The suckitude of shuffle

Why is it that MP3 players set to shuffle seem to repeat certain sets of songs over and over, while not playing others? No, seriously...we want to know.

CNET Networks/Corinne Schulze

I'm a big fan of Creative MP3 players--no surprise there. The Zen line offers cute and colorful designs, customizable user interfaces that are also a snap to navigate, and--my no. 1 requirement--stellar audio quality. For all of these reasons, I have chosen to use Creative's devices for my personal listening the majority of the time. As such, I've spent a lot of hours listening to music on a variety of Zens and there is one thing that remains pretty constant: the shuffle feature on these players sucks (for lack of a better word). And this slightly annoying characteristic is not specific to me, either: several of my friends use Creative players and have noticed the same thing. So what gives? As it turns out, a "computer algorithm for randomizing information can never be truly random". "True" randomness requires two things: each and every song on the device must be played the same number of times in the long run, and you must not be able to predict the order of the songs. Computer software--such as that which makes an MP3 player work--can never meet both requirements at once. Confused yet? Yeah, me too--I'm a writer for a reason. For a more detailed explanation, check out this article from The Numbers Guy over at the Wall Street Journal.

In any case, that explanation seems to account for the suckitude of shuffle on my Creative Zen V Plus. This 2GB player, which is packed with 495 tracks, highly favors the same 20 to 25 tracks (see below for a sample list)--regardless of rating. Actually, unlike the iPod, the Zen doesn't take rating into account and in any case, I don't have time to rate songs, so it hardly matters. It appears that the algorithm used by the player has tagged particular songs that it is going to insert again and again in order to create a "randomized" listening experience. Or that's what I think anyway--as previously noted, numbers are not my strong suit.

Still, this doesn't explain my other shuffle conundrum: the Zen V Plus also plays four or five artists over and over, despite the fact that I have 49 artists on the device and none has more than one album. Apparently, the player just really likes Z-Trip, Fleetwood Mac, Faith No More, Scissor Sisters, and--especially--Dredg. This last one is especially interesting in that my friend with an 8GB Zen Micro Photo also experiences the "Dredg phenomenon," with songs by that artist sometimes inserting themselves every third or fourth song (out of more than 1200 tracks in her case). The Zen players LOVE Dredg (you should too--check 'em out). I've also heard about this happening on an iPod Nano, though I can't personally confirm it.

So I know I'm not the only one to suffer from the suckitude of shuffle: how about the rest of you? What player do you use and how's the shuffle feature holding up? Would an MP3 player's shuffling aptitude affect your purchasing decision? For my part, I'm hanging onto the Zen V Plus. It has too many other appealing features for me to leave it by the wayside. Besides, I'm fine with riding the track-forward function when necessary--at least for the time being.

What my Zen loves: A playlist

  • La Funk Mob: Motorbass Get Phunked Up
  • Chemical Brothers: Dig Your Own Hole
  • Scissor Sisters: Music is the Victim
  • Alexkid: Pick It Up
  • Don Henley: New York Minute
  • Eminem: 'Til I Collapse
  • MC Solaar: Jardin D'Eden
  • Jimmy Eat World: A Praise Chorus
  • Britney Spears: Me Against The Music (Rishi Rich's Desi Kulcha Punjabi Club Mix)
  • Deftones: To Have & To Hold [Depeche Mode Tribute]
  • Metallica: Sad But True
  • Pornotanz: Cysex
  • Chemical Brothers: It Doesn't Matter
  • Tom Petty: Runnin' Down a Dream
  • MC Solaar: Au Pays De Ghandi
  • Veruca Salt: Somebody [Depeche Mode Tribute]


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