Apple iPod shuffle (2nd Generation)
- Versatile design, compact, durable
- No screen, can only sync with one computer, mediocre sound quality
The shuffle would serve well as a secondary music player for exercise, but too many limitations - most notably the lack of screen - make it a poor choice for everyday use.
Price$ 119.00 (AUD)
Is an LCD display essential for a good MP3 player? That's the challenge Apple tries to answer with its latest screen-less wonder, the second generation iPod shuffle. A 1GB capacity gives it room for around 240 songs, and like the larger iPods, it synchronises with iTunes on the desktop for transferring music.
This latest version of the shuffle looks radically different from the original. The 'pack of gum' design has been replaced with a much smaller, belt clip-style form factor, and the casing is made out of aluminium alloy. At 27.3mm x 41.2mm x 10.5mm and weighing a wee 15g, Apple credits it as the world's smallest digital music player; given the saturation of the MP3 player market, we're not sure if that's the case, but if there's a smaller player out there, we certainly haven't seen it.
There are numerous advantages to this new look. The first is obviously portability, with the shuffle being roughly the same size and shape of many MP3 player inline remote controls - including Apple's own Radio Remote accessory for the iPod nano and video.
The clip hinge feels sturdy and extends approximately 40 degrees, which should be more than enough for affixing it to everything from jeans and shirt pockets to backpack straps. It also clamps on securely - good news for runners and other active types who'd want to use it for vigorous exercise.
The aluminium alloy construction makes it more durable than the original shuffle's plastic casing, which was prone to scratches and scuffing. The silver finish is also more eye-catching and classy, contrasting nicely with the white circular controls area.
Noticeably missing from the new shuffle is a built-in USB connector. Instead, a small USB dock is included that connects via the shuffle's 3.5mm audio jack for transferring music and charging via a PC. The lack of 'real' dock connector on the shuffle makes it incompatible with any other iPod accessory currently available, spanning the whole caboodle of cables, speakers, FM transmitters, and the like. On the other hand, we have no doubt that a flurry of new shuffle accessories are currently in the works as you read this.
Contrary to the seemingly primary objective of creating an ultra portable music player, having to carry the dock for syncing and charging actually makes the new shuffle a lot less 'mobile' than the old one. However it's worth pointing out that you can only partner the shuffle with one PC at a time anyway. Unlike the larger iPod nano and video models, you can't simply plug the shuffle into a second PC to grab music off it; to transfer songs from a new computer, you have to choose the 'Erase and Sync' option, which deletes all of the music currently stored on it.
An interesting departure from the usual iPod design is the use of multi-functional buttons. In lieu of a Hold switch, pressing and holding on the play/pause button toggles Hold on and off. Pressing play/pause three times quickly also restarts the shuffle to the beginning of the playlist. Other controls include the slider (which can be set to shuffled or sequential playback), an on/off switch, and an indicator light on either edge for displaying things like battery status, charging and whether it's paused or on hold. Both lights have the same function - two are included so you can see at least one from wherever you've clipped the shuffle to.
Whether these controls are a satisfactory substitute for an LCD screen is another question. Apple has made a big song and dance about the beauty of "expecting the unexpected", and indeed, not knowing what track is next is a nice way to listen to your music. But what if you want to listen to one song in particular? If you've filled the shuffle to its capacity, then tracking that single song down could mean pressing the Skip button up to 239 times, not to mention having to listen to each song for a second to check whether it's the one you're looking for.
Synchronising content to the shuffle via iTunes can be done in a few ways. You can manually drag songs from your desktop library, or you can use the 'Autofill' feature. Autofill works as its name suggests, automatically filling the shuffle with the contents of your music library. This can be limited to one particular playlist, and you can also specify that items are chosen randomly and/or higher-rated songs given higher priority.
Music formats supported are MP3, AAC (including songs bought through the online iTunes Store), Audible, WAV and AIFF. The shuffle doesn't support WMA files natively, but iTunes can convert unprotected files of that format to AAC, albeit with a degradation in sound quality.
It's worth pointing out that while the shuffle is advertised as having 1GB of capacity, only 967MB is available to use. Assuming that each song is roughly 4MB in size, storing 240 songs is doable. From our test library - which contains music of variable length and file size - we could only fit 176 songs, or 12.5 hours worth of music. This neatly matches the shuffle's advertised battery life of 12 hours, but our run-down test gave us a slightly higher total of around 16 hours. Filling the shuffle takes four minutes and 48 seconds - a reasonably speedy score for that capacity.
It's disappointing that Apple has bundled the older iPod earphones with the shuffle, given that the new nano and video models ship with an upgraded pair. The circular earpieces produce average sound quality, and they're uncomfortable in the ear for extended periods. Even with these in, the shuffle's sound quality is noticeably inferior to other MP3 players, including the iPod video, nano, and most especially the original shuffle, which was lauded for having exceptional sound quality. Bass is weak, lacking the punch needed to pump out heavy drum & bass and hip-hop tracks, while the highs sounds flat, causing vocals and guitar riffs to lose clarity.
The shuffle's versatile design is its main redeeming feature, but it makes too many compromises to achieve it. The lack of screen may be acceptable for certain activities like exercising, but being kept completely in the dark about upcoming tracks is too reminiscent of the personal cassette player days for our liking.
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