The tiny MP3 player is useful for listening to music while working out, but it doesn't give streaming music subscribers a reason to pay attention.
Editors' note, July 31, 2017: Apple has finally discontinued the iPod Shuffle and iPod Nano, the more portable variations of the original Apple iPod. The Shuffle and Nano, like the iPod Classic that was discontinued in 2014, finally succumbed to their fatal flaw -- a lack of integrated internet connectivity. For now, Apple still sells 32GB and 128GB editions of the iPod Touch; the previous versions featuring 16GB and 64GB of storage are no longer available.
The iPod Shuffle review, published in June 2016, follows.
Before the iPhone was Apple's bread and butter, there was the iPod.
For years, my iPod and I were inseparable. No longer tethered to my denim FUBU CD case/purse hybrid and bulky CD player, the sleek, pocket-size Apple MP3 player was the immediately lovable, magical music box I could bring with me anywhere I went.
I experienced a similar kind of euphoric relief when I got my first iPhone; I no longer had to carry my flip phone and iPod, just this infectiously alluring, futuristic, pocket-size computer.
We're more than nine years into the iPhone, and I -- like hundreds of millions of others -- have relegated my old iPod to the junk drawer. In fact, Apple no longer even makes the old-school clickwheel iPod. Not counting the iPod Touch -- which is really just a Wi-Fi-only version of the iPhone -- the only two models left in the music player line are the iPod Nano and the iPod Shuffle.
So I bought both of those latter iPod models, looking to see if it still had any appeal in an iPhone age. I started with the Shuffle.
The Shuffle has two main appeals: price and size. At just $49, £40 or AU$75, it's less than what you'd pay for a good pair of headphones (Apple throws in a pair of earbuds). It's also among the most affordable things you can buy with an Apple logo on it: that's one-third the price of the Nano, or one-sixth the price of the Apple Watch Sport.
Design-wise, it's the same Shuffle you've been able to buy since 2010 (though it's now available in six bright colors). It has the same unobtrusively small, square shape with a built-in clip that's difficult to pinch without pressing one of the buttons on the front (I accidentally restarted many songs and podcasts this way. So. Annoying!), a power switch and headphone jack on the top edge (with the recent addition of the voiceover button), and volume buttons that surround the play/pause button, which is the round centerpiece.
There's no Lightning port, or even an old 30-pin port. It recharges from any USB port or charger using the included proprietary cable that plugs into the headphone jack -- so don't lose it.
Its storage tops out at 2GB (about 500 songs). You throw a few of your shorter iTunes playlists on it, and skip forward and back at your leisure. It works only with songs from iTunes library -- no Spotify, no FM radio. And certainly no apps and no games.
Its appeal ultimately comes down to simplicity and portability. It's low maintenance and no frills. Forget to charge it? NBD. After testing it in the CNET Labs, it averaged 20 hours of continuous playback. Drop it at the gym? No sweat -- It has no screen to shatter. Lose it on vacation? It won't ruin your life the way losing your phone would. Going on a long run? It's weightless and stays clipped to your shirt without the need for an armband case or a belt clip tugging at your waist, weighed down with the bulk of a phone.
Still, understand that -- sans screen -- this thing is a real pain to navigate. There's no quick way to select a specific song, artist or album. You can only select playlists, and to do so you have to press the voiceover button for a few seconds. It announces the playlist you're listening to, followed by its tracklisting. In order to change playlists, you must tediously press the voiceover button again and again until you hear the title of the one you want.
There are no streaming music options, and while I could live with that if the Shuffle was fully compatible with the Apple Music subscription service, unfortunately, no iPods are. If you haven't purchased a song or album on iTunes -- or if the MP3 isn't part of your existing collection -- forget about listening to it on the Shuffle. (By contrast, Apple Music subscribers can locally download playlists to their iPhones and iPads, and listen to them even when there's no connectivity.) Also, there's no Bluetooth support.
But that assumes you're willing to live with the Shuffle's biggest conceit: using the iTunes software on your Mac or Windows PC. Updating your playlists, connecting the player to your computer and syncing to the device -- it all sounds so very 2006 because it is. Having to delve back into iTunes even if you only update your playlist once a month is nothing short of torturous.
While music players are mostly an extinct species, there are still some iPod competitors out there -- and they're at least addressing some of these issues. SanDisk Clip players cost less than the Shuffle, but they add a screen, 4 to 8GB of expandable storage, and the ability to drag and drop MP3 files from any computer -- no iTunes necessary. And the Pebble Core (coming later this year) costs twice as much, but it has Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and 3G cellular support, along with compatibility for Spotify and fitness tracking.
In a world in which Apple still cared about the iPod, the feature set of that Pebble Core would be a great blueprint for an overhaul. If Apple updated the Shuffle with Bluetooth (and Wi-Fi?) support, I could listen to my wireless headphones, and maybe sync new playlists from my iPhone or iPad, all wirelessly. No more iTunes, no more wires -- and a nice, cheap music player when running, at the gym, or on the beach.
A Shuffle like that makes for a much more compelling case than what you'll find in Apple Stores today. Too bad it's just a fantasy.