Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
The Long Version: One of the best thing about Apple is that they're willing to admit when they're wrong. Really. A perfect example of that is the 4th generation of the iPod Shuffle, which looks nothing at all like their dysmal third attempt at a basic and cheap music player. That change had to come.
The only carryover from the third generation is the "VoiceOver" speech system, which adds the significant ability to choose playlists in addition to hearing the name of the artist and song. Physically the fourth generation Shuffle is essentially the same as the second, with a body that's more square and a larger control panel, which is a clever way to make it look like it couldn't possibly be miniaturized any further. Otherwise the design is similar enough to the second generation that people can completely forget the rev.3 model, erasing that unpleasant blip from the pretty Apple world.
The Shuffle mk IV remains the only iPod without Apple's 30-pin connector, meaning that most accessories and docks aren't compatible, and there's no way to get a proper line out audio signal from it. The 3.5mm (1/8") jack provides all of the I/O for headphones and data; it's also used for charging via a powered USB port or adapter – not provided – so it can't be charged and used at the same time. All of this combines to make it pretty useless as part of a larger sound system. In exchange for that it's really, really small. The Shuffle takes up less room than a decent pair of earphones, and because there's no screen to protect there's no need to fuss with a case.
I was initially doubtful about the voice-over feature; after all, it was what enabled the third-generation Shuffle to be such a resounding flop. While I don't miss it on my bigger iPods, I've come to appreciate it as part of the Shuffle's charm. Pressing the button ducks the volume and speaks the name of the song and artist – press again to cut it off mid-sentence – and holding down the button starts it going through the playlists. It starts by announcing the current one, goes to "all songs", and then recites the rest alphabetically. It skips the current playlist, which is a nice touch, and returns to it once it's completed the list if the play button wasn't pressed to select a new one.
I can't imagine using the Shuffle without playlists to manage the 400+ songs that I keep on it, although the logistics of cycling through all of them has taught me to use short titles and pare them down to the bare essentials. I mostly use smart playlists to group my most-played and most-recent music, and keep a manual collection of favourites as well. I've also been playing around with the different language settings, so now sometimes it speaks in an Australian or French accent, and there seems to be nothing I can do about it. It's an entertaining quirk.
The controls of the Shuffle make me happy. As cool as touch screens are, I need to be able to control my music player with my eyes closed on a crowded bus in the middle of the night. All of the buttons can be identified by feel, they behave predictably, and the headphone jack provides the vital orientation cues. The clip on the Shuffle is a little odd to use, as there's really no way to get enough leverage to open it elegantly, but I'd miss it if it wasn't there.
I reluctantly bought the fourth-generation iPod Shuffle because my iPod Classic is too big and heavy when I travel with a small camera bag, and I thought I would only use it to solve that particular problem. Instead I've discovered that it's not just some inferior or cut-rate substitute for a better iPod, and its simple controls make it a vital alternative to the doohickery of the touch-screen iPod Nano. Now I carry the little Shuffle with me even when I never expect to use it. It takes up no space in my kit bags, I don't worry about breaking it, and it's relatively cheap to replace if it wanders off. I really didn't expect to like the Shuffle as much as I do, but like Apple, I can admit when I'm wrong. Really.
There's a lot to be said for doing a simple job simply.
last updated 3 june 2011