Editors' note: This review was updated September 23, 2010, with CNET Labs' battery test results.
The fourth generation of the Apple iPod Shuffle is a return to the iconic form that made it a hit from 2006 to 2008, but now it offers a few extra features to keep things interesting. As expected, Apple is keeping things simple with its entry-level iPod, offering it in just one 2GB capacity ($49) that's available in silver, green, blue, and orange.
If you don't remember what Apple's 2009 design for the Shuffle looked like, you're probably not alone. The buttonless aluminum gumstick known as the third-generation Shuffle was an utterly forgettable MP3 player. Its only saving grace was its capability to manage playlist, podcast, and audio content, using a unique system of VoiceOver navigation to announce menus, track information, and battery status using a synthesized voice.
For the fourth-generation version of the iPod Shuffle, Apple has thrown out the design from 2009, returning to a form that is similar (but not identical) to the popular second-generation model. Placed side by side with the second-gen Shuffle, the latest version is noticeably smaller, slimmer, and more square, measuring 1.24 inches wide by 1.14 inches tall by 0.34 inch thick. In spite of the shrunken body, the main navigation has actually increased just slightly in size, so it is easier to make any adjustments to volume or track position.
Another design feature that distinguishes the fourth-gen Shuffle from the second-gen is that the majority of the physical features--the headphone jack, the power switch, the battery indicator, the playback mode control, and the VoiceOver button--have been consolidated to the top edge of the device. The bottom edge and sides of the Shuffle are now a completely smooth and seamless expanse of anodized aluminum.
If we have just one complaint of the fourth-gen iPod Shuffle design, it's the difficulty using the clip without accidentally triggering the track-skip control (specifically the back skip button). The second-generation design avoided this problem by offsetting the navigation to the right, leaving a blank space for you to pinch down and open the clip without affecting the controls. With the new design, you need to carefully pinch down near the corners of the player, or throw caution to the wind and pinch the track-skip button in the process of clipping it on. We figure the thing's called "Shuffle," so if you're going to be a stickler for which song gets played, you should probably think about getting a different device.
Another factor worth taking into consideration is that the Shuffle's small size can sometimes be a disadvantage. We often hear stories of people accidentally running their Shuffle through the laundry, or misplacing it for weeks, only to have it appear in some seldom-used purse pocket or change drawer. For all its beauty and simplicity, the Shuffle seems to fall into the same category as socks and umbrellas: you don't own them so much as borrow them from the universe.
Though the Shuffle's design may be a nod to the past, its features keep pushing forward. Everything that was good about the third-generation model (VoiceOver, playlists, audiobooks, and podcasts) has been retained for this version, along with support for Genius Mixes, expanded language support, and a longer 15-hour battery life.
Keep in mind that though the Shuffle's features are impressive for its size, its capabilities are far from groundbreaking in the world of portable audio as a whole. There's no FM radio, no voice recording, and--obviously--no photo or video playback. Audio formats supported include biggies like MP3, AAC, Audible, WAV, AIF, and Apple Lossless, but still no love for WMA or FLAC.