Review: Doing The iPod Shuffle

Apple's newest, smallest and cheapest music player makes a few compromises in favor of portability and battery life, but really shines where it counts the most.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 26, 2005

7 Min Read

A footnote on the Apple iPod Shuffle product page (now removed) compared the flash-memory music player's size with that of a pack of gum -- and warned buyers to not chew on the iPod Shuffle.

Indeed, Apple's new MP3 and AAC format music player doesn't look much like any existing music player. It's tiny, white, and looks like something that may have fallen through a wormhole from a more stylish future.

Most will find this a satisfying player. It is reasonably priced at $99 for the 512 MB version and $149 for the 1 GB version. The smaller version holds about120 songs of average length and standard encoding; the bigger model, 240 songs.

I found sound quality to be very good. It should satisfy most users except, perhaps, the same discerning listeners who prefer higher or lossless audio encodings. I couldn't tell the difference between music playing from my laptop and the same songs replayed via the Shuffle.

But the real story of the Shuffle is that it is designed to encourage you to approach your music differently than you would with other music players.

At the heart of that design is Apple's bold decision to not include a display of any kind. In general, I didn't miss the display. With a small song repository, you can fall in love with your music collection again through totally eclectic means or programmatically. But with its tiny form factor and small song capacity, you probably won't buy it to spend time figuring out what to play.

The lack of a display tends to encourage randomness in two ways. The first way is through a new Autofill feature in the iTunes 4.7.1 software required to use the Shuffle. The second way is through a shuffle switch position on the player itself.

Autofill picks as much music as it can randomly to fill the available space. It weighs its choices by how you've ranked songs, if you choose to give your copy of iTunes your opinions. I would wager that few iTunes users have ranked their songs before, as the feature only helped in creating Smart Playlists which could use ranking as a factor in creating interesting selections of songs. For instance, you could choose all 1960s songs that you gave three or more stars to. But the Autofill feature will probably provoke you to rate more songs because it will improve the odds that the oddball selection of music transferred will reflect your likes better than the overall mass of your music library.

You can also use iTunes playlists to fill the Shuffle more conventionally, whether Smart Playlists or groups of songs that you purposely chose. This random business doesn't override personal choice.

To find the Shuffle switch you need to examine the player closely. The iPod looks like a white polycarbonate tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but after the glare dies down, you'll spot a three-position switch and a button on the back, and a tiny replica of the full-sized iPod circular controls—but no scroll wheel—on the front.

The backside has the switch which features the word "off," a surprisingly straightforward cue; a symbol in the middle for straight-through playing in order; and a shuffle symbol. The switch reveals green as you move it from off to shuffle or in-order, and it's fairly hard to get it to move it to the middle position without accidentally depressing navigation buttons on the front side.

Because there's no visual navigation, the front side uses a wheel with no scroll options: how could you see what's scrolling? Instead, it offers play/pause in the center, volume up and down (marked as plus and minus in the north and south positions), and back and advance (west and east). Holding down the back or advance buttons rewinds or fast forwards a track.
You set up the iPod Shuffle by connecting it via USB 1.1 (slow) or USB 2.0 (fast enough) to any Windows XP or 2000 system or Mac OS X 10.1.5 or later. iTunes 4.7.1 is required and a free download. (Even a gigabyte at USB 1.1's 12 Mbps speed can seem an eternity.) The iPod's battery charges via the USB port, and you can purchase an external USB-to-AC adapter for $29.

A hidden LED flickers beneath the surface of the Shuffle just above the circular controls to show status: solid green means you pushed a button, flashing green is pause, solid yellow is charging, and flashing yellow shows data transfer.

Battery status is back on the backside below the power switch. When the button next to the battery icon is pushed, it reveals a little about the charge. Green means fully charged down to several hours left; yellow means a few hours left; red, not much time at all, and no light means no power. I'm not joking about that last one. It's written on the wallet-sized reference card for iPod Shuffle status and functions that Apple includes in the box.

The vagueness is, in part, because Apple estimates 12 hours, while some users have seen as many as 18. Apple offered conservative numbers to avoid the criticism they faced from prematurely aging batteries in early iPod models, and these batteries—like all batteries—will surely shorten their life over extended use.

The Shuffle is a flash device not-so-deep inside, and can be used as both a USB drive and a music player. Within iTunes, you can select how much memory to use for pure data, and how much for music. Resetting the iPod by syncing it with another computer will erase the data side of the Shuffle, so don't switch idly.

Some computers may require the USB dock ($29) or a third-party USB extension cable which has a more typically sized USB connector than the one built into the unit hidden under a cap at one end. A mini-RCA jack is recessed in the other end. Apple includes a cap with a lanyard built in to replace the plain cap, but I suspect that wearing it around your neck in a major city might result in having the Shuffle removed from your neck without your permission.

As with the several iPod models that use tiny hard drives, the Shuffle can only be associated with a single machine running iTunes at a time. This is partly because of Apple's digital-rights management (DRM) software, which allows songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store to be authorized to play on any number of iPods.

However, each iPod can be associated with one of maximum of five authorized computers for each iTunes Music Store account and music purchased by that account. Because of its small capacity, it's not very irritating to switch ownership of the iPod as you work among different machines as you'll typically refill the iPod with new music each time you sync.

The iPod Shuffle also cannot play Windows Media files, whether encoded with DRM or not. Windows users can convert ordinary WMA files with iTunes, an issue true of all iPods.

The iPod Shuffle isn't the victim of compromise. It can play almost all music formats that iTunes and the full-sized iPods can handle, has a tremendous battery life, weighs next to nothing (a few ounces), and costs only a small premium above the equivalent Compact Flash card.

The iPod Shuffle combined with iTunes and Autofill is a perfect fit for those who want to take a chance fragment of their song library whenever they leave home instead of making those decisions while out and about.

Music formats supported: MP3 (8 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, AAC (8 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Music Store, M4A, M4B, M4P), Audible (formats 2, 3, and 4) and WAV

Price: 512 MB, $99; 1 GB, $149

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