iPod Shuffle Review (2009)

iPod Shuffle Review (2009)
Zero buttons. That’s as minimalist as it gets.

Removing all buttons—or to clarify, moving them to the headset—shrinks down the size of the new iPod Shuffle dramatically, but it also creates control problems when running, snowboarding or doing anything other than sitting.

This new iPod shuffle is about half the volume of the previous iPod shuffle. HALF. By moving all the controls from the face onto the headphone cable, Apple was able to reduce the width and thickness to almost 50%, even if the length grew slightly. This wasn’t totally sensible: Although the headphones do offer a comprehensive control scheme, the button position on the headphone cord becomes really difficult to use unless you’re sitting still. It also limits your choice of headphones to the ones Apple gives you, or new shuffle-specific ones made by other manufacturers.

But there’s one point where this shuffle beats the hell out of the previous shuffle, and that’s the audio feedback interface. Apple calls this UI, which speaks to you, VoiceOver. It’s a set of text-to-speech files transparently associated to each track on your iPod that will speak the title and artist of your current song. Hold the button down long enough, and the voice will cycle through all your playlists, one by one, reading the names. Hit it again to jump directly to that playlist.

The player itself is also fine, even if the blank, monolithic face takes a while to get used to (and stop reaching for when you want to change tracks). Yes, it only comes in black and silver, instead of the whimsical shuffle/nano palette we’re used to.

Its front and back are made of aluminum. And just like the nano (and the previous generation shuffle), the edges are a little too sharp. The clip is made out of stainless steel, like the back of the iPod touch and older generation nanos, so it attracts fingerprints and gets scratched up incredibly easily. The front, luckily, does not have this problem.

The package comes with headphones and a three-inch USB connector. Apple’s tendency to remove stuff from the iPod package continues with the removal of the free dock; which is a shame, since you’ll instead be leaving this strewn about your desk, and because it’s so damn tiny, you’ll have probably have a hard time finding it again.

Syncing and Playback
The entire iTunes sync screen is improved. There’s now support for podcasts and playlist syncing. Yeah, you don’t have to use autofill or manually drag tracks and playlists over one by one, because you can now jump between playlists using the VoiceOver feedback system.

These voices, which are generated and synced on the fly when you choose playlists, sound pretty great, assuming you have Mac OS X Leopard. Those who do will get to take advantage of “Alex”, the newer text-to-speech voice shipped in the OS. If you’re on Windows, or if you ever want to use the 13 languages other than English, you’ll default to the VoiceOverKit downloadable pack that comes with iTunes 8.1. Even the supposedly lousier TTS agent works decently enough, because these are your songs and you should be able to at least guesstimate what artist/track it is. But Alex prounounces stuff like “Yeah Yeah Yeahs” and “Jamiroquai” correctly, whereas the other one (a lady’s voice) doesn’t.

Voice data is fairly small, with 400MB worth of songs only taking up about 20MB of voice track data. That’s going to be about 175MB of voice data if you fill up all 3.5GB of usable space.

I tested actual Chinese and Japanese track names and artist names and they all came out sounding correct, if a bit robotic. You can override language selections by song or globally if you want all your music to be read back to you in the English voice—for example, if you have a bunch of classical music labelled in Italian. But if you have a mix and match song, with a Japanese title and an English artist name, the iPod will pronounce everything using the Japanese voice, including the English portion. Which is funny if you’re an arse (like me) that gets a chuckle from non-native English speaker accents.

The 255-character limit to song and artist fields still applies, so you can’t shove lyrics or eBooks in there and expect your iPod to read them back to you. And blank data in both fields results in complete silence; it doesn’t say “untitled track” unless the track name is actually “untitled track.”

It does say other things, however, including its battery status, if you flick the hold switch off and on again. This chart displays the possible blinks and audible alerts.

