Hands On: iPod shuffle

SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- As Apple CEO Steve Jobs finished up his demonstration of the iPod shuffle and announced that "they are shipping from the factory today," he casually mentioned that he had heard they were a few at the Apple Store a few blocks away from the Moscone Center.

It came as little surprise to me to find that just minutes later the Apple Store three blocks away was packed with people, most of whom were in line to buy one (or ten) of the new iPod shuffles. Only the 512MB version was available and while they had ample stock while I waited in line for almost half an hour to purchase one--ample, at least, to not have to limit the quantity you could purchase--employees there, who had only learned of the device minutes ago themselves, expected to run out of shuffles quickly. San Francisco is apparently the only place in the country you can get them at the moment (the online Apple Store estimates shipment at one week for the 512MB model, and 1-2 weeks for the 1GB version).

The iPod shuffle box is about the size of a couple compact discs, and itis about easy as a CD to impulse buy more than you need, especially on the day that theyire announced. Appleis typically minimalist iPod packaging is even more minimal with the shuffle: open the top, slide out the plastic holder that contains the iPod shuffle, lanyard, and headphones, and slip out the small square envelope that houses the documentation and install CD. iTunes 4.7.1 -- not yet available from Software Update at the time of this writing -- is needed in order for iTunes to see the shuffle (an iPod Updater 2005-01-11 that recognizes the shuffle is also included on the disc).

After youive plugged the shuffle in and named it, iTunes automatically fills it randomly with tracks using the new iTunes Autofill feature. You can specify whether you want it to replace all songs when it Autofills, chooses higher rated songs more often, and whether to choose songs randomly (as opposed to in the order of a playlist). Through the iPod shuffleis Preferences window you can control further options: whether to open iTunes automatically when the shuffle is plugged in, for example, or whether to use part of the iPod shuffleis capacity as a USB flash drive (you must specify how much, and doing so requires you to manually eject the iPod shuffle from the Finder each time you want to unplug it). You can also tell iTunes to automatically convert higher bit rate songs to 128 kbps AAC when it copies them to the iPod shuffle, enabling you to squeeze more songs onto the device.

First impressions of the device are pretty favorable. I have to say I was skeptical about the lack of a screen, but as Bryan Chaffin put it last night, "Apple wouldnit do it if it didnit make sense." At the end of the keynote, I started to "get" where the iPod shuffle fits in. Itis ideally suited for people who already own a full-size iPod and already understand iTunes and basic iPod functionality. You wonit be able to easily find that one new song you want to show your friend (unless you put it towards the top of the iPod shuffleis playlist), you wonit be able to glance down and figure out what a song is or rate it to figure out later, and you canit scrub forward or backwards (not too great for audio books), but what you can do is affordably and take your favorite songs with you wherever you want and not have to worry about breaking the device. Itis especially ideal for the gym.

Around your neck, the iPod shuffle is barely even noticeable. The front has five buttons with six basic controls: play/pause, skip forward one track, skip backwards one track, and volume up/down. On the back are two other buttons: a small one tells you the battery status through one LED (green youire good, orange youire low, red youire very low), another switch allows you to turn the device off, set it to continuous play, or set it to random.

Skipping around tracks is relatively fast, a bit faster than an ordinary iPod (especially when that iPod needs to spin up the hard disk to load more tracks to memory). If you turn the device off in the middle of a track and then turn it back on, it picks up exactly where it left off. The LED on the front of the only illuminates when you press a button (not while itis actually playing), provide visual as well as tactile feedback. There is no specific hold button on the iPod shuffle. Instead, to lock out the buttons you press and hold the play/pause button for a few seconds, after which the LED blinks orange a few times. Pressing any buttons while in hold mode cause the LED to blink orange. To remove the hold, you similarly press and hold the play/pause button.

With the iPod shuffle, Apple has taken the flash-based MP3 market and turned it upside down. There will surely be those who are turned away by the lack of a display, but other the iPod brand will likely be enough to convince everyone to at least take a look at the shuffle and decide for themselves whether Appleis approach meets their needs.

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