Apple's New iPod Shuffle: The First Invisible MP3 Player

The new user interface might leave you forgetting that you're carrying an iPod at all.

By  |  Friday, March 13, 2009 at 11:41 pm

iPod Shuffle TeaserIt’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.

iPod Shuffle

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.

iPod Shuffle USB

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.

iPod Shuffle Control

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.

Apple iPod Shuffle, Third Generation

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.

Price: $79

In the box: iPod Shuffle earbuds with remote, USB charger, instructions.

Buy from Apple

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.

Talk Show

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.)

The Matter of Headphones

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.

 
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17 Comments For This Post

  1. ediedi Says:

    After initially agreeing to the ‘outrage’ regarding the arguably more dificult to reach controls, I thought about the fact that on my shuffle, which i use when running or riding my bike (cable under my shirt, emerging at the back of my neck) i love the fact that i just press play and enjoy a random playlist of songs. I have to mention that i don’t keep music in my library that i don’t enjoy listening to. Sometimes, i wondered what a particular song was, one which i haven’t heard in a long time – Here comes voice over. The forward/back skipping or playlist controls are irrelevant and beside the point of the shuffle. So, when my current 2 gen shuffle warrants a change, i will not hesitate to get the new gen.

    PS. size really wasn’t an issue, and the reduced battery life does not help, and the arguably sleeker design doesn’t help either, the way i use it is not visible anyway.

  2. Curmudgeon Geographer Says:

    “(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.)”

    Or, you know, anyone who owns an iPod touch or iPod nano using the new excellent in ear headphones from Apple (proper name: Apple In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic) that came out months ago. :) They really do sound excellent, and the remote works in the new iPod shuffle.

    http://www.apple.com/ipod/inearheadphones/

  3. Marc Says:

    I agree this new design isn’t for everyone, but I am gratified to find a review that is intelligent and thoughtful and not just hating on a product merely because the reviewer’s not the target audience.

    I’m liking the new headphone controls: I stopped using my 2nd gen nano for music while jogging about a year ago simply because A) I carry my iPhone with me anyway (in case of a phone call), and B) the iPhone’s headphone control is far more convenient than finishing the nano out of my pocket to control it.

    What I’m curious about is when these new headphone controls (with Voice Over) will spread to other iPods. I’d certainly love to be able to use them with my iPhone!

  4. Relyt Says:

    No offence Harry – but I’m sure if you’ve ever used headphones other than the apple stock ‘phones you would never go back. I spent 20$ on Sennheiser CX-300’s and think that they are much more amazing than iriver stock earphones, even though they are pretty lo [quality] for IEM’s. I have also used apple stock earphones when listening to my friend’s ipods and don’t get the why everybody thinks they are so good.

    ~ Just my opinion ~

  5. Watch movies and tv shows online for free Says:

    The iPhone has a microphone with a button that is just like the remotefor this iPod shuffle. It would be great to see them introduce iphone headsets with volume control, etc just like these

  6. Harry McCracken Says:

    Hey, Relyt, I shoulda been clearer that I usually use third-party headphones myself (sometimes Shures, but lately I’ve been using a $35 set from Brookstone, because the cord retracts–handy for traveling). I like sound isolation, and as I said, old iPod earbuds made my ears sting.

    Having said all that, these new ones with the Shuffle were OK. But of course, earphones are very personal (hey, we’ve all got different ears) and I’m sure many people will avoid the new Shuffle.

    –Harry

  7. Seiji Says:

    Personally I don’t like the New iPod shuffle. I like the last gen iPod shuffle a lot more than this. I hate how they completely removed the buttons. Though, the Talk Back feature is a bit interesting, I suppose…

  8. Ed Says:

    From what I’ve read, third party headphones do work with the new Shuffle for listening to music (guys over at iknowit.com took one apart). However, it doesn’t get you much since you lose all control of the device.

  9. ¤ѕнєιℓα gαℓℓу¤ Says:

    Wow, I totally agree.

  10. mmompiloshi Says:

    wow what is you lose the earphones….
    and the new ones dont have controls?

  11. againseminoma Says:

    When Apple updates hardware, it’s really out for planned obsolescence & profit.

  12. Lauren Stewart Says:

    i love to hear music everyday on my ipod mp3 player as well as on my cellphone mp3 player.';*

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  17. iPod Shuffle Manual Says:

    my ipod shuffle becomes unresponsive, I cant turn it off! I Can

    only somehow control my ipod with the remote on my headphones… is

    there a soulution ?

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