Apple surprised more than a few industry pundits when it snuck out a rainbow of iPod shuffle colors at the end of January. Ever since it first hit the streets in 2005, the shuffle has been seen as the runt of the litter in Apple's music player line, a cynical ploy to make the more expensive models look that much better.
It was a not-so-subtle suggestion that you should have studied more in college.
For many, the shuffle's anodized glint has already lost some of its luster, and the newest update amounts to little more than a glorified palette swap. Spending some time with this newest of Apple's tiny players, however, suggests that Apple is increasingly on the right track to making its entire lineup worth a closer look, albeit with a fair share of snags.
First impressions: unpacking and design
While those who've already leapt at the chance to own a second-generation shuffle will know, it can't be stressed enough that Apple's feng shui approach to packaging has at last reached its most inexpensive iPod. The box for the very first shuffle showed traces of its originator's habitual care for the buyer's initial experience, but always underscored its low-rent ambitions. The thin plastic trays and cut out window were more appropriate for Wal-Mart than the Waldorf-Astoria.
With the advent of the latest iPod shuffle, however, it's clear that Apple wanted to lavish as much attention as it has on the nano. Opening the solid plastic case is a deliberate effort that more resembles the discovery of a minor treasure than simply emptying the box. Cost-cutting is still in force — there are no clever dividers here — but the shuffle's packaging lifts you out of the budget player purgatory you were sentenced to with the first-generation model.
Actually holding the iPod serves to reinforce the notion that you've made the right choice. The second-generation shuffle's aluminum body already exudes class that the plastic of the original never had, but the addition of new colors multiplies this effect to the nth degree. Our review unit came in the shuffle-only orange hue and is much more eye-catching in person than promo shots or photo galleries can convey: it's closer to a coppery orange and can't help but draw your attention. Friends and passers-by were keen to touch and talk about it whenever it was in sight, which can't be said for many of its larger cousins.
In fact, colored shells change the rules of the game for what was already a very style-conscious piece of hardware. Apple wasn't just slathering on the buttery rhetoric when it said the new shuffle would "look nice in fashion scenarios." As long as you've chosen one of the four new colors, it's hard to resist clipping the iPod in as conspicuous a place as possible and showing your friends. It's entirely conceivable that some shoppers will pass by the more feature-laden (but arguably dull) 2GB nano for the sake of the new shuffle's looks, even if the novelty may eventually wear thin.
In the field: control, wearability, and audio quality
Suffice it to say that most of us are by now familiar with the shuffle's basic mechanics. If the thought of having only the simplest control over playback and track info is frightening, nothing will persuade you to the contrary. The shuffle is ultimately for those of us who just want music for the gym, or for newcomers looking to replace their ages-old CD players. In those roles, it works very well: clipping the iPod to a belt or pocket gives you a player you rarely have to worry about on a commute or in exercise, and the controls are always close at hand. The clip is still the same as it was for the version shipped last fall. It's strong and holds to most clothing without fear of sending the device flying.
That said, a number of idiosyncrasies are par for the course and may be enough to scare away the easily frustrated. The shuffle's LED-based status borders on the cryptic in some cases, with different colors and patterns reflecting specific warnings. Some may be particularly annoyed by the lack of a shortcut for checking battery power. The estimated life is only visible when switching the iPod on or off, which frequently leads to flicking the power switch off and on quickly to gauge whether or not the player needs a recharge after a long flight.
Whether or not you enjoy the act of listening to music will depend entirely on how you take to Apple's new earbuds. They're the only real technical change for the iPod shuffle circa 2007, but they make all the difference for those who won't turn immediately to a favorite set of cans. It's not hard to believe Apple's claims of improved quality: when fitted properly, the sound is surprisingly balanced. We sampled a wide range of music styles with the new iPod, and the bass had punch without overwhelming the treble, which came through as clearly as you'd hope for with pack-in models. The main complaints you can level against their accuracy are the sometimes shrill high notes and a very slight but noticeable background hiss that manifested itself in the quiet moments of a few tracks.
