By Harry McCracken | Friday, March 13, 2009 at 11:41 pm
It’s tempting, when writing about Apple’s new third-generation iPod Shuffle, to veer towards the whimsical, and stay there. You might compare the tiny player to various other tiny objects, or theorize that the next Shuffle will be the size of a Tylenol, or even perform stupid Shuffle tricks such as stuffing one inside a Pez Dispenser. This is not going to be that kind of review. I found this player unexpectedly interesting, and there’s a lot to talk about beyond its lack of obesity.
When Apple updates other iPod models, the change is usually about two things: better features (such as the bigger iPods’ addition of video) and slicker industrial design (such as the Nano’s evolution from a blocky plastic device to a gracefully curved metal one). The Shuffle is fundamentally different–it’s on a track of ever-decreasing size and ever-increasing minimalism. What Apple would like, I think, is for the Shuffle to be invisible. Not in the ha-ha manner of SNL’s iPod Invisa, but in the sense that the music matters and the gadget itself is sort of beside the point. The new version takes a major leap in that direction, and not just because Apple shrunk its size by almost fifty percent.
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the company did shrink the case, so much so that there’s not much room left for ornamentation. The $79 third-generation Shuffle has a somewhat stark personality that’s a shift from the candy-colored exuberance of the second-generation version. It’s a simple aluminum rectangle–available in silver or black–that contains 4GB of memory, enough for approximately 1,000 songs. Any panache comes from the Apple logo-engraved clip on one side.
You know a gadget is on the smallish size when it’s dwarfed by its own USB cable–even though that cable is the shortest one you’ve ever seen.
But the thing about the new Shuffle is that you just won’t think about it that much. Other than the music, iPods are about user interfaces. And except for a battery light (Apple rates battery life at ten hours on a charge, down from twelve hours for the last Shuffle) and a tiny switch that lets you set the Shuffle to shuffle songs, play them sequentially, or power down, the Shuffle’s interface isn’t on the sliver of aluminum itself. You can make a case that the “iPod” in the new iPod Shuffle is made up of two things: the new text-to-speech system that helps you navigate your music, and the tiny remote control that Apple has embedded in the earbud cord.
When I first read about the external remote, I thought of it almost as a cheat: Apple made the new Shuffle smaller in part by moving the buttons off the device itself. In fact, the move has some practical value. Putting most of the controls on the remote pod means that you can put the Shuffle pretty much anywhere you want to, without worrying about whether you can get at it. (I’m in chilly, rainy Austin for the South by Southwest conference at the moment, and when I went out for a walk tonight I just stuffed the Shuffle as deep into my overcoat as it would go.)
As seen in the above photo, the remote sits on the cable surprisingly near the right earbud; when I wear the earbuds, it’s at chin level, more or less. I felt silly at first reaching up to it to navigate my music. (Take note, subway riders: From this moment on, tugging at one’s right earbud cord will serve as a dead giveaway as to who’s listening to a new Shuffle.) But placing it so high ultimately makes sense, because it pretty much ensures that the controls will remain accessible even if the Shuffle is tucked into a winter coat or looped behind you into a backpack.
How does it work? The plus sign and minus sign adjust the volume. And everything else is controlled by the indentation in the middle. Press it once to pause the music; twice to skip to the next track; three times to go to the last track; press and hold to hear the artist and song title; press twice and hold to fast-forward; press three times and hold to fast-reverse. Oh, and press it and hold for a long time, and the Shuffle starts reading the names of your playlists; release it when you hear the one you want to select it. (This is the first Shuffle to support Playlists, or, for that matter, any form of music navigation other than “play everything in order” and the eponymous “shuffle everything.”)
If the previous paragraph left you confused and/or horrified, I understand: Conceptually, using one button to do almost everything sounds nightmarish. In reality, I was startled by how intuitive it was. I read the Shuffle’s instructions once, and my fingers pretty much remembered what to do to produce the results I wanted.
It’s not just ridiculously small–it also sports an inventive new voice-and-remote interface that I found surprisingly effective. But for some, the proprietary headphones will be a major turnoff.
In the box: iPod Shuffle earbuds with remote, USB charger, instructions.
The remote’s design helps: You never forget which nub increases the volume and which one decreases it, and your finger can find the indentation between them without any fiddling. It’s possible to forget that Apple intentionally designed the remote so you can’t see it when you’re using it. Which also adds to the new Shuffle’s feel of invisibility.
