The iPod shuffle 4G marks Apple’s return to the classic form of the shuffle 2G. It’s even smaller* and has new features like playlists and VoiceOver that make it better and easier to use. The price is right at US$49, but the product also introduces some new problems that could have easily been avoided.
The Return of the Buttons
Steve Jobs, during the September 1 unveiling of the new iPods, said that customers like buttons on their iPods. Apple learned this the hard way with the iPod shuffle 3G which had no buttons on the device. Instead, one had to control it with buttons on the earbuds cord, and that made it awkward to use for many.
Happily, Apple has returned to the nicer, classic design. The 4G retains the raised control buttons, so it’s easy to feel them without looking. Unfortunately, perhaps, the 4G is square while the 2G was rectangular. The old rectangular shape made it easy to orient the iPod in the hand and get an immediate feel for which button was “next song” and “last song” without looking. Fortunately, the headphone/earbud cord when plugged in can now serve that ergonomic purpose.
The previous (unloved) shuffle 3G
Also, rectangular cases that were designed to protect the 2G with a snug fit (see the photo below) no longer work with the 4G.
The 4G also includes a new button, for VoiceOver activation, but in a concession to the size of the iPod, the power button must now do double duty: off, shuffle, and play-in-order. That makes it a little harder to change on the fly because one may have to actually look at the 4G to verify that the switch is in the desired position. To offset that, however, there is a helpful chime played whenever the power switch changes position, and that is most welcome. This focus of mine on the button design comes from years of using an iPod shuffle 2G plugged into my CR-V (3G) and controlling the iPod by feel only.
Unlike the shuffle 3G which came in 2 or 4 GB versions, the current 4G is available with 2 GB of storage only.
The 4G dispenses with a dock (see the picture below) and uses a single, short USB cable that plugs into the audio jack. This redesign reflects Apple’s relentless, unabated march to minimalism, but may not suit some users who have their closest, accessible USB port hidden behind the Mac or on the back of the display. It’s just not a friendly approach, and Apple seems more intent on being green by keeping the packaging small and cords short than recognizing the desktop ergonomic needs of its users.
The Old and the New
The 4G touts 15 hours of audio playback on a full charge and can be 80 percent charged in 2 hours.
The shuffle 4G adds the VoiceOver feature just like the new iPod nano. Press the VoiceOver button:
- Once to hear the title and artist
- Twice to hear the battery level
- Hold it down to hear the list of playlists.
It’s a good idea to keep your list of playlists synced to the 4G short so you don’t have to listen to a long list before making a choice (with the Play/Pause button).
I found it tricky to hear the battery level announcement. One has to press the VoiceOver button just right — with the right interval to hear the battery charge. I’m still learning how to get the cadence just right, and I think Apple messed up on the design of this. It’s too touchy and unpredictable and documentation in the full manual is oblique at best. I’ll be asking an Apple genius about that and will report — perhaps mine is defective.
Voiceover is optionally installed into the 4G when you connect it to iTunes 10. (iTunes 10 is required.) You can select from about two dozen different languages at that time. English speaking Mac users who elect to use speech features will recognize the voice as the default system voice, “Alex.”
This shuffle, like the new nano, comes with a postage stamp sized fold out leaflet with five panes, double sided. Because this shuffle is so simple and easy to use, that’s all you may ever need. Even so, Apple has published a full 43 page manual with comprehensive information. I give Apple high marks for this manual.
As I mentioned above, hearing the battery level via VoiceOver remains tricky for me. And I can’t really say that having the power button do double duty is an improvement over the 2G design.
On the old 2G shuffle, the extended part of the rectangular design on the top was opposite the point on the back where you’d press the clip. No problem. Nice ergonomics. On the new, square, design, that open area is missing. As a result, if you’re not careful, when you press the clip, you may also press one of the control buttons. This is just poor design.
Also, the battery level light is juts a bit too close to the audio jack. I have a headphone cord extender whose plug almost completely covers the light. I’d like to see that light moved a few millimeters towards the VoiceOver button.
Whether Apple made the 4G even smaller than the 2G to support the business of 3rd party case makers or whether it’s just part of the company’s drive towards miniaturization, I don’t know. Maybe both. In any case, given the problem with pressing the clip mentioned above, Apple would have done well to retain the 2G physical layout.
The shuffle 4G Lineup
- iTunes 10 or later
- Mac OS X 10.5.8 or later
- Windows XP (SP3) or later
- USB 2.0
- Internet Access
What’s Included in the Box
- iPod shuffle 4G
- Apple earphones
- USB cable (45 mm short)
- Quick Start Guide
- Apple Decal
The Bottom Line
From a feature standpoint, this is a better shuffle than any previous generation. But it’s not perfect, as I judged the new nano to be, and introduces some new problems that could have been avoided.
For those who don’t need the features of the clip-on nano 6G, this is a solid, inexpensive, easy to use iPod. The design is reasonably solid, but not outstanding.
* My beloved silver shuffle 2G nano went through the laundry and died. It was in a jeans pocket. One has to be careful with these little guys.