Zero LCD, USB 2.0 built right in, and wearable -- the concepts aren't new. Still, as a white plastic strip with only a few buttons, no LCD, and a touch of bright green, the Shuffle is a visual masterpiece. It's only 84 x 25 x 84mm, and it weighs a feathery 22 grams. A simple, round controller features all-tactile buttons and makes the Shuffle feel more like a wireless remote than an MP3/AAC/WAV/Audible player -- there's no learning curve.
On the back, you'll find a cute, wide sliding switch that powers on the Shuffle either in Playlist repeat mode or Shuffle mode. Underneath the switch is a tiny battery-indicator button that lights up green, orange, or red depending on what's left of the charge; green is good. The main physical features are rounded out by a headphone jack on the top and a removable (and losable) cap for the built-in USB 2.0 plug on the bottom.
All's not perfect, though. The power switch can be difficult to activate, as just the right amount of friction is needed. We often found ourselves squeezing the Shuffle with force just to turn it on. At 84mm at its longest, the Shuffle isn't as small as everyone likes to think -- it's just superthin. But after operating it for a couple of weeks, we realised it was the proper length to hold and that having the built-in USB is well worth the extra size.
The most critical drawback, though, is the lack of an LCD. A display is certainly not a requirement for the Shuffle and its surrounding philosophy that you listen to it as you would an Internet radio station. You can move onto the next song or let it pick a song randomly. People have used LCD-less Walkmans for years, and Creative's original MuVo started the craze for MP3 players. Other examples include the BeoSound 2 and the Mubie. While we understand and appreciate the concept of no LCD and random play, we like the modern LCD and its ability to display track, EQ, battery, and other "biological" info. Occasionally, you'll hear a good but anonymous song, and you'll find yourself going back to your PC to find out the track's artist and title.
The Shuffle does speak, but in a language of colour-coded flashing LEDs. Flashing green means you're paused, and orange means you're in Hold mode, which you can also activate by depressing the center play/pause button for 3 seconds. Red on the battery indicator means you'd better stick the Shuffle in any available USB port to juice it up (if you want to charge the Shuffle using a power outlet, get one of these). Apple even includes a meticulously designed card-size at-a-glance guide with the Shuffle.
Obviously the Shuffle is intended for the day-tripper or the athlete who probably already owns a bigger iPod. It's meant to be recharged daily (its rated battery life is 12 hours), and while it's docked into your computer, iTunes will help you refresh your content with its new autofill feature. It won't skip, it's utterly portable, and it can even be worn stylishly around the neck with the included lanyard, though beware the mess of wires. In addition to the lanyard, you get the standard iPod earphones, a manual, and software, but we're not so sure MP3 newbies will warm to the Shuffle, given a wealth of other feature-filled, albeit more expensive, flash-based models to choose from. Then again, a lot of prospective Shuffle owners are mainstream buyers looking for affordability and simplicity.
As far as extra features go, the Shuffle has none and leaves it to the slightly more expensive Creative MuVo Micros of the world to handle FM radio, voice recording, and line-in recording. A single playlist is all you get, either manually or automatically determined and played back either linearly or shuffled. Audio is plenty loud, and sound quality is quite good despite the lack of an equaliser. Those who need to pause in the middle of a track will appreciate the resume feature, and a true shuffle, where iTunes randomly fills your iPod, will lead to discovery (or rediscovery) of music. But again, we remind you that virtually every other player out there includes a shuffle feature. If you're an iTunes loyalist and you need only digital audio playback of your favourite songs on a compact device, the Shuffle is the player for you.
The Shuffle works seamlessly with the latest iTunes 4.7.1, which includes the mentioned autofill feature that automatically loads the Shuffle player with an optimal number of songs based on user preference. Our first 512MB autofill stats: 488MB, 103 songs, 7.5 hours. We're wondering why iTunes wasn't able to cram another 4MB-plus of audio (the amount of space left for audio data) onto the Shuffle. For those who will use the Shuffle as a storage device, iTunes will allocate a specific amount of space for dedicated data storage. You can direct iTunes to swap out the Shuffle with brand-new songs and/or load them randomly from the playlist of your choice, as well as manually transfer the songs yourself. And remember, if you're an iTunes Music Store junkie, the Shuffle is the only flash-based player that will play your FairPlay-protected AAC files.
Speaking of supported file formats, the Shuffle will play back AAC up to 320Kbps, MP3 up to 320Kbps, MP3 VBR, WAV, and Audible files. It does not support AIFF, Apple Lossless, and of course, WMA.
Die-hard Shuffle fans will appreciate Apple's nice set of accessories, each costing AU$48 apiece. These include an AAA battery pack, a miniature dock, a USB power adapter, an armband, and a cool protective carrying case. More will surely come from third-party vendors.
We were able to get 15 hours out of the Shuffle, which is considerably less than some other flash-based players out there, such as the 40-hour iRiver iFP-800 series but plenty more than Apple's claims of 12 hours. But realise that most other players lasting more than 20 hours typically use a replaceable battery -- good for convenience, though bad for the wallet. The Shuffle takes two hours to charge to 80 percent and a full four hours to charge completely. If you're traveling with it, you'll need to have a computer or the optional power adapter (which is several times larger than the Shuffle itself) nearby. Transfer time was 1.4MB per second, noticeably slower than a hard drive-based iPod's and disappointing for a USB 2.0 device.