As anticipated, Steve Jobs introduced a flash-based player, dubbed the iPod Shuffle, at the tail end of his lengthy Macworld keynote. Despite denouncing flash-based players in the past, Apple couldn't resist the 29 percent of the market that it doesn't already dominate. Minimal as can be, the Shuffle weighs less than an ounce, has no LCD, includes a built-in USB 2.0 interface, and comes in 512MB and 1GB capacities for the supercompetitive prices of $99 and $149, respectively. While other companies are packing their flash players with a boatload of features, Apple has created a device that stands on two concepts: affordability and simplicity. Turn it on, press play, and do the iPod Shuffle. However, it's not the right MP3 player for everyone. And it's certainly neither the first sub-$100 512MB nor LCD-less player we've seen.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. Zero LCD, USB 2.0 built right in, and wearable--the concepts aren't new. Still, as a white plastic strip with only a few buttons, no LCD, and a touch of bright green, the Shuffle is a visual masterpiece. It's only 0.3 inch thick and less than an inch wide, and it weighs a feathery 0.8 ounce. A simple, round controller features all-tactile buttons and makes the Shuffle feel more like a wireless remote than an MP3/AAC/WAV/Audible player--there's no learning curve.
On the back, you'll find a cute, wide sliding switch that powers on the Shuffle either in Playlist repeat mode or Shuffle mode. Underneath the switch is a tiny battery-indicator button that lights up green, orange, or red depending on what's left of the charge; green is good. The main physical features are rounded out by a headphone jack on the top and a removable (and losable) cap for the built-in USB 2.0 plug on the bottom.
All's not perfect, though. The power switch can be difficult to activate, as just the right amount of friction is needed. We often found ourselves squeezing the Shuffle with force just to turn it on. At 3.3 inches at its longest, the Shuffle isn't as small as everyone likes to think--it's just superthin. But after operating it for a couple of weeks, we realized it was the proper length to hold and that having the built-in USB is well worth the extra size.
The most critical drawback, though, is the lack of an LCD. A display is certainly not a requirement for the Shuffle and its surrounding philosophy that you listen to it as you would an Internet radio station. You can move onto the next song or let it pick a song randomly. People have used LCD-less Walkmans for years, and Creative's original MuVo started the craze for MP3 players. Other examples include theand the . While we understand and appreciate the concept of no LCD and random play, we like the modern LCD and its ability to display track, EQ, battery, and other "biological" info. Occasionally, you'll hear a good but anonymous song, and you'll find yourself going back to your PC to find out the track's artist and title.
The Shuffle does speak, but in a language of color-coded flashing LEDs. Flashing green means you're paused, and orange means you're in Hold mode, which you can also activate by depressing the center play/pause button for 3 seconds. Red on the battery indicator means you'd better stick the Shuffle in any available USB port to juice it up (if you want to charge the Shuffle using a power outlet, get one of these). Apple even includes a meticulously designed card-size at-a-glance guide with the Shuffle.
Obviously the Shuffle is intended for the day-tripper or the athlete who probably already owns a bigger iPod. It's meant to be recharged daily (its rated battery life is 12 hours), and while it's docked into your computer, iTunes will help you refresh your content with its new autofill feature. It won't skip, it's utterly portable, and it can even be worn stylishly around the neck with the included lanyard, though beware the mess of wires. In addition to the lanyard, you get the standard iPod earphones, a manual, and software, but we're not so sure MP3 newbies will warm to the Shuffle, given a wealth of other feature-filled, albeit more expensive, flash-based models to choose from. Then again, a lot of prospective Shuffle owners are mainstream buyers looking for affordability and simplicity.