Thursday, November 02, 2006

First thoughts: One Day with the New iPod Shuffle

Apple's announcement of a replacement for the iPod shuffle at September's special event was hardly a surprise, considering that the original white USB stick-form player had been around for well over 18 months with no changes other than price reductions. That's a long time in the fast-moving low-end music player market, but rather than cramming in more memory or releasing new colour schemes every 4-6 months Apple seems to have preferred to wring every last sale from the first-generation device while working hard on a complete reworking behind the scenes. This seems like a sound strategy: The higher-priced models have been more important to Apple's platform strategy (and profit margins) than the low end, and the component cost of the shuffle must have fallen considerably since its release in January 2005, making its continued availability a no-brainer. Most of the iPod owners I know have a shuffle or two lying around by now as a stylish USB memory device that doubles as a backup player (when I've drained my 5G playing games and videos, the shuffle is still there to provide audio sustenance on the remainder of that long-haul flight). When Apple redesigned the hugely successful iPod mini , it maximised impact by transforming it into the entirely new iPod nano. However, with the new shuffle they've retained much of what made the original successful: The flash memory architecture, the 1GB capacity (dropping the 512MB version to simplify further the product matrix), the shuffle or play-through option, the screen-less design, the reduced control interface – pretty much all of the stand-out features of the original are unchanged. Contrast this with the punditry of the usual suspects who've had Apple adding new features left right and centre. Rumours have circulated of single line displays, audio interfaces, integrated laser pointers (I think I made that one up), all of which completely miss the point about what makes Apple good at this stuff, and illustrates why almost no other company gets it enough to dent Apple's dominance so far. The new shuffle takes what you liked about the original (and liked enough to buy one although you already had a regular iPod) and turns it up to 10. Where the original was small and light enough to hang around your neck, cram into a sleeve pocket, or strap to an arm, this generation demands to be attached to a bag strap or clipped to a lapel. Wearable is now the marketing message. Where the original gave you a choice of player when leaving the house, this one will be with you all the time anyway. You could clip this to the case for your regular iPod and hardly notice it. The iPod Radio Remote is hardly smaller. I've had 256MB camera memory cards bigger than this. It's that small. Small doesn't mean insubstantial though, and the fit-and-finish of the new generation shuffle is a much more consistent with the rest of the iPod range. Taking its cue from the new nano, and from the mini before it, the extruded aluminium shell reeks of quality (and really opens up the chances of getting this in a range of colours before long – look for a (PRODUCT) RED model in '07 if the equivalent nano proves popular). The original shuffle had razor-sharp lines and a fine quality plastic, but the relative softness of the material shows its age after 12 months, with slightly chipped edges on every one I've ever handled. Time will tell how the metal case holds up, but based on my experience with the silver iPod mini I'm much more optimistic about durability. The clip feels pretty durable too, with a solid extruded profile that takes engraving well (though the lettering is necessarily tiny), although the spring isn't as powerful as I'd like, and the player needs to be clipped to something pretty thick to hold securely. I expect this to be improved on later revisions. Expect too to see the original earbuds replaced with the new improved version as the component costs fall (I wasn't expecting the new ones to come with the shuffle as others seem to have been, though undoubtedly it would have been a nice surprise). Other design refinements are notable, from the newly-separated (and tiny) power and play mode switches (much easier to operate and much more solid than the original combined switch) to the tiny indicator LED and its duplicate on the opposite end of the player, making it much easier to see what's going on no matter which way round you clip it to your clothing. The biggest change, and probably the most controversial, is the removal of the integrated USB plug which made the original so convenient as a memory device. This generation isn't being pitched as a convenient USB 'stick', but nonetheless that additional feature made the white shuffle more compelling for existing iPod owners, and over time I've probably made greater use of mine as a file-store than I have as an entertainment device. Including it in a device of this size was probably never really an option, and it means there's no end-cap to lose, but it also means that a dock is necessary to sync or charge the shuffle. The included dock is wonderful though; smaller than even the inserts from the regular dock, but just as solidly-built as its larger namesake, and utilising a 3.5mm jack into the headphone socket to supply power and data. There's too much cable to make this a convenient thing to keep with you (though the promised battery life makes it less of an everyday necessity), and this opens up a new third-party opportunity in simple 3.5mm to USB adaptors. I don't think we'll have to wait very long to see something from Belkin, Griffin, or even Apple itself. When I've spent more time with the shuffle I'll have things to say about sound quality (sounds great on first hearing), battery life, and how the design holds up in everyday use. My first impressions though are excellent, and at £50 I can see the new shuffle decorating the shirt pockets of many an existing iPod owner, as well as those looking for a quality budget player. Now if Apple wants to do a version in black…

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