Apple iPod Shuffle 2G
Life's still random, just smaller...
Preview The first iPod Shuffle was something of a surprise. Apple had already said it didn't think too much of Flash-based, low-capacity players, though that's just what the Shuffle was. It didn't even have a screen, unlike so many of its rivals, forcing many an observer to wonder who'd buy the thing. People did though, and the compact player proved remarkably popular...
Did Apple meet a need, or were consumer too awed by the iPod brand? Maybe a little of both, but mostly it hit the right price point. Whatever, the Shuffle found its niche. Even when Apple shipped a comparably capacious Nano, it couldn't bring itself to drop the Shuffle. Quite the reverse, it's since gone on to redesign it completely, this time focusing on getting the size down to pitch the product, true or not, as the world's smallest digital music player.
The Shuffle ships in the same clear plastic case as the second-generation iPod Nano, so expect to have to download iTunes from Apple's website if you don't have it already. Hidden behind the player are a pair of Apple's old-style iPod earphones - oddly, not the new set the debuted with the 2G Nano - foam covers, the customary quick-start guide and - for the first time in ages - a bundled dock.
This is no philanthropy on Apple's part, a bid to save the Shuffle 2G buyer a further $19 on an accessory, but something of a necessity. The Shuffle slots sideways into the dock, locking onto a 3.5mm earphone jack integrated into the cradle. The dock doubles up as a USB cable, as you'd expect, but this time the player's earphone socket connections are used for data transfer and to feed the battery.
Given the size of the Shuffle, it's a clever solution. That said, I miss the integrated USB port - look, ma, no wires - of its predecessor. Still, I'd have preferred Apple to build a mini USB port into the player as these are always going to be more readily available than USB-to-3.5mm cables and/or docks. Presumably, Apple decided it was more cost effective to bundle the non-standard dock with the Shuffle than engineer a tiny USB port. Or maybe it just thought users would prefer a dock. Well, this user doesn't, not for this kind of device. I don't want to have to take the dock with me when I travel, and with the old Shuffle I didn't even need to take a cable.
There's another downside: speed. Apple's website simply notes the Shuffle's need for a "USB port". Not USB 1.1. Not USB 2.0. Just USB. How come? The Shuffle's data transfer rate is faster than 1.1, slower than 2.0, preventing Apple from associating it with either. Tests suggest you should get around 36Mbps - three times USB 1.1's 12Mbps but a lot less than USB 2.0's 480Mbps.
The Shuffle's fractionally wider than the Nano and about the same depth, though its built-in belt clip doubles the effective depth. It's made of the same aluminium as the Nano. With the player's controls facing you, the earphone socket is on top, alongside a green status LED, while the power switch and the repeat play/shuffle switch are on the base - next to a second green LED. Like the first-generation Shuffle, the new model has no hold switch. Instead, you press and hold Play for three seconds.
Having two separate switches is a big improvement over the old Shuffle's single, three-way slider switch. My Shuffle is almost always used for sequential playback, but it was a little to easy to push the slider too far and accidentally start shuffling. The new Shuffle's switches are raised above the casing not flush with it as was the case with the old shuffle. Again, this is a real improvement.
Another refinement: the belt clip. This will snap onto clothing flaps and pockets, bags and other kit with ease, making the Shuffle feel like little more than a remote control unit for a larger iPod. The clip's neither too stiff nor too loose - just right, in fact.
Which pretty much covers its functionality too: play or pause, volume up or down, track skip and play mode. Once again, less is more, just let the music come to you, in order or at random.
iTunes provides access to the player's settings, in particular the maximum volume setting and allowing the Shuffle to be used as a USB Flash drive, though the dock requirement limits its usefulness in this role. Once again, you can opt to auto-convert transferred songs to 128Kbps AACs, to get more into the 1GB memory.
The new Shuffle supports all the usual music formats, though unlike the other iPods it doesn't like Apple Lossless files. That's not a size issue - it'll happily work with uncompressed AIFFs - but presumably the Shuffle lacks the processing power to decode them.
There's only one size available - 1GB - and one colour - silver. So what, it's still a great gadget and a worthy successor to the original Shuffle. The lithium-ion polymer battery takes up the bulk of the Shuffle's interior space to deliver around 12 hours' playback time, which isn't at all bad for a device like this.
By that I mean a player for the more casual listener or as a handy grab-and-go unit for someone who already owns a high-capacity iPod. The capacity favours using the Shuffle for listening to a handful of new albums or holding a heap of favourite tracks. Either way, you're not too bothered about choosing what you're going to listen to. If you want that, buy a Nano or a video iPod.
The iPod Shuffle evolves. The simplicity of the original is augmented with an even smaller case that feels like the remote control of a larger player. It's let down only by the need for a dock - and a unique dock at that. The Shuffle's not for everyone - plenty of people will prefer to select their songs on a screen - but it remains a great grab-and-go gadget for music on the move.