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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.
The only new feature to show off is a VoiceOver button located on the top edge of the player, represented by a small cartoon speech bubble icon on the back of the Shuffle. Pressing the 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 one of 25 languages.
The Shuffle handles the playback of audiobook and podcast content differently than music files, and assumes you'd prefer to always play this type of content sequentially--even if the iPod's shuffle switch is on. Audiobook and podcast content is also kept out of the Shuffle's start-up music mix, ensuring that a stray chapter of "A Tale of Two Cities" never ruins the mood of your workout. But if jogging to classical literature is your thing, you'll be relieved to know that any audiobook synced to the Shuffle is treated as a separate playlist. Podcasts are also treated as separate playlists, with each playlist titled after the name of the show. Like any other iPod, the Shuffle automatically resumes your podcasts or audiobooks where you last left off, allowing you to enjoy them in small doses without scanning back and forth to find your place.
As far as charging goes, the Shuffle comes with a 4-inch USB adapter that connects between the iPod's headphone output and your computer. The Shuffle can also be used on your computer in disk mode, allowing you to store and transfer files without interfering with the audio content on your iPod. As expected, you can't access the music files stored on the Shuffle without going through Apple's iTunes music software (version 10 or later is a required download for the Shuffle).
For a $49 MP3 player, the Shuffle sounds surprisingly good, though you'd never know it from the standard Apple earbuds that come included. Given it's small size, it's worth mentioning that under the device's iTunes settings you can lock in a maximum volume level for the Shuffle, which can be helpful if the player is for a child or just to ensure your ears don't get blasted if you accidentally sit on the thing.
The Shuffle is rated at 15 hours of playback time, with a full recharge in about 3 hours. Our CNET Labs test results consistently achieved 17.6 hours of uninterrupted playback, surpassing Apple's modest estimate.
Is it worth it?
In terms of features, design, sound quality, and price, the fourth-generation iPod Shuffle is the best version of the player we've seen yet. That said, the world of sub-$100 MP3 players is chock full of interesting options, many of which deliver larger capacities, color screens, and broader compatibility with files and applications beyond the world of iTunes.
As the closest competitor, the SanDisk Sansa Clip+ offers twice the capacity, a built-in screen, MicroSD card expansion, FM radio, voice recording, and broader file and application compatibility. It's certainly not as sexy, but it's a much better value overall. Fitness fanatics also owe it to themselves to check out the Sony W-Series Walkman, which kills two birds with one stone by rolling an MP3 player into a great pair of sweat-resistant headphones.
If your music library and playlists are already in iTunes, however, the Shuffle offers the path of least resistance to those in the market for a small, fitness-friendly MP3 player, and a good value at $49.