Review: Fourth-generation iPod shuffle

Apple combines best of old and new with 4th gen. iPod shuffle (September 13th, 2010)

While the new iPod touch stole the show during Apple's recent marketing event, the company also introduced its latest overhaul of the entry-level Shuffle. The new design appears to take inspiration from the second-generation model, bringing back the traditional click wheel and ditching the stick shape of the first and third generations. In our full review, we'll determine if Apple has addressed the issues that frustrated owners of earlier Shuffles.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $49

The Good

  • Return of the click wheel
  • Longer battery life
  • VoiceOver, Genius Playlists
  • Solid construction
  • Tiny

The Bad

  • Difficult to use clip without pressing buttons
  • Only 2GB of storage
  • Limited features for the price

Design

As Apple approaches a decade of iPod sales, starting off with the Classic and progressing to the Touch, the company has taken a gamble with major redesigns of its entry- and mid-level offerings. The previous Shuffle dropped its click wheel, requiring users to control playback via in-line remote. Interestingly enough, Apple dropped the click wheel from the sixth-generation Nano while bringing the control surface back to the smaller Shuffle.

We welcome the return of the click wheel to the new Shuffle, which eliminates the need to use remote-equipped headphones or an adapter. The third-generation model included a set of cheap iPod earbuds outfitted with a remote for volume and track control. Anyone with a better set of headphones was forced to purchase a Made For iPod-licensed adapter for full control. Some of the adapters were plagued with complaints of durability issues related to perspiration, as the Shuffle is a popular iPod for exercise.





The fourth-generation Shuffle features a squarish shape measuring 1.14x1.24x0.34 inches, slightly larger than its immediate predecessor and smaller than the second generation. The housing is built from anodized aluminum, processed with a glass bead finish or similar treatment. We like the finish, as it maintains a shiny look without a scratch-prone mirror polish. The etched Apple logo, centered on the clip, is also a nice touch.

As expected, the Shuffle is still the only iPod lacking a dock connector. The device is packaged with a 45mm headphone-to-USB cable for charging and syncing. We didn't have any problems quickly syncing the Shuffle, while the short cable is an appropriate match for such a small iPod. Battery life is listed as 15 hours, which spans a longer duration than any of the earlier Shuffles.

The third-generation Shuffle was offered with 2GB or 4GB of integrated storage. As most successive generations typically add capacity, we would have liked to see the new model paired with 4GB of flash memory. Packing such a device with tons of memory is admittedly not entirely practical, however, as the lack of an LCD eliminates video and potentially adds to time spent hunting for a specific track.

Despite its $49 price tag, the new Shuffle appears to offer the same level of construction quality as the pricier iPods. The design is not flashy, but customers can choose from a variety of colors ranging from silver to bright pink.





Controls

Playback control is now much simpler, thanks to the click wheel that covers most of the facade. Users can quickly move between tracks, adjust volume, or pause playback. The design also places the headphone jack, VoiceOver button, and shuffle/power toggle along the top edge. The arrangement should make it easy to determine control orientations without taking the iPod out of a pocket.

Although we were happy to see the click wheel on such a small housing, the placement is problematic when attempting to open the clip. We could not find an easy way to clip the iPod to a shirt without hitting one or more of the buttons. Gripping the slick metal too close to the edge caused the iPod to slide out of our grasp. Stabilizing the device with a second hand seems to be a reliable option, or turning the device off while securing the clip.



VoiceOver, navigation

None of the Shuffle variants offer any method to visually determine track information. The third-generation model attempted to overcome the visual limitation by utilizing a text-to-speech system, VoiceOver, to vocalize artist and song names, playlist menus, or battery status information. Keeping VoiceOver and scrapping the third-generation hardware was a good move. Users now have an easy way to control playback and browse through content, with the dedicated VoiceOver button easily accessible on the top of the housing. Apple even provides a variety of localizations for 25 different languages.

Aside from the VoiceOver feature, users can also take advantage of multiple playlists and Genius Mixes. Both features are particularly important for the Shuffle, as pick-and-choose track selection is difficult and slow without an LCD. The tiny device also supports podcasts and audiobooks, allowing users to access the full range of iTunes content except for videos.

Final thoughts

As an entry-level device, the Shuffle is not the most interesting or capable product in the iPod lineup. At $49, its feature list even pales in comparison to a variety of MP3 players offered by other companies. Nevertheless, the latest design is a clear improvement over the previous three generations. It serves as a great secondary iPod for situations when a Touch or Classic would be cumbersome. The Shuffle also represents the cheapest way to jump into the iTunes ecosystem.







by Justin King


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