Looking at this thing, it's hard to see how this is an Apple product. Of course, if you look at the clip side the large logo is a giveaway, but on its back all you see is a gun-metal oblong, which looks suspiciously like a USB key. Build quality of the main unit is good, but all you'll find apart from the metal clip is a three-way switch, activity light and a 3.5mm input.
As you'd expect for a device with only one input, the Shuffle comes with a USB-to-3.5mm adapter that allows you to charge and update your iPod. Like everything else in this package — don't lose it!
The headphones themselves are now the brains of the unit and actually contain a chip that the Shuffle checks first, and if it's not present the unit doesn't work. One of the first things we tell people who buy a new iPod is to throw away the bundled earphones and get a new one. Only here you can't. Industrious webizens have determined that the headphones contain an authorisation chip that the player needs in place to play anything. And certainly we found that the player would simply stop when we removed the headphones and tried to plug something else in — whether it was a third-party pair or a 3.5mm cable to play on a stereo system. If you're buying this with a view to play in a dock of some sort, DON'T. It won't work. We think this is extremely short-sighted of Apple. While we expect compliant third-party headphones to be made, we wonder if anyone will bother buying them.
Apple's big selling point for the new Shuffle, apart from its enforced minimalism, is the new VoiceOver feature. Once enabled — via a small free download — you get artist and track names "read" to you, and if you hold the button down a little longer you also get the playlist name.
This aside, there's no other new features to talk about — if you're familiar with the Shuffle you'll know what it does. It's designed to "mix-up" your music collection and does so in a small, minimalist package. Of course, the new headphone remote is now the focal point.
While Apple hasn't included power adapters with its products for several years, we must say we were disappointed to find there was also no manual in the box — only a "Quick User Guide" with a link to the website. And this is a product that sorely needs documentation.
If you're buying an AU$130 iPod we'll be betting that sound quality isn't the highest priority on your list, and you're more interested in something cheap that can be used while exercising, and for this it does relatively well. It's only in comparison to other players that its shortcomings become clear.
So how does the Shuffle sound? In isolation, not too bad. There is some treble "fizz" in the sound, which brings some of the excitement, but none of the fidelity of better players. The headphones aren't as twinkly as previous headphones from the company, but still: not great. There is a definite emphasis on vocals — with a mid-rangey bent — but there is a swathe of low-end fug standing in for true bass response. Inevitably, the Shuffle combo lacks the immediacy of players like the Zen X-Fi, and is infinitely less usable.
While you have to learn the navigation method from the manual, it does become easy to navigate around the iPod. Though as with other generation Shuffles, if you're a control freak you'll miss being able to easily find and listen to whole albums at once. The VoiceOver system did work surprisingly well, and is a welcome addition. It even pronounced most things correctly — only having issues with problematic names like "Suff-Tjan" Stevens.
In one respect we like everything being available from the remote, as it means you don't have to rummage through your bag. Yet, while this is handy for a device the size of the iPod Classic, the Shuffle is so minute that you don't have to keep it locked away — you just clip it anywhere.
We're currently fantasising about Apple "coming to their senses" and apologising for what could be considered the dumbest iPod yet. And while this probably won't be forthcoming, we do see the company reverting to a less closed system next time. This device is the hardware equivalent of Digital Rights Management software, and that turned out real swell for Apple right?
We hate to pronounce the iPod Shuffle the worst product Apple has released — because remember the Newton? —and it's not actually that bad. However, if we only had AU$130 to spend, we'd rather spend it on five CDs than buy this. CDs — remember them?
We would have hoped that Apple learnt by now that "closed" systems don't work, but it hasn't. If you're looking for something to spend your money on, the iPod Nano may be more expensive at AU$199, but it has twice the capacity and ... a SCREEN!