Last updated: July 20, 2011
Tiny and lightweight
Removes poor 3rd-generation controls
Low storage capacity
Fewer features than the competition
Compared to its predecessor, the 4th generation iPod Shuffle is a major improvement. So why just 3.5 stars? The iPod Shuffle's competition isn't the previous, ill-conceived model, but rather other low-cost, low-capacity MP3 players. And in the years that the iPod Shuffle has floundered, they've advanced a lot.
An Improvement on the Past
The third-generation iPod Shuffle was an interesting, but ultimately failed, idea. While it was small, light, and affordable, the removal of any buttons to control the device from its face required that users have compatible headphones with built-in remote controls. This combination made the Shuffle incompatible with older headphones (especially galling if you'd invested in expensive ones) and hard to control.
With the 4th gen. model, Apple has learned its lesson. It ditches the 3rd generation's form factor and controls, returning the Shuffle to the small rectangle shape that it sported in the 2nd generation model. It's controlled by a small ring with the volume and forward/backward buttons, and a play/pause button in the middle. You can now feel safe to go back to using whatever headphones you want, and it's easy to control the Shuffle without looking at it or having to reach for a remote on the headphones. These are especially valuable to exercisers--the people most likely to use the Shuffle--who don't want to be distracted from their workout just to change a song.
Beyond improving the controls, though, Apple's also made this generation smaller, a feature sure to please exercisers. The 4th generation Shuffle is just a bit larger than a U.S. quarter. While it's slightly heavier than the previous model (0.44 ounces vs. 0.38), it feels smaller and lighter. Exercisers will especially appreciate the size and weight because, even when clipped to a loose piece of clothing, the Shuffle barely bounces or moves.
Standard Features--and New Ones
As with all Shuffle models, because the Shuffle doesn't have a screen, it has just two playback modes: shuffle or in sequence. This is another reason that it's best suited for use as a secondary iPod. For your primary device, you'll want more control over your music and other content, and other features.
It's the features that its competitors have, and the Shuffle doesn't, that cause real problems.
The Shuffle Outdone
While the Shuffle is a nice MP3 player, other players at a similar--or even lower--price offer more.
Many similar players have screens that can display what song is playing, offer built-in FM radios and can record voice memos, a few have expandable memory, and most offer 4GB or 8GB models in addition to 2GB options. To make matters worse, some cost less than the Shufle's $49 price!
While the Shuffle's 2GB of storage, light weight, and simple interface make for an appealing combination, it's easy to see why someone might want to buy one of the competing players with their greater features and potentially lower price. I suspect only iPod die-hards won't want to at least consider the competition if they're in the market for an ultra-portable MP3 player.
It's hard to know whether Apple's detour with the 3rd generation model or just a lack of a clear direction for the Shuffle has caused it to fall behind the pack, but fall behind it has.
The Bottom Line
The 4th generation iPod Shuffle is a major improvement over its predecessor. If you're already an iPod user looking for a lightweight, low-cost iPod to use while exercising, this Shuffle is a good option.
But if you're not convinced that you have to have an iPod, and are looking for the best combination of features and price, you may want to investigate other companies' offerings before making your purchase.