Apple's third-generation iPod Shuffle (US$80) will please minimalist-design enthusiasts: Smaller than a USB thumb drive, it is completely devoid of buttons, knobs, and a screen. While it is attractive, the Shuffle's earbud controls and VoiceOver feature might not be for everyone.
The latest Shuffle looks like no other MP3 player--or even iPod--out there. Aside from the earbuds, the only indicator that it does something other than accessorize your outfit is the Apple logo on the backside clip. Measuring 0.7 by 1.8 by 0.3 inches and weighing a scant 0.38 ounce, this minuscule device could easily get lost in your pocket or bag if you're not careful. At the top of the device, next to the headphone jack, resides a switch for Shuffle, Play in Order, or Power Off. Between the switch and the jack is a status light that indicates how much life is left in the battery.
The controls for the Shuffle are located on the included earbuds, housed in a tiny remote on a cable below the right ear. This earbud design debuted last fall alongside the newest versions of the Touch, Nano, and Classic. The controls are pretty basic: Volume up/down buttons sit on either side of a multifunction center button. Using the multifunction button for playback isn't difficult, but it might take some time getting used to. Pressing the button once plays or pauses a song; twice skips forward and three times skips back.
Though the earbud controls are quite small, they're very easy to press. My main issue with the design is the placement of the controls. I had a lot of difficulty trying to skip songs and adjust volume while I was jogging or working out. Since the controls are too close to the right ear, I had to move my neck in an awkward way to grasp them. And unsurprisingly, the earbuds fell out of my ears very easily. I imagine that a lot of people use their Shuffles while working out, so I was disappointed when I learned that the controls were located on the bundled earbuds. Luckily, a few third-party manufacturers such as Eytmotic Research and Klipsch have headphones compatible with the new Shuffle. Apple has also said that third-party adapters will be available, as well.
Admittedly, I've always been reluctant to buy a Shuffle due to the lack of a screen--I like to be able to see what I'm listening to. The Shuffle's new VoiceOver feature solves that issue: Hold the headphone's center button while a song is playing, and a synthesized voice (female, if you're on a PC) will announce the artist's name and song title. iTunes automatically downloads and installs the software and uses its own text-to-speech engine to generate the voices.
VoiceOver supports 14 languages, so if you have a large collection of French pop, for example, it will pronounce the song and artist with the correct accent. VoiceOver also makes sorting through your playlists a breeze. If you hold down the center button and keep holding it after the voice says the name and artist, you'll hear a beep. When you let go, the Shuffle will start naming your playlists. You press the center button again to select the playlist you'd like to hear. Audiobooks get their own playlists, and podcasts sort into one single playlist.
VoiceOver is a welcome feature. Though I love my Sansa Clip, I sometimes find it a pain, especially while working out, to stop and check the screen to see what's playing. On the other hand, the robotic voice is a bit creepy, and it seems disruptive when it pops up in the middle of a song.
The new Shuffle's audio quality was quite good. Older-generation Shuffles have sounded a bit tinny, in my experience, but the third generation was an improvement: It sounded fuller, and the bass was deeper and stronger. It had no audible hiss, either.
The diminutive Shuffle packs a generous 4GB of storage. While added storage is always appreciated, I would have liked to see some 2GB Shuffles available at a lower price. For one thing, 4GB might be too much for people expecting to use their Shuffles only at the gym or while running errands. And other than VoiceOver, features are pretty sparse on the Shuffle, so I'm not sure whether it warrants the $80 price tag. It also has no FM radio, no voice recording, and no support for the WMA or FLAC file formats.
If you're looking strictly for an audio player that doesn't take up a lot of space, the third-generation Shuffle is ideal. But if you're unwilling to drop $80 for a feature-scarce MP3 player, you might want to consider some less expensive alternatives. The 4GB Sansa Clip ($45), for example, has a screen, an FM radio, and a built-in microphone--and it doesn't tie you to the bundled earphones.