Style Over Substance
I spent a weekend putting the new iPod Shuffle 1GB through it's paces, including a head-to-head (or ear-to-ear, if you will) comparison with my 512MB first-generation shuffle. The long and short of it? I like the way the new shuffle looks, but the old shuffle sounds better. Also, the old one is more functional, given its standard USB connector. At $79 for 1GB, the new shuffle isn't a bad buy on its own, but compared to either the $149 2GB nano or, better yet, the $149 4GB refurbished nano and $59 1GB refurbished first-gen shuffle, it's definitely a case of style over substance.
The new shuffle resembles a sawed-off nano with its brushed aluminum body and rounded edges. Undeniably sexy, the new shuffle feels great in the hand and drew oohs and aahs from everyone I showed it to over the weekend. While I've heard some complaints that the newest iPod is too small and prone to being easily misplaced, I think that's nonsense. In my view, a gadget is too small when its functionality is impaired by the physical constraints of its design - cell phones with too close for comfort keypads come immediately to mind. Seeing as the shuffle was designed no screen and very few buttons, its size and overall form are near-perfect. If you're worried about losing something so small, get something bigger like the nano.
Overall, the new shuffle is smaller than the old one. It's noticeably wider but much, much shorter, looking more like an overgrown postage stamp than a pack of chewing gum. The front panel control buttons are more or less lifted from the old shuffle, with the centered Play/Pause button having been redone in brushed aluminum and the outer control ring still white plastic. Two bottom-mounted switches control play mode (shuffle vs normal) and power on/off. As an astute reader named Mart pointed out to me, the lack of a Hold switch doesn't mean the controls aren't lockable - holding Play/Pause for a few seconds locks and unlocks the controls.
The new shuffle has a pair of LED status lights, one on top and one on the bottom. The lights display the same information in unison; the dual-mounting makes it possible to read information whether the shuffle is right side up or upside down (as it is for docking). Included in the shuffle's packaging is a "cheat sheet" card that explains the shuffle's controls and what the LED indicators mean when they're steady or flashing, and green, red, or orange. While the system isn't overly difficult, it is a bit user unfriendly by Apple standards.
My only real complaint about the new shuffle's design, however, has to do with the dual-purpose headphone/dock connector. Instead of using a standard USB or mini-USB 2.0 jack, Apple decided to give the shuffle a single 3.5mm port that connects either to standard earphones or the included synching/charging dock. The dock in turn connects to an available USB port on a Mac or PC. This is the kind of move that historically has turned certain people off to Apple. Whereas the original shuffle easily plugged into any computer for charging, re-syncing or use as a data drive, the new one needs that proprietary dock to do any of the above. No doubt third-party accessory makers will start churning out cables and adapters to fix this problem, but it's a problem that should have been avoided in the first place. The included dock is cute and functional, but why not throw a mini-USB port on the shuffle and let the dock connect that way?
Sounds Good ... But Not As Good
I listened to a variety of music on the new shuffle, using the included Apple earbuds as well as three pairs of my own headphones: Etymotic ER-6i isolater canalphones, Ultimate Ears super.fi5 Pro canalphones, and Sennheiser eH-150 "Can" style headphones. In all cases I found the shuffle's sound to be good but noticeably different from that of the original shuffle as well as my iPod 5G. Honestly, most people either won't notice the difference or won't care, especially if they're using the stock earbuds (which, by the way, are the older style iPod earbuds and not the newer, more well-received version). However, considering that the audio quality on the first-gen shuffle is excellent - perhaps the best of any iPod, period - the sound generated by the new version is a bit disappointing.
In general the new shuffle's audio quality was just a hair duller than the other iPods. Mid and higher-end frequencies sounded clear and crisp but the mid- to lower end of the spectrum was lacking in depth and bass, in particular, was a just a bit muddy. This difference was amplified by the use of higher-quality earphones like the Etys and Ultimate Ears. During testing I listened through Gorillaz "Demon Days" and Hot Chip's "The Warning" several times, as both albums utilize a wide variety of acoustic and electronic instruments across a range of music styles. With the same music encoded the same way played over the same earphones, the old shuffle just sounded better than the new one. Beyond that, the new shuffle emitted a more audible static-like hiss between tracks and when paused, though it did respond to previous/next track commands more quickly.
Again, if you're looking for a good music player and are drawn to the new shuffle's looks and/or price tag, the sound quality certainly isn't any reason to stay away. But in the interest of fairness, this is a small but discernable step down in fidelity from previous models. If you're looking for the best possible sound from a music player, you'd be better off with a refurbished first-generation shuffle than with this new one - all the more so if you're planning to upgrade from the stock Apple earbuds (which you really should). Also note that the shuffle does not support the Apple Loseless codec or gapless playback like the nano and full-sized iPods do.
On the other hand, the new shuffle does offer excellent battery life. Apple claims 12 hours of playback on a fully charged shuffle, and my informal test yielded close to 18 hours of music before the battery ran out (Actual battery life is depended on factors including file format, bitrate, and volume level used). Additionally, the new shuffle transfers files a bit faster than the old one.
The original iPod shuffle was something of an unbelievable marketing coup that, oh by the way, also yielded arguably the best sonic fidelity of any member of the iPod family. The new shuffle picks up where the original left off marketing-wise, with an amazingly small, sleek, and stylish form factor bolstered by a handy integrated clip and very competitive pricing and battery life as compared to non-Apple digital audio players. Unfortunately, the new model dropped the "oh by the way" bonus that the original offered to serious music listeners - sound quality has degraded ever so slightly in this newer version.
Perhaps more importantly, while the original shuffle represented by far the cheapest way to get an iPod-branded gadget in your hand, the second-generation model finds itself at the low end of a more diverse iPod lineup. $79 for a 1GB shuffle is a pretty good deal, but $149 for a 2GB nano that adds a color screen with support for photo viewing while retaining a similarly small, sleek, sexy body (if not quite as small as the shuffle) is arguably a better deal. Beyond that, Apple's relatively constant stock of refurbished iPods currently includes a $59 first-gen 1GB shuffle and a $149 4GB nano, both of which are backed by the company's full one-year warranty.
All in all, I'd recommend the new shuffle on its looks and size, but suggest looking into one of the other iPods if substance is more important to you than style. Between the proprietary dock connector, audio quality, and the value offered elsewhere in the iPod line, the new shuffle rates as a good choice but definitely not a "no brainer."
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