Editors' note: Apple gave the third-generation iPod Shuffle a minor refresh in September 2009. The line added new color and capacity options. Find out more here.
Apple's third-generation iPod Shuffle MP3 player ($79) is the smallest MP3 player you can buy. Its unique size and uncommon, remote-controlled design won't suit every purpose, but people looking for the next best thing to an invisible iPod will appreciate the player's minimal approach.
At first glance, the iPod Shuffle looks almost like a practical joke--as if someone is trying to persuade you that their tie clip plays MP3s. The aluminum-encased hardware measures just a few hairs larger than a paper clip (0.7 inch by 1.8 inches by 0.3 inch) and includes not a hint of button, knob, or screen. The headphone jack sits on the top edge of the Shuffle along with a switch that controls playback mode (shuffle playback/consecutive playback) and power.
Fortunately, Apple doesn't expect you to control the Shuffle's volume and playback using mind control (not yet, at least). The earbud-style headphones bundled with the Shuffle include a remote control on the cable, just below the right ear. The remote offers three buttons: two for volume control (up/down); and a central button with multiple functions. You press the center button once to pause music playback, twice to skip forward, and three times to skip back. Of course, the downside to this headphone-controlled design is if you lose your headphones, you also lose control of your iPod. Apple's replacement earbuds for the Shuffle cost $29, but it's possible to grab third-party headphones and adapters for less. And if you don't like Apple's earbuds, it is now becoming increasingly possible to pick up third-party headphones with integrated iPod remotes.
The headphone cable reaches 3 feet, which should be more than enough length considering that the Shuffle is meant to be clipped to your clothing. A hinged chromed metal clip runs the length of the Shuffle on one side and includes a slot for attaching a lanyard or keychain. An Apple logo is engraved on the clip, and custom engraving is offered on orders placed through Apple's online store.
The Shuffle is purely a digital audio player. There's no FM radio, no voice recording, and--obviously--no photo or video playback. Audio formats supported include MP3, AAC, Audible, WAV, AIF, and Apple Lossless, but no hope for WMA or FLAC.
The third-generation version of the iPod Shuffle offers a few new features over previous models, though. For one, this is the first Shuffle that tells you what you're listening to, which is no small accomplishment considering the player doesn't have a screen. The Shuffle uses a synthesized voice to announce artist and song title information whenever you hold the headphone clicker down. Apple is calling this feature VoiceOver and offers support for 14 languages, with voice quality hinging on what type of computer and operating system you're using. To be clear, even though the Shuffle can speak, it doesn't respond to your voice--so don't go talking to your iPod like a crazy person.
We found the voice feature useful during those moments when a great song popped on that we couldn't identify, but we're glad the Shuffle doesn't announce each song automatically (that would get annoying). But if you just can't stand the thought of a talking iPod, it's possible to turn the feature off using Apple's iTunes software.