capsule review

Review: Second-generation iPod shuffle

At a Glance

After unveiling the world’s smallest iPod in September, Apple finally shipped the second edition of its display-less music player, the iPod shuffle (

). Smaller than a matchbook and as thick as a AAA battery, this iPod comes in a single 1GB capacity, a silver aluminum finish with aesthetics that more closely match its larger siblings than did the original shuffle, and sports a metal spring-clip on its back for securing the iPod to your clothing, backpack, or purse. It offers battery life that exceeds Apple’s estimates, plenty of volume, audio quality that isn’t as good as its predecessor (or its contemporary larger siblings), and, at $79, is nearly an impulse buy.

Before diving into the details, let’s bring the newborn up to speed. This iPod has no display and, therefore, it’s nearly impossible to navigate to the track you want at a particular moment. If you require that kind of control, this is not the iPod for you—get an iPod nano or fifth-generation iPod instead. This is an iPod to treat as a personal radio station. Fill it with music you like and you won’t be disappointed with what it pumps through your headphones.

The details

Apple’s updated iPod shuffle

Functionally, the second-generation (2G) iPod shuffle differs little from the original. Like the first, stick-of-gum shuffle, the 2G model bears a central Play/Pause button and four controls arrayed around a rocking click wheel—Previous, Next, Volume Up, and Volume Down. Instead of a three-way switch on the back to switch the device on and select Shuffle or Repeat play modes, this version has two small switches on the bottom—one for powering the iPod on and off and the other that selects Shuffle or Repeat. The headphone jack is found on the top of the iPod.

Whereas the original shuffle sported a male USB connector, the 2G shuffle requires the included dock for syncing and powering the player. The dock is small, bearing a single miniplug jack that sticks up from a plastic base. While it’s no more trouble to carry the dock than the special cable required to sync and power larger iPods, I miss the all-in-one convenience of having the USB connector on the iPod.

After touting the superiority of the earbuds bundled with the latest iPod nanos and full-sized iPods, Apple chose to include the original Apple earbuds with the 2G shuffle. Given that I’ve replaced my headphones with better-sounding alternatives, this doesn’t bother me, but some may be disappointed that they’re not getting Apple’s latest and supposedly greatest ’buds.

Miniscule LEDs that glow green, orange, or red appear on both the top and bottom of the 2G shuffle—so miniscule, in fact, that they’re hard to read, particularly in bright environments. As with the original shuffle, these lights have to convey a variety of messages—charging status while docked, whether the iPod’s hold switch is on or not, and blinks that tell you that the shuffle’s firmware is corrupted. Fortunately, Apple provides a small card that indicates what most LED blinks mean. I’m sorry, however, that the latest shuffle doesn’t include a separate battery indicator light as did the original. With this one you can tell only how much battery charge remains by very quickly turning the iPod off and on—a feat that’s not easy to accomplish with such a tiny switch without interrupting playback.

The second-generation shuffle features a spartan interface that’s not always easy to navigate.

Required dock, no display, teensy LEDs, and Lilliputian switches. See a pattern? Cute-as-a-button though the 2G iPod shuffle may be, its size makes it more difficult to use than larger iPods. If, like many shuffle users, you’re planning to simply press Play and go about your business, this isn’t an issue. Others who intend to spend much quality time with the shuffle’s buttons, switches, and LEDs may want to audition one before committing.

iTunes and the shuffle

Current and original iPod shuffles behave exactly the same in iTunes. With each you can set aside a certain amount of the iPod’s storage for data use—essentially turning the shuffle into a USB key drive. Both use the unique-to-the-iPod-shuffle Autofill feature, which lets you load tracks on the iPod chosen from specific iTunes’ playlists. And, as with other iPods, you can view a capacity gauge that tells you how much of the iPod’s storage space is used for audio and data. (The slider that lets you set aside a certain amount of the drive for data storage remains.) Unfortunately, Apple has dispensed with the feature that kept a virtual iPod shuffle in iTunes’ Source list when the shuffle was disconnected from your computer. This was a convenience that let you muck with shuffle playlists without requiring that the device be plugged in.

With this shuffle Apple adds compatibility with AIFF files—the uncompressed file format that sounds great but eats up a load of storage space. Should you wish to listen to tracks encoded this way without eating into too large a portion of the shuffle’s storage, iTunes retains the Convert Higher Bit Rate Songs to 128 kbps AAC option in the shuffle’s Settings pane that, when enabled, will create a compressed version of large files and place them on the shuffle. Regrettably, this shuffle doesn’t also support the Apple Lossless codec—a file format that sounds as good as uncompressed files but takes up a little over half the storage space of the original, uncompressed file.

Performance

Apple suggests that the 2G iPod shuffle will play for up to 12 hours on a single charge. I’m pleased to report that, as with other recent iPod models, Apple underestimates battery life. In my first test, the shuffle played continuously for 15 hours and 42 minutes. A second go-around produced a continuous play time of 16 hours and 31 minutes. This is enough time to get you through nearly every track on a packed shuffle.

Syncing with the dock happened fairly swiftly. It took just under five minutes to sync a playlist of 258 128kbps AAC tracks of lengths between three and five minutes on a Dual 2GHz Power Mac G5.

As for audio quality, Apple has made better sounding iPods—including the first-generation iPod shuffle—than the current shuffle. In comparison listening tests with the bundled Apple earbuds, Sony’s MDR-V6 over-the-ear monitors, Etymotic’s ER-4P in-ear headphones, and a pair of Audioengine’s A5 speakers, the 2G shuffle was a touch noisier than the original 1G iPod shuffle—exhibiting a faint hiss discernible in quiet passages of a Bach keyboard concerto encoded as both an uncompressed WAV file and a 128kbps AAC file. And a 4GB 2G iPod nano offered more definition in lower frequencies than the current shuffle. For an iPod designed for use in such clangorous environments as the gym, subway car, or a city park’s packed jogging trail, audio purity may not be the point. I found the sound to be perfectly acceptable—I listened hard to find that noise—but if you demand the very best sound an iPod can offer, this isn’t the iPod that provides it.

The lowdown

This iPod is sure to be the season’s most popular stocking stuffer, largely because it’s robust, holds more than enough music for even a day-long workout, and is priced to move. The shuffle’s small size is a testament to efficient engineering, but it also makes for a music player that could be easier to use and one that will go missing more often than larger iPods. It may not be the best-sounding player that Apple’s made, but given the environment it’s likely to be used in—during workouts or for kicking around when a larger iPod is just too much to carry—it’s more than a capable musical companion. Quibbles aside, the 2G iPod shuffle is the perfect first iPod for kids and those who, inexplicably, have yet to own an iPod as well as a worthy second, third, or fourth player for current iPod owners.

At a Glance
  • Apple replaces its compact flash-based music player with a second-generation shuffle that's half the size of its predecessor. The silver shuffle comes in only one capacity -- 1GB -- and adds a built-in clip to easily attach the music player to your clothing. The headphone jack also serves as the connection to sync and charge the shuffle. In September 2007, Apple added four more colors to the iPod shuffle line; otherwise capacity, battery life, and price remain unchanged from the 2006 models. Read the full review

    Pros

    • Rugged finish
    • Plenty loud
    • Attractive price
    • Cute as a button
    • Good battery life

    Cons

    • No Apple Lossless support
    • Audio quality not as good as some other iPods
    • Small size makes iPod harder to use
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