With Apple’s minimalistic taste in design, less is always more. And there’s no better evidence than the latest iPod Shuffle, which has no buttons, no display, no expandable media slot, and no removable battery – yet makes up for it in being so small that it could quite literally get lost in a pocket. Apple’s latest play to gym fanatics and pavement pounders everywhere sacrifices the intuitive interface of the original, but adds to the feature stack as well, with VoiceOver, text-to-speech technology that actually allows the MP3 player to read track titles and artist names aloud to you. There’s no question that mountaineering types hoping to strip every ounce off their personal media players will appreciate the Shuffle’s ultra-svelte dimensions and weight, but has the company pared too far in its quest for the impossibly slim?
Features and Design
Apple will proudly tell you that the new Shuffle measures 1.8 inches long by 0.7 inches wide and 0.3 thick – technically half the size of the prior generation. But for those of us who don’t use micrometers every day, those measurements don’t mean much. To get an idea for just how small this PMP truly is, imagine taking a stick of gum, and folding it in half the short way. Stick a mirror-polished stainless steel pocket clip on the side, and that’s pretty much the third-generation iPod Shuffle. It’s a money clip with a MP3 player built in.
As we’ve come to expect from Apple, build quality on the Shuffle is only a step away from what you might expect from a NASA lab. Edges have been cleanly machined, the matte silver finish feels cool to the touch, and the spring-loaded clip on its side has an assertive clippiness to it that never makes you think twice about whether it’s secure after locking it onto a piece of clothing. The radius of the player’s beveled edges and of the round portion of the headphone connector have even been matched, so that the two form one smooth, nearly seamless curve when connected. This unified design almost makes it look as if the headphones grow from the player itself.
Necessary? Not at all. But it builds up the illusion of quality that Apple devotees crave and line up to pay for.
The top has Apple’s only concession to physical controls on the player itself: a three-way slider that sets the player to either off, shuffle, or play in order. You’ll also find a speck-sized indicator light to let you know it’s powered on, and a 3.5mm stereo jack that serves as the headphone jack, data port and charger for the player. A four-inch-long adapter cable converts this typically audio-only jack to a standard-size USB jack for transferring songs and charging.
Testing and Usage
The secret to Apple’s button-less iPod design lies in the headphone cable, which has been reworked to include three buttons for controlling every function of the player. Since two serve as dedicated volume up and volume down buttons, that really only leaves one center button to do the majority of the legwork. The basics: click once to play or pause, twice to skip to the next track, and three times for the last song.
Though this is far less obvious than clearly marked buttons on the side of a player, in practice, we found it quite easy to adapt after only a couple plays, and the simple gestures become hardwired into muscle memory before you know it. Still, the relatively weak tactile feedback from the controls doesn’t make them very satisfying to push. And since they’re too close to the fact to actually see, you’ll have to grope for the control pad blind, which is usually bouncing if you’re running. In the end, we missed the predictability of an old-fashioned control pad.
More complex tasks, though, require a bit more patience. To hear a song title and artist read aloud, you’ll need to hold down the center button until the player begins to read it. To select one of multiple playlists you’ve preloaded onto the Shuffle using iTunes, you must hold it down until you hear a tone, then release. It will read each playlist name aloud, allowing you to click when hear the one you want.
This sort of memorized clicks-and-beeps control scheme reminded us all too much of setting up a Bluetooth headset, or programming a microwave. Granted, it isn’t too difficult to figure out, and Apple does an exemplary job explaining it in both the included documentation and online, but we would still strongly prefer selecting individual songs off a screen – even a tiny one – than coding our intentions into a player with a single button. Apple can claim the new Shuffle has more capability than any other screen-less player because it can do playlists, but the implementation is laborious, to say the least. In practice, VoiceOver makes a poor replacement for a real screen: You still can’t see what songs are coming next, still can’t see how much battery life is left at a glance, still can’t see how minutes are left on a song, still can’t build your own playlists on the fly.
Embeded controls on the headphone cable
Apple’s choice to embeded controls into the headphone cable has one more obvious pitfall: you’re forever wedded to Apple’s headphones, or the handful of pricy aftermarket models that have been announced. Already spent $100 on a nice pair of headphones for your last iPod? Too bad. For the moment, standard headphones will only allow you to listen to music on this model sequentially, with no control other than the ability to switch it off and on. Adapters are almost certainly on the way, but they will represent both an additional expense and an improvisation: the controls will lie halfway down the cord near the player, rather than a few inches from the ear as intended.
Though Apple’s use of the headphone jack for charging and data transfer is a lesson in design efficiency, its decision to make the USB adapter cable just four inches long didn’t impress us as much. Shuffle designers must have had laptop users in mind, because desktop users will find themselves constantly crawling under the desk to hook and unhook the cable, unless they’re lucky enough to own USB hubs.
Apple rates the new Shuffle’s battery life at 10 hours, which is a bit shorter than previous models, but likely not enough to annoy the average gym-goer or runner. This is a player for short outings, not a road tripping model that needs to play all 20 hours from New York to Florida.
Apple Headphones, iPod Shuffle, and USB cable
Adding music to the new iPod will be a familiar affair for previous iPod users: Just install iTunes, connect the player with the adapter cord, and drag songs from the software’s library to the player. Playlists are similarly easy. Unfortunately, the VoiceOver pronunciations that accompany each file and playlist are actually produced by the software when you add them to the Shuffle, not produced on the fly by the player. Oddly enough, this means that Mac and Windows users will hear different voices producing filenames, because Mac owners make use of the operating system’s own preinstalled text-to-speech engine, and Windows users use a downloaded one. The default female voice available with Windows didn’t impress us – standalone GPS units have produced voices that sound more natural. It suffered from a serious case of inflectionless, robotic reading, and had a hard time pronouncing anything but the most basic English. With a select few song titles (Muse’s Map of the Problematique comes to mind) we weren’t even sure what it was trying to say.
With the third-generation iPod Shuffle, Apple advances style at the expense of its other guiding principle: ease of use. Though fashionistas won’t mind being stuck with Apple’s headphones, and will learn to live with the three-button remote control, there’s little additional function to justify ditching an old Shuffle for the new design, short of its rather gimmicky VoiceOver functionality. Apple’s impeccable style remains unbeatable though, and we suspect it will remain a strong seller in Apple’s line-up – especially with the fairly reasonable $79 price tag on 4GB models.
- Tiniest iPod yet
- Flawless Apple build quality
- VoiceOver pronounces track and artists names, allows playlists
- Only works with specific (and rare) headphones
- Headphone controls less intuitive
- Ultra-short data cable
- Weak text-to-speech capabilities