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Apple iPod Shuffle (2012) review: Almost too small

The Apple iPod Shuffle is an adorable way to take your favorite songs on the go, but sometimes it's too small for its own good. We put the Shuffle to the test.

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Donald Bell
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Donald Bell

Senior Editor / How To

Donald Bell has spent more than five years as a CNET senior editor, reviewing everything from MP3 players to the first three generations of the Apple iPad. He currently devotes his time to producing How To content for CNET, as well as weekly episodes of CNET's Top 5 video series.

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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.

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Apple iPod Shuffle (2012)

The Good

The <b>iPod Shuffle</b> includes a sturdy built-in clip; support for playlists, audiobooks, podcasts, Genius Mixes; and a multilingual VoiceOver feature that announces track information, battery status, and menu navigation.

The Bad

The 2GB capacity can't hold much; there's no headphone remote nor radio; the track controls tend to get pinched when clipping the iPod to your clothes; and the chances of you accidentally running it through the washing machine are quite high.

The Bottom Line

The Apple iPod Shuffle is an adorable way to take your favorite songs on the go, but sometimes it's too small for its own good.

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.

Design
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.

Get a grip on the Apple iPod Shuffle 2012 (pictures)

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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.

Shuffle comparison
Compared with the older version of the iPod Shuffle (shown in red), the current design lacks the space necessary to pinch the clip without accidentally squeezing the controls. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Shuffle back
Josh Miller/CNET

Features
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.

Shuffle top edge
Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Pressing button on Shuffle
Josh Miller/CNET

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. Like the Shuffle itself, there's a high likelihood that you're going to lose it. Luckily, Apple will sell you a replacement...for $20.

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).

Shuffle in hand
Josh Miller/CNET

Performance
For a $49 MP3 player, the Shuffle sounds surprisingly good, though you'd never know it from old-school Apple earbuds that come included. Given its 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.

Shuffle with headphones
Josh Miller/CNET

Final thoughts
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 (really small), fitness-friendly MP3 player, and delivers plenty of value for $49.

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Apple iPod Shuffle (2012)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7