Apple iPod Shuffle 4G
Review The iPod Shuffle's entire history is a testament to the fact that Apple  doesn't always get products right. The fact it exists at all shows Steve Jobs was wrong to say that consumers don't really want low-cost, plug'n'go music players. They do, and if the number of Shuffles seen on lapels and bagstraps around the capital is anything to go by, they're downright keen on them.
Apple's iPod Shuffle: back to its best design
So the Shuffle came into being despite Steve's comments, first defying the then-held belief that an MP3 player has to have a screen. Then, with the second-generation product, that it had to be made out of cheap plastic. The 2G Shuffle was a metal-clad affair, and it became the line's defining model.
And so Apple chucked out the design, dropping the control keys in favour of in-line controls in the earphones. At the launch of the 4G Shuffle, Jobs acknowledged that that had been a mistake, before taking the wraps off a player almost identical to its predecessor-but-one.
It's narrower, thanks to a smaller battery - physically; its runtime is longer - and entirely cased in aluminium, with a new clip design on the back that's easier to open with your fingertips but doesn't appear to be any less able to to keep the Shuffle attached to whatever it's attached to.
There's a button for VoiceOver
Be careful when clipping it: the play key no longer has a push-to-hold function, so you'll pause playback when attaching or removing the 4G.
There's an extra button that wasn't present on the 2G Shuffle: the VoiceOver key, used to get the player to speak out the title and artist of the track currently playing. Hold it down, and you get a sequential read-out of any playlists sync'd to the device. They're read in sequence - just press play when you hear the one you want. If the read-out is too slow, you can press the track skip keys to move forward or back.
Sure, VoiceOver is no reason to chuck out a perfectly working 2G Shuffle and replace it with a 4G, but despite the inevitable broken English of the system's mix'n'match syallable voice synthesis, it's nice to have for playlist navigation. I don't need to to tell me what track's playing - I know what I put on the Shuffle.
And here's a quirk: while VoiceOver plays on the bundled Apple earphones - fading the track into the background while it's speaking - it didn't on the B&W P5 headphones  I was also trying the player with. The music fades out, but there's no track ident. Put the Apple 'phones back in and the voice returns.
Now, the P5's in-line volume controls adjust the Shuffle's settings as well as the Apple ones do, but it seems VoiceOver requires the latter. I tried the Shuffle at a time when I didn't have other earphones to hand, so I can't say whether this is a broader issue, or limited to the P5s, but it wouldn't surprise me if this was a common problem with third-party eargear.
Getting it right
As ever, the on/play in sequence/shuffle tracks key hasn't been designed for folk who nibble their nails to the quick, but it's not like you'll be flipping in back and forth frequently. And though the VoiceOver key is small, it's useable whether the Shuffle's in a pocket or pinned to something.
The Shuffle remains a gadget designed to be operated without being looked at at the same time, and in that it works perfectly.
I've always believed that the Shuffle is the best-sounding iPod. I've not had the new Nano and Touch to try, so I can't say the sure that that's still the case. I don't think it's sounds quite as good as the 2G Shuffle - the bass seemed weaker, but that may be because my memory of the 2G's sound is conditioned by the use of third-party earphones.
Even so, the 4G Shuffle's sound is good, and improved by the use of third-party phones, though you may lose VoiceOver.
Battery life is pegged by Apple at 15 hours which is more than enough to allay fears that it'll die on the way into work. I didn't run it for a full 15 hours at a stretch, but my more real-world 'play a while here, play a while there' usage doesn't leave me with the belief that Apple has over-exaggerated.
The iPod Shuffle remains an ideal casual-use music player, perfect for folk just want to grab some tunes and go - I keep my 2G in the car, for instance. Now that Apple has put back the controls, it's once again tops for users who don't want to bring it out into the open just to skip tracks or change the volume. Apple could have been more generous with the capacity, but more most Shuffle owners 2GB will be plenty. ®
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