Small size and weight
Good price/capacity ratio
Controls are harder to access than in previous models
Limited headphone options
2GB – US$59
4GB – US$79
The third-generation Apple iPod Shuffle further refines Apple’s vision for the ultra-small, ultra-portable iPod. But, in continuing to refine and reduce the Shuffle, Apple has gone too far, removing some useful features, limiting user choice, and making an iPod that’s actually harder to use than its predecessor.
Looking at the third-generation Shuffle, you’ll pretty immediately have a question: How do I control that thing? You’ll wonder that because, unlike any other iPod, this one has no buttons, no clickwheel, no controls of any kind on the device itself. It’s just a tiny – 1.8 x 0.7 x 0.3 inches – slab of color with a clip on the back, headphone jack, and a sliding button on top.
It’s easy to see why this could have been an appealing idea. Creating an iPod with no buttons is not only an interesting user interface challenge, but also must have be something of an accomplishment in a company that prides itself on style and excellent user interface.
Apple’s a bit too clever for its own good here, though. The Shuffle is controlled – music is played and paused, moved forward and backward, and so forth – using a remote control built into the headphones supplied by Apple. The decision to control the Shuffle only by this remote is a misstep.
First off, requiring the remote to control the Shuffle means that users can’t choose their favorite headphones to use with the Shuffle. They’re limited to headphones that include a remote and support this functionality. Apple promised an adapter to make any headphones compatible, but it has yet to appear.
There are a handful of compatible third-party headphones that offer their own remote, but as of this writing (Nov. 2009), those options total fewer than 10. That’s not much choice. And it’s a real detriment. Users need to be able to make their own decisions when it comes to something as basic as headphones.
Putting the only way to control the Shuffle onto headphone cords has other downsides, too. For one, if you head out for a run, bike ride, or trip to the gym and grab the wrong headphones, you’re out of luck. This happened to me. I picked up an older set of white iPod earbuds only to discover, 30 minutes later at the gym, that I couldn’t even turn on the Shuffle with the older headphones. Talk about frustrating.
Even when you remember the right headphones, all is not perfect. The second-generation Shuffle had buttons to control playback on its face, meaning that changing the volume or song during a workout was as simple as reaching to where you’d clipped it, or where your case was, and hitting a button. With the third-generation model, reaching for the remote means locating a small item bouncing around somewhere below your chin – not exactly an easy task. As a result, controlling the Shuffle is a trickier proposition than it should be.
That said, the Shuffle does have some charms. Its size and weight (just 0.38 ounces) are appealing, especially for exercisers. In a nice touch, it adds support for VoiceOver, making the lack of a screen no big deal for the first time in the history of the Shuffle. And the price is right: under US$80 even for the high-end model.
Still, those virtues don’t offset the negatives. So, Apple’s done something a bit unusual: made an iPod inferior to its predecessor. This rarely happens. Even when a model isn’t a significant upgrade (see the third-generation iPod touch), new models are usually solid choices. In this case, it’s not.
The third-generation iPod Shuffle isn’t a terrible iPod – if you’re looking for something light to exercise with, it merits a look; but so does the second-generation model – but it’s not one that I recommend without significant reservation.