capsule review

iPod shuffle (fourth generation, late 2010)

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At a Glance
  • Apple 2GB iPod shuffle (fourth generation, late 2010)

I’m on the record somewhere as saying that my favorite iPod of all time is the second-generation (2G) iPod shuffle. There was just something about that little guy, with its clip-on body and its circle of easy-to-navigate control buttons, that I found irresistible. I still have a battered old silver one that I take on trips and use when I’m mowing the lawn.

On the other hand, the third-generation (3G) iPod shuffle introduced in March 2009 was an example of Apple’s design language taken to an extreme. Gone were the onboard controls of previous models: the 3G shuffle was a little metal nub with a headphone jack and a power switch, and not much else. Though it added support for multiple playlists and a nifty spoken navigation system, it also forced users to rely on a set of three-button headphones (a clicker, plus volume up and down buttons) to control the thing. I hated it.

Now here’s the $49 fourth-generation (4G) iPod shuffle model, or (if you prefer) the second generation of the 2G shuffle. From outside appearances it’s been designed as if that entire 3G shuffle had fallen into a crack in time, erasing its entire existence from our collective memories. This new shuffle is a little guy with a clip-on body and a circle of easy-to-navigate control buttons. While the 2G shuffle was rectangular, this new shuffle is almost perfectly square, shaving off a third of that past model’s size.

March of time (left to right): first-, second-, third-, and fourth-generation iPod shuffles.

Unlike the now-disgraced 3G iPod shuffle, which was available in 2GB ($59) and 4GB ($79) variations (as well as a $99 stainless-steel special-edition model), this new shuffle comes in a single configuration: 2GB for $49. You do, however, get your choice of five colors: silver, blue, green, orange, and pink. That 2GB of space is enough to store “hundreds of songs,” according to Apple. As with previous generations of shuffle, you can choose to load the device with your music as it was originally encoded, or have iTunes re-encode large tracks at a smaller file size in order to save space.

While it’s admirable for Apple to continue its quest to create the smallest products possible—a statement we might now be able to amend to “the smallest products possible without abandoning all on-device controls”—the shrinking of the 4G shuffle poses a small usability problem. The controls of the 2G shuffle were off center, placed away from the the side of the device where the clip hinged. This provided a decent amount of space for a thumb and finger to pinch the clip open.

The 4G shuffle, in contrast, has no such extra space available—the 2G’s open space is what has been shaved off to make the shuffle smaller and squarer. As a result, though, it is much more awkward to squeeze open the clip and attach it to clothing. Several times when I tried to attach it, I found myself inadvertently pressing the back button, which took me back to the beginning of the currently playing track. If you’re careful, you can squeeze the corners of the device and manage to open the clip, but it’s easy for fingers to slip. Bottom line: clipping the 4G shuffle on your shirt just isn’t as easy as with the 2G model unless you don’t care about inadvertently pressing the previous-track button.

The controls on the device are fairly simple: a circular set of buttons allows you to move forward and backward between tracks (right and left), and increase and decrease the volume (top and bottom). Clicking the center button toggles between playback and pause. On the top edge of the device, there’s the same three-position power switch as in the 3G model (off, play in order, and shuffle) and a new VoiceOver button. As with previous shuffle models, there’s no room for the standard iPod dock connector port; instead, the shuffle comes with a small cable that plugs in to the device’s headphone jack and into your computer’s USB port for both charging and data syncing.

In a tip of the cap to the marquee feature of the now-disappeared 3G shuffle, this new shuffle incorporates its best attribute: the ability to talk. More specifically, if you press the VoiceOver button, the iPod will speak the title and artist of the track that it’s currently playing. VoiceOver is also how you determine how much battery is left in the iPod shuffle. A quick double-tap (I actually had trouble accomplishing the proper timing until I practiced), and the shuffle will tell you its battery status.

Holding down down the VoiceOver button for a second or so puts you in navigation mode; the device will start speaking the name of all its playlists, as well as “All Songs” and any podcasts or audiobooks you’ve synced. You can use the left and right navigation buttons to quickly move through the list, or just wait as the iPod’s voice reads them to you at a leisurely pace. If you press the center button during one of the selections, the iPod immediately begins playing from that selection.

Although basic iPod navigation has been returned to its rightful place on the shuffle’s body itself, if you’ve got a pair of headphones with a clicker, you’re not out of luck. As with all of Apple’s products, a single click toggles playback, a double click advances forward one track, and a triple click takes you back a track. But if you click and hold the headphone button for a moment, it’s got the same effect as tapping the VoiceOver button: the shuffle tells you the name and artist of the currently playing track. And if you click and hold a bit longer, it’s the equivalent of holding down the VoiceOver button: the iPod shuffle will begin listing all its playlists, and will switch to whatever one it’s currently reading when you click again.

It’s a nice compromise that lets users with button-equipped headphones have some extra control while not sacrificing the comfortable on-device buttons that are easy to use by feel. (The 4G shuffle ships with a plain pair of Apple earbuds, with no onboard controls of any kind.)

In terms of battery life, Apple claims the 4G shuffle can last for 15 hours of continuous play (up from its claim of 10 hours for the 3G model), and in my initial testing Apple's claims seem slightly conservative, as they should be. My shuffle finally conked out after nearly 16 hours of playing time.

One odd disappointment I had while using the 4G shuffle: While listening to music with the shuffle clipped to the bottom of my t-shirt, I kept bumping into things, which had the effect of changing tracks or altering the volume. Yes, I used to bump into things while using the 2G shuffle as well, but that device had a trick: If you held down its center button for a few seconds, it would lock out all the controls until you pressed and held the center button again for a few seconds. I used that feature all the time to prevent mistaken button presses; I couldn’t find any combination of button presses that would lock out the controls on the 4G shuffle model.

Macworld’s buying advice

With the redesign of the fourth-generation iPod shuffle, Apple has brought back a classic design that works well with any set of headphones. At $49 for 2GB of storage, it’s not only the perfect entry-level iPod, it’s also a solid second device for iPhone users who want to keep it simple while exercising. While the shuffle’s reduced size makes it a bit harder to clip on clothing than the second-generation model, it’s hard to quibble about small details without focusing on the big one: Apple has backed off its misguided design of a buttonless iPod shuffle and returned to the right path. Throw in the VoiceOver features and the longer battery life, and it’s easy to say that this is the best iPod shuffle Apple has ever made.

[Jason Snell is Macworld’s editorial director.]

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At a Glance
  • Pros

    • On-device controls
    • VoiceOver navigation
    • Long battery life


    • Awkward to clip on clothing
    • No way to lock out controls from inadvertent bumps
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