Latest iPod shuffle the quintessential Apple product


— 4:57 PM on March 12, 2009

Perhaps more than any other Apple product, the iPod shuffle is the perfect example of the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field in action. When the shuffle was initially released, it was widely criticized for lacking the screen offered by other players in its price range. But the missing screen wasn't an oversight—it was a feature, along with the wildly innovative concept of randomized playback. Yeah, right.

Despite its obvious shortcomings, the original shuffle became a popular player for Apple fans who couldn't afford more expensive iPods. It also caught on as a workout companion for those loathe to rattling their hard-drive-based iPods while running, at the gym, or otherwise engaged in vigorous physical activity.

The shuffle's eventual successor offered greater capacity and added a useful clip to the back, making it a better workout player. But again, Apple refused to endow the device with a screen, keeping it one step behind rivals that also offered higher capacities at lower prices. To be fair, the new shuffle was smaller than its direct competition, but only in an academic sense. Even comparatively larger MP3 players from the likes of Creative and SanDisk were more than small enough to disappear easily into a pocket or to feel weightless when clipped onto clothing.

Apple's philosophy behind the shuffle was clear: make the smallest, lightest MP3 player possible, even if that meant restricting its usability and capacity. Oh, and charge way more than the competition, because there are droves of iZombies poised to shell out for anything Steve Jobs trots out at a keynote.

So what of this latest shuffle, then? Well it's tiny—the smallest MP3 player around, according to Apple. But the shuffle's form factor passed the point of diminishing returns long ago. This new version may be the smallest shuffle yet, but in practical terms, it's really not any more portable than the last one—or the droves of other mini MP3 players available on the market.

The new shuffle's freshly-shrunk form factor leaves no room for a screen, which should come as no surprise. Even more ridiculous, however, is the device's lack of buttons. Rather than putting standard playback and volume controls on the player, Apple has moved them to a remote control unit on the shuffle's headphones. The remote only has three buttons: two for volume and a single control button that, through the magic of Morse code, controls playback, track navigation, and playlist selection. I guess we should have expected this from the same folks who thought a one-button mouse was a good idea.

Apple argues that this new remote control is easier to access than buttons on the player, but it also suggests clipping the new shuffle onto your clothes, which would presumably make buttons on the device readily accessible. There's a bigger problem, though. Because the new shuffle's controls reside in the headphones, you can't ditch Apple's notoriously poor quality ear buds for better ones without losing the ability to control playback and volume. Some have argued that Apple's ear buds should be sufficient for a simple workout MP3 player, but I beg to differ. The ear buds have a reputation for refusing to stay in your ears, which is rather important when at the gym or out for a run. I don't imagine that ear buds infamous for their poor quality will handle sweat or rain all that well, either.

Of course, Apple will surely offer a remote adapter that allows users to combine any headphones they like with the new shuffle. You'll have to pay for the privilege, though.

At least Apple bumped the new shuffle's capacity up to 4GB, so meaningful progress has been made on one front. And therein lies a rather striking disconnect. This latest shuffle is capable of carrying more music than ever, but Apple has actually made it more difficult to navigate that collection of tracks. The fact the remote control unit requires instructions confirms that it's harder to use and less intuitive than traditional MP3 player controls. Without a screen, users will also have to rely on VoiceOver to dictate song and playlist titles. The Apple faithful have argued that this means you don't have to interrupt a workout to look down at a screen, which is true. However, finding a track or playlist is going to take a lot longer on a shuffle, which can only parse through items one at a time, than it would on even the most basic of alternatives, which allow users to scroll quickly through tracks and playlists, arbitrarily selecting whichever they please.

Given the shuffle's obvious limitations, one might expect it to be fairly cheap. But this is Apple, so it's not. The latest shuffle will cost you a cool $80, which is nearly double the price of a 4GB Sansa Clip that has not only a screen, but proper controls that won't limit your headphone options. Why anyone looking for a new MP3 player would even consider the shuffle is beyond me. Perhaps that's because the shuffle isn't just an MP3 player. According to Apple, it's a "fashion tech-cessory," which presumably makes it OK to sacrifice functionality, usability, and value in pursuit of smaller, sleeker form factors. This isn't just an MP3 player for the gym; it's an MP3 player for people who put on make up and only the most fashionable workout attire to be seen at the gym, and that's what makes the new shuffle the quintessential Apple product.

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