marginal improvements in their functionality? It’s a shame, and one that consumers should feel empowered to fight.
The same issues impact the shuffle’s utility as an in-car or home stereo playback device: other than pressing play, you can’t do anything to control its playback. If your car or home speakers have their own volume control—they should—you can adjust the volume, but bear in mind that the quality might not be so hot, since the car will be amplifying an audio signal turned down low enough for headphones, rather than one that’s optimized at a louder level for a car stereo.
One final accessory note is that Apple has announced a $19 cable accessory pack for the new shuffle: it combines one 1.8-inch cable like the one that’s included with each shuffle, and one nearly 40-inch but otherwise identical cable. Apple has not announced replacement earphones for the shuffle, for whatever reason; it can be controlled by the Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic and In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, but aggravatingly, not by Apple’s iPhone Stereo Headphones or other one-button headphones that were previously released. This just appears to be another Apple trick to randomly break compatibility with pre-existing accessories that might have been semi-useful, but didn’t contain its chips.
[Updated March 17, 2009: Based on inquiries from a number of other publications regarding the proprietary chip in the iPod shuffle’s earphones, we have posted both an editorial and a Backstage article discussing the business and electronic details of the chip.]
Capacity, iTunes and Data Performance
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.