Then there’s VoiceOver, which is Apple’s name for the Shuffle’s text-to-speech music navigation. When you sync music onto the Shuffle from the new iTunes 8.1, the audio files the player needs to speak each track’s artist and title travel down to the player, too. I used iTunes on OS X 10.5 Leopard, and got what’s reportedly a higher-quality voice (a male one) than the one you’ll hear if you use Windows or an earlier version of OS X. It sounded a tad mechanical but entirely understandable–the only obvious mispronunciation it made was when it mentioned the recently departed jazz chanteuse Blossom Dearie, whom it called Blossom De-AH-rie. And the voice’s utter inability to emphasize the words in song titles to convey their emotional gist is…kind of endearing, actually.
VoiceOver tries to identify the language songs are in and pronounce titles and artists properly: Everything I listened to by Antonio Carlos Jobim and/or Astrud Gilberto was spoken by a different, female voice. I can’t say I’m a good judge of Portuguese accents, but I did notice that she pronounced “Jobim” incorrectly.
When the first Shuffle debuted in 2005, its lack of a display was a source of controversy, not to mention predictions that it would flop; by the time the second-generation version showed up, it was a defining feature of the player. VoiceOver goes a long way towards compensating for the limitations imposed by the Shuffle’s screenless design. For the first time, you can identify songs you don’t immediately recognize, and the fact that the Shuffle can now speak is the only thing that makes playlist support possible.
But it’s important to understand that VoiceOver can’t do everything a display can. The Shuffle’s 4GB of memory may be able to hold 1,000 songs, but locating a particular song may still be near-impossible, even if you’re willing to press a button as few hundred times in the process. The Shuffle still can’t sort all the songs it contains in alphabetical order, it still doesn’t understand the concept of albums, and it only knows enough about artists to tell you who’s performing the current song. In all cases, playlists provide a workaround, since you can order a playlist alphabetically, or create a playlist that consists of the contents of a particular album or all your songs by a cetain artist.
Could Apple have provided more music navigation features? Not without complicating the Shuffle’s remote; it already built in all the functionality it could without asking users to remember too many arcane combinations of pressing and press-and-holding. I am curious whether future Shuffles will rethink the remote to add more functionality, though.
All in all, though, the combination of the remote and VoiceOver is surprisingly successful. The Shuffle is still aimed at people who want to listen to music without a lot of fuss–maybe while exercising or performing other tasks for which a fancier iPod would be too bulky and complicated. But it no longer feels quite so much like a teensy bucket of unorganized, unidentified tracks.
(Side note: The second time I tried to sync my new Shuffle, I got an error message in iTunes telling me that the Shuffle didn’t have enough room for the speech files required by VoiceOver…and the error persisted even when I tried to wipe all the music off the player. I then performed a restore of the Shuffle’s software, and the glitch disappeared.)
Sometimes it seems like every Apple product has a “Yes, but…” issue–a design decision that some people regard as an outrage and a dealbreaker. Consider, for instance, the new MacBook’s lack of FireWire, or the 17-inch MacBook Pro’s sealed battery. Or more to the point, the new Shuffle’s inability to work out of the box with standard headphones, since it requires the embedded remote to control your music.
As far as I can tell, there are two types of iPod owners on the planet: Those who use Apple’s stock earbuds without giving it much thought, and those who loathe them, either because they find them uncomfortable or because they slip out. In at least some cases, I think the haters are relying on bad memories of earlier Apple headphones–there was a time when standard iPod headphones made my ears sting. For what it’s worth, the ones that come with the Shuffle sounded good, stayed in, and were pain-free.
That’s not enough to satisfy serious fans of third-party headphones such as Shure’s sound-isolating models, of course. Apple says there will be third-party adapters to let any headphones work, and headphone manufacturers are already announcing Shuffle-compatible models. Which is good news, I guess, for anyone who finds the new Shuffle seductive but who has a visceral dislike of Apple earbuds. Although it’s still unclear what you’ll do if you want to listen to the new Shuffle over your car stereo or through one of the ubiquitous speaker docks that work with every other iPod ever made.
Me, I’d stick with the headphones in the box: Having to grapple with an adapter or spring for special headphones–some of which cost more than the player itself–feels like it violates the spirit of the new Shuffe’s minimalist appeal.
Then again, you have to wonder whether Apple’s next move will be to simply build the Shuffle into its own earbuds. This new model is already smaller than some Bluetooth headsets; if the company was able to shave off a bit more heft, it might build an iPod that tucked behind one of your ears, relying on the new embedded remote and speech synthesis for its user interface.
Like I say, the company’s goal with the Shuffle seems to be to make it invisible. The third-generation Shuffle doesn’t complete the job, and it definitely isn’t for everybody. (iLounge thinks it’s the worst iPod ever, by far; if you want to spend $79 for a much more traditional 4GB player–with a display, yet!–consider SanDisk’s Sansa Clip.) But in its own stripped-down way, it’s the most strikingly inventive new iPod since the iPhone. I’ll be fascinated to see whether its distinctly different approach to almost everything you thought you knew about MP3 players makes sense to the people it’s aimed at.