Apple's iPod Shuffle is small, versatile, colorful, and at $49, it's arguably the least expensive device that Apple sells. For those times when you want an impossibly small way to take music with you, the iPod Shuffle is still the most widely recognized solution around.
But it's certainly not the only way to go. Products like the SanDisk Sansa Clip+ or Sansa Clip Zip offer more features and more storage for the same price or less. They lack Apple's brand appeal and design aesthetic, but they deliver the goods and garner deservedly better ratings here on CNET.
No matter how many times I see it, the iPod Shuffle seems shockingly small. Measuring 1.24 inches wide by 1.14 inches tall by 0.34 inch thick, it's practically a musical postage stamp. And while its size is a marvel of product design and engineering, it can also be somewhat impractical to use.
The controls on the top edge of the device are so small; some of you may need to whittle down your fingertips with a pencil sharpener to operate them. And unlike previous generations of the iPod Shuffle, which deliberately left a space on the front of the player for an easy grip, it is nearly impossible to pinch the clip on this design without accidentally pressing the back-skip button in the process. It happened to me while I was midway through an hour-long podcast, and I practically cried.
For all of my criticisms, the Shuffle's design does have some great things going for it, especially when you factor in its wallet-friendly $49 price. Its aluminum construction makes it more resilient to wear and tear than many of its all-plastic competitors. Its clip, which is also made from aluminum, offers a strong tension and tends to stay put. And in spite of all of its other microscopic controls, that large, centrally located play/pause button is impossible to miss. Just don't confuse the elegance of Apple's design for ease of use. The device's inherent limitations and miniaturized controls can easily lead to frustration.
Though the Shuffle's design may be a nod to the past, its features keep pushing forward. Everything that was good about the much-maligned 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.
But while 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.
The VoiceOver button located on the top edge of the player is the most recent feature to come on board. Pressing this microscopic button once will cause a synthetic voice to announce the artist and song title of the currently playing song. Pressing the button twice announces the current battery life percentage. Holding down the button for a few seconds takes you into a menu mode where you can use the track skip controls to switch between any synced playlists, Genius Mixes, audiobooks, or podcasts. Each menu item is reeled off by the pleasant little robot voice, which can be configured in iTunes to speak in 1 of 25 languages. It's a neat feature that no competing product offers at this price, but those of you seeking out the Shuffle for its simplicity may find VoiceOver and its teeny button to be a needless complication.