"When fitted properly" is the operative term, however. Apple's design is comfortable and finally does away with the black pads that were so easily lost with the first run of the new shuffle, but won't do anything to console people with unusual ear shapes. In the case of this reviewer, it was virtually impossible to keep the official earbuds in place — even after looping the cords around the earlobes, the buds would inevitably slip out after enough movement. Anyone without an existing set of earphones (or the money to get new ones) should be sure to try Apple's default pair at a local store before they reach the checkout.
Thankfully, a set of Shure E2Cs has been on hand for the review and served as a good point of comparison. Sure enough, the treble is cleaner and the overall sound is richer. Differences in bitrates between songs bought from the iTunes Store and 256Kbps AAC files were still noticeable. Sampling a fifth-generation iPod shows that the more advanced models produce a slightly extended range, but in all honesty the difference is negligible in practice. It certainly won't manifest itself during a commute or on the treadmill — obviously the shuffle's core environments.
Battery performance and synchronizing
Apple has had a recent history of deliberately underestimating the battery life of its iPods, both to cover itself against lawsuit-happy owners and to give a pleasant surprise to owners expecting the worst. The new shuffle is no exception to the rule. From a full charge, our test model lasted a whopping 17 hours and 2 minutes in continuous playback, over five hours longer than the officially rated 12 hours. How often can you say any device outperformed the expectations that were set on the box by over forty percent? Although it would be tempting fate to take the shuffle on a cross-Pacific flight, the battery power achieved from such a small player is quite frankly startling, especially compared to the 14-hour figure of the much more expensive 30GB model.
Recharging the battery is slow, but no slower than other iPods. A completely drained battery in our testing was topped up in 3 hours and 40 minutes, actually beating the official spec slightly by 20 minutes.
What may dismay a few impatient music addicts is the transfer speed for songs. A test that filled the empty shuffle almost to capacity with 126 songs at mostly 256Kbps bitrates took just under 4 minutes from start to finish. This is much faster than the glacial 6 or more minutes of the original shuffle, but it may leave the owners of hard disk-based iPods tapping their feet in frustration. Then again, few full-sized iPods have their entire storage space rewritten every time the user tires of the current song mix.
It's also impossible to ignore the need for a dock with the latest edition of Apple's miniscule player. In our experience, the dock was largely a boon instead of a bane. No one can deny that the inability to plug the shuffle directly into a computer's USB port is an unfortunate side effect of the company's obsession with ever-shrinking hardware. However, the necessity of a dock also gives a reprieve to owners of iMacs, Mac minis, or virtually any PC without front-mounted USB ports. In our experience, the added convenience for a quick jaunt outside far outweighed the desire to store generic files on the drive. Flash prices are spiraling downward; a separate thumb drive would make infinitely greater sense for data than splitting up the limited 1GB of space between tunes and business reports.
There's little doubt that Apple has yet to cure all the ills of its bargain music box. The firm has clearly traded a bit of audio quality for a lower price. Its earbuds, while a definite advance over the earlier models, still don't have a ubiquitous one-size-for-all fit or the refined sound that would keep audiophiles from reaching for their wallets a second time. If a screenless player wasn't already appealing, it certainly won't be now.
Even so, the tweaks made to the design matter. If white cords already dangle from your ears on a regular basis or you seldom have problems with earbuds to start with, the shuffle could actually be the best-sounding iPod (or digital audio player) you've ever owned. That's no small consideration when almost any upgrade set of earphones could easily cost half or more of the shuffle's base price.
And the colors? The more the shuffle was tested, the more it became apparent that the injection of color into the line was one of Apple's smarter business decisions. Colors legitimize the shuffle: they make it a more interesting prospect and promise that the line won't disappear overnight. There may come a time when the allure of even the orange model runs dry, but until then it's easily one of Cupertino's strongest lust magnets. At least a few colleagues have said the new shades represented the first time they'd ever seriously pondered buying an iPod shuffle.
This, in turn, is why it's easier than ever to recommend what could well have been another throwaway market segment filler. With the exception of pure audio fidelity, whatever lack of devotion there was in the past seems to have reversed itself. Apple cares about its first-timers and its secondary iPod sales just that little bit more, and the results speak for themselves.