As for the shuffle’s sound quality, since the shuffle only works with the included headphones and not any other regular set of headphones, we ran a couple playback tests as best we could. The frequency response, using a specially-encoded frequency sweep MP3, was decent but not phenomenal. The start of the sweep was at 16Hz, and we couldn’t hear anything until half a second later when it got above 50Hz. It definitely peaked well under 20KHz (probably close to 16KHzish), but some of that could be due to my own high frequency hearing loss. And, because these headphones are quite lousy. When I compared frequency response to the old shuffle and to the nano with the same earphones, they were all about equal.

Max volume definitely was louder on this shuffle than the 2G version. It wasn’t quite as loud as the latest iPod nano, but it was damn close. Again, since we could only use the default headphones to test, there wasn’t any real difference in audio quality, even with high-quality 320kbps MP3s.

We’re also going to check whether or not the 10-hour battery life claim is accurate, but Apple themselves claim that it’s down from 12 hours in the previous generation.

Because the shuffle’s now only half as wide as the old one, the clip is only about half as strong. There’s less surface area, and it’s no longer jagged—it’s just two bits of metal on top of each other. There’s still quite a bit of strength in it, but you’ll be able to yank it off from your jeans using just the headphone cable, so it could mean trouble.

Since one of the major uses of the shuffle is for exercise, we had to take it on a 30-minute run, testing usability in active conditions. Although the clip is fine, the controls are pretty crappy. The stock headphones suck because the controls are up on the right hand cord, up near the ear. You pause, forward, rewind and seek by hitting the middle button in various ways. This is fine when you’re sitting, but when you’re running, it’s really hard to hold your arm still up in that awkward position to change tracks. And when you’re really tired, your arms start flailing and it’s very, very difficult to not yank the earbud out of your ear when you’re changing songs.

Here’s the solution. Apple should move the controls down to where the two earbud cords split. It’s much more convenient down there, plus lefties wouldn’t have to suck it up and use their right hand. This major problem might get fixed by one of the major headphone manufacturers releasing their own compatible pairs. I’d pay $US100 for a good pair that doesn’t have the controls placed in a lousy place, or maybe even
has larger controls on the cable.

I don’t have a pair of snowboarding gloves, but I do have a pair of regular gloves, and when using the shuffle with them on, it’s hard to feel where the groove of the play/pause button stops and the volume +/- buttons start. It would be much worse for even thicker gloves that offer zero tactile feedback. But on the bright side, the body itself is at least as water-resistant as the old shuffle. Probably even more so, since there are fewer cracks and openings for water to leak into.

So where’s this all headed? If Apple wasn’t so absolutely married to the fact that physical controls need to be in a trademark click-wheel shape, they could have easily spread out the five play/next/prev/vol. up/vol. down buttons along the smooth face of the shuffle. But they didn’t.

There’s also a limit to how much smaller the shuffle can go. I wouldn’t expect such a dramatic decrease next time around. In fact, I predict a re-emergence of the wheel, so that the entire player is thinner, but squarish with only the wheel on the front. After all, the previous generation’s wheel wasn’t even a real wheel anyway because you couldn’t actually scroll with it by thumbing around in a circle. Apple seems to enjoy alternating between different design shapes in their iPod nano (2G nano was thin, 3G nano was fat, 4G nano was thin) line, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they’re going to do this with the shuffle as well.

If you need something like this for exercise, or if you just hate the fact that there are no buttons on this one, buy the last-gen shuffle before they’re all gone, or wait till next year when Apple changes its mind. To tell the truth, this new shuffle is just okay. We don’t know what kind of a statement they were trying to make with it, but suffice it to say, the message wasn’t received. [Apple]

VoiceOver text-to-speech feedback is neat, and improves usability dramatically

New 4GB storage means more songs for about the same price
Half the size of the previous generation shuffle
Default headphones have the controls placed in an awkward position on the cord
Battery life has decreased from 12 hours to 10
It’s very difficult to work the in-line controls while running or wearing thick gloves
You can only use proprietary headphones, or buy one of the as-of-yet unreleased adapters