Apple's iPod Shuffle received another makeover when Apple launched its new iPod line up in September, but were they right to go back to one of the previous designs or has the re-inclusion of buttons spoilt it? While the iPod touch is the flagship and the iPod nano the bit of fun, the iPod shuffle, to many, is a strange device that doesn't really serve much purpose. With no screen and a small storage (2GB) chances are your phone will offer you a more complete experience.
However with such a low price point (£39) and such a small design, the shuffle is perfect for runners who want music, but also want to keep things light. Measuring 29 x 31.6 x 8.7mm there is no denying that the iPod shuffle is small - heck we've seen postage stamps bigger.
The front is dominated by the controls, thankfully back, while on the back is a clip so you can attach it to your clothes. There's a mode switch and a new button that adds the new VoiceOver feature - more on that in a moment - and of course a 3.5mm headphone jack so you can plug in your headphones. The casing is metal, the buttons are black, and the whole thing fits in perfectly with the company's MacBook Pro design ethos.
In the box you'll get the shuffle, a USB to 3.5mm charging and syncing dongle, and Apple's standard headphones, which we would recommend changing straight away to get the best out of the diminutive player. Plug in your iPod shuffle, iTunes fires up, and you can start loading music on the device.
If you've never owned an iPod before everything is very straightforward, all focused around iTunes, with the shuffle throwing up nothing out of the ordinary. It's here that you can manage your tracks, separating them into Music, Podcasts, and Books and then within Music, dedicated Playlists. Your Playlists are going to be your main way of segregating music into folders, and using the VoiceOver button it is possible to switch between Playlists when out and about.
New to the shuffle are Genius Playlists; these are automatic playlists generated within iTunes, based on your current music collection. Tick the box and it will start transferring music across. Managing those playlists is via iTunes and you can select 25, 50 or 100 songs, with the ability to manage what songs are included and the order they are played via your computer.
Other options - don't forget everything really does need to be managed via your computer - include syncing options, enabling Sound Check, whether or not you want tracks that are in a higher bit rate to be down converted to save space, and whether you want to manually manage your music or just have it loaded with random tracks from your collection.
Above and beyond this you can also set the iPod shuffle up to double up as a USB drive with disk mode, and for parents looking to buy this for their kids limit the maximum volume - yes the feature is password protected.
Once you've added the tracks that you want to listen to you are ready to go. Well almost, you'll have to download the VoiceOver software, it takes a couple of minutes, and then you're off.
On the road and operation is very simple. There really isn't that much to it with the controls doing most of the work and the VoiceOver feature trying to help you manage without a screen.
Press the VoiceOver button once and you'll get a female voice trying its best to tell you who is singing and what the track is called. Pressing the button drops the volume of the track allowing you to hear it. On the whole the offering does well, only struggling with pronouncing foreign named bands. It doesn't like Sigur Ros for example.
VoiceOver actually speaks 25 different languages, so says Apple, so it can tell you song titles and artists in their native tongues or any language you choose; while that works for foreign language titles, band names that are a little more unusual understandably give it grief. As for how the technology works, it's merely reading the track name and artist. If that means your tracks are titled "Track 1" that's what it will read out to you.
If you've been buying music from iTunes, or the music you've been importing is correctly labelled it really works fine. The VoiceOver button has two other features, a battery status indicator and letting you know what Playlist you are playing, along with the ability to change to that playlist. This is handy, as it allows plenty of categorisation but also means that in the middle of a run you won't suddenly get the podcast you are saving for the train into work.
Within playlists, tracks can be shuffled or played in the order you set them in when you transferred the music over. We found the sound quality to be good once we had swapped out the headphones for something a little better quality.
The iPod shuffle is a simple and easy to use MP3 player that will require you to have some grasp of iTunes to get the most out of it, but if you've got that you'll love it. For runners, the ability to create playlists based on the Genius mixes is a great addition as is the ability to access individual playlists. At 12.5 grams it's incredibly light, comes in a range of "pretty" colours and won't get in the way of your running kit.
That combined with a battery life of around 15 hours means you'll only be looking to charge this every so often rather than at the end of every day. But beyond running, your phone will probably offer a better experience.