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.
Another feature new to the Shuffle is the capability to sync and navigate between multiple playlists, audio podcasts, and audiobooks. Again, Apple uses the Shuffle's VoiceOver feature and headphone remote to accomplish this, announcing your playlists, podcasts, or audiobooks one by one if you hold down the clicker for approximately 3 seconds. Once VoiceOver starts listing your content, just press the clicker again to select the content you want to play. If you've got a ton of playlists, you can use the remote's volume keys to quickly skip back and forth through the list.
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 all get thrown into a shared podcast playlist, and play in the order of show title, not release date. 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 is rated at 10 hours of playback time, with a full recharge in about 3 hours. A series of battery drains performed by our CNET Labs team consistently reached 11 hours of playback time. By comparison, these same tests were able to pull nearly 16 hours from the previous iPod Shuffle model.
It's also worth noting that the Shuffle can 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 8.1 or later is a required download for the Shuffle.
The third-generation Apple iPod Shuffle has a lot of things going for it: the aluminum and steel construction is sturdy; the design feels invisible; there's a whopping 4GB of storage; and VoiceOver technology lets you control playback without taking your eyes away from what you're doing. The Shuffle's small size and minimal design come at a considerable sacrifice, though, and we have a hard time giving it an unqualified thumbs-up.
Compared with other sub-$100 MP3 players on the market (Sansa Clip, Creative Zen Stone Plus, Samsung Pebble), the Shuffle's microscopic design isn't enough to make up for the limited features, relatively high price, diminished battery life, quirky navigation, and a headphone remote system that reeks of planned obsolescence. MP3 players like the Shuffle that are aimed at the gym and jogger crowd are particularly susceptible to issues of headphone fit, comfort, and wear and tear, and Apple's unique headphone remote needlessly complicates the process of replacing or upgrading the Shuffle's earbuds. This is not to say that headphone control is a bad feature, but redundant controls on the actual device would help avoid confusion over navigation, and improve the product's usefulness in the long term.
Audio quality on the third-generation Shuffle is noticeably better than the previous generation, and sounds comparable to the iPod Nano (fourth generation) and iPod Classic (second generation). The sound has a fuller range, with better bass response and less background hiss. Of course, the improvement in audio quality is hard to notice using the bundled earbuds, and standard headphones lack the remote control necessary for adjusting volume and skipping tracks. Fortunately for this review, when the Shuffle is connected to a standard pair of headphones and then powered on, it automatically starts playing music at the volume level it was last set to; however, you have no control over song playback or volume adjustment.
Third-party accessories such as replacement headphones, headphone adapters, and remote-equipped auxiliary cables are available (or soon to be) for the third-generation iPod Shuffle. If you expect to use the Shuffle with an existing pair of headphones, a home stereo, or a car stereo, you should realistically figure in the cost of some of these accessories with the purchase price of the iPod.