Small iPod Shuffle offers style, sound

If you're on a budget and you want a good, albeit minimalist, audio player, get the Shuffle

No question about it: Apple's new iPod Shuffle is minuscule: It's smaller than a matchbook, slimmer than a microcassette, and light enough that you could clip it on your shirt and not even stretch the fabric. In my first hands-on experience with the updated Shuffle, I found it a worthy player for the price--provided that you'll be happy with limited controls and capacity.

Big package, tiny player

I bought the 1GB iPod Shuffle for US$79 this morning at the San Francisco Apple Store. This is the only price and capacity Apple is selling, and it's a better deal than the original iPod Shuffle, which cost US$149 for 1GB and US$99 for 512MB.

The new Shuffle comes in a clear, hard-shell plastic package, about the size of a blackboard eraser; the package opens to reveal the player, its headphones, and a dock. Unlike its white, gum-pack-size, plasticized predecessor, the new Shuffle has a matte-anodized aluminum finish, which my grimy fingers didn't smudge during use. The spring clip on the back attaches firmly to clothing and makes up half the thickness.

The USB 2.0 dock included in the box is a nice addition. However, unlike the original Shuffle, which had a USB 2.0 connector integrated into the player, the new iPod Shuffle requires this USB 2.0 dock for charging and syncing the player. The dock is tiny, but its weight and the grippy nonslip pad underneath will help it stay in place on your desk.

The player fits into the dock snugly, attaching at both the dock connector and the headphone jack. I found the 3-foot, 3.25-inch cable long enough to reach around to the USB ports on the back of my PC while the dock was balanced on the computer. You can buy a $29 USB adapter to charge the Shuffle without the dock, which makes charging easier when you're not near your computer. Currently, the Apple Store doesn't offer the option to buy a second USB dock.

Minimalist controls

Like the original version, the new Shuffle lacks a display. A switch on the bottom for playing songs toggles between sequential and random order. In addition to the four-way navigation dial, the new Shuffle has an extremely small (think pinhole) LED that lights green, orange, or red to indicate battery status (Apple claims up to 12 hours of battery life), and green or orange to indicate play and volume status. The bundled quick-start card and booklet explain what all the blinking means, but I found in practice that the LED was too small and too subtle to be useful.

Plugging the Shuffle into my monitor's low-powered USB port launched iTunes and a message that I needed iTunes 7.0.2 or later. Once I updated my software, iTunes automatically recognized the device and chose 164 songs (964MB) from my iTunes music library to upload to the player, since my library was bigger than the 1GB capacity of the device. (Apple says the device holds up to 240 songs.) The algorithm the software uses seemed to upload my recently played and top-rated songs, but strangely, it didn't upload the last album that I had purchased from the iTunes Music Store. If you have a large iTunes library, you may want to manually pick the songs you upload.

Audio quality through the included earbuds was loud and full. No complaints there.

The bottom line: I like Apple's new iPod Shuffle. Given that 1GB of capacity is no big shakes these days, the lack of a screen seems less deplorable than during our last Shuffle review. If you're on a budget and you want a good, albeit minimalist, audio player, get the Shuffle.

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