I have to admit, when the first iPod shuffle came out a few years ago I could not understand why anyone would want to get one. It was a unit about the size of a half-pack of stick gum, and that tiny size was the only thing it had going for it. It only held a few hundred or so songs, had no way of browsing those songs, could not tell you which song was playing, and just blindly shuffled the tunes with no more control than volume, pause, back to the beginning of the song or on to the next song. It seemed like iPod (very) Lite, and I was having trouble figuring out why someone who wanted an mp3 player would not dish out a little more for the real thing.
Today’s next generation iPod shuffle is even smaller… basically little more than a button on a metal clip. It still has all the limitations of the old shuffle. However after trying to use my full sized iPod while at the gym I quickly came to realize how much that tiny size would matter for active use. I picked up a shuffle specifically for use at the gym, and have been using it for a few weeks now.
Suddenly I get it… sort of.
While the shuffle isn’t a replacement for a full featured iPod, it does fulfill a niche, and it does it well in the usual Apple traditions of great design, well though out functionality and overprice.
With a brushed metal finish, the shuffle has a clip for a back and is almost weightless… it can be clipped to the thinnest of clothing and not pull or be obtrusive. One edge features an “on/off” switch, a switch to set it to shuffle the songs or play them in order and a pinhole status light. The other edge has another status light and a socket that doubles as a headphone jack and where the sync cable plugs in. The front has a button for pause/play surrounded by a ring that serves as both a back/next navigator and a volume up/down. That is is for controls, but they can do more than meets they eye. That’s good and bad. It’s good in that despite the mini controls you have a fair number of commands. The bad is that because of the necessary limitations of controls, those functions are buried and you need a cheat sheet to use them at first.
The usual and self evident commands of play, pause, next, back, volume up and volume down as well as shuffle/no shuffle are easy to figure out. After that it gets convoluted. Pressing and holding the back button rewinds the song. Same with pressing and holding the next button. Press and hold the play button for three seconds and you disable the buttons, only reactivated if you press and hold the button again. Press the play/pause button three times quickly and you go back to the first song in your playlist. As far as the status light… if it’s continuous green all is well and you have a charge of 30% or greater. Orange? 10% to 30% battery charge. Red? less than 10%. No light? Dead. That’s easy, but what if the light blinks green once and orange twice? That means an error and you have to restore it. Not to be confused with alternating green and orange blinking… that means your music is not loaded. Or is that two greens and an orange? If it blinks green it’s in pause mode. If it blinks orange you’ve reached the limit of the volume. If it blinks red continuously it’s on overload and will self-destruct within 15 seconds. Just kidding, that just means it’s almost out of juice. The point is that, while the iPod shuffle can actually be set to do a lot of stuff, it’s hard to remember how to do any of it without a manual, which is NOT included in the packaging. There’s a short version about the light, but you have to go to Apple.com and get a PDF of it for most of this info.
The shuffle comes with a nifty UBS dock that makes plugging in and recharging/syncing with iTunes a breeze. You can set it to randomly fill itself with songs from your entire iTunes library, or do as I did and create a playlist for the really kick ass songs and sync just with that. The iPod charges while docked as long as the UBS port it’s connected to is a powered 2.0. It’s important that the shuffle is fully charged the first time, and a full discharge is recommended for the first several times you use it to train the battery for maximum capacity. I also discovered that if you interrupt the charging process after starting it you cause the iPod to switch from a full blown charging mode to a “trickle” mode, which means the 3 hours it would have taken to initially charge your shuffle just turned into over 8 hours. Again, the status light tells you if it’s charging, charged or syncing as long as you have a chart to refer to.
It’s in using it that I realized the niche it fills, and fills admirably. It’s like having a radio that plays only your favorite music with no commercials. If not knowing which song is coming next nor being able to see what’s playing doesn’t bother you, then this fits the bill. It’s perfect for working out, as it’s little more than the headphone cables and a clip. It doesn’t get in the way and yet gives you big sound. For runners, bikers or anyone with either an activity to do or just wanting an unobtrusive source of fun music, this little machine really does the job. It has sneaky nice features as well, like a gradual rise in volume when the play button is pressed after a pause so your eardrums aren’t blown out.
The shuffle works well for what it is. At $80.00 it’s not cheap but it isn’t a killer either. It won’t work for most people as a primary mp3 player but for certain uses it makes sense.
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918 New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550
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