We were given the opportunity by Apple to have a first hand look at the new iPod Shuffle following the keynote speech by Steve Jobs. But is the new digital music player the final nail in the coffin for the rest of the MP3 market, or is it just hype?
The first thing that you'll notice is the size, it's very small and very light. We're not talking world firsts or records but it's enough to mean that you won't mind carrying it around with you.
Put into perspective, it's the size of a packet of chewing gum and only weights 25g. The reason for the lightness and size is the lack of a screen, the use of flash memory instead of a hard drive and the fact that there isn't actually really anything to it.
The front is adorned with a circle and four buttons around it all concealed under a rubberized button. Those buttons offer play, pause, next, previous and volume up and down.
On the rear of the player is a switch that allows you to choose between On/Off, Shuffle or Playlist. Playlist allows you to play the songs in the order that you've loaded them on to the iPod Shuffle while shuffle (the key to the device) allows you to shuffle through the tracks, but will come back to that. The switch in our minds could have been executed a bit better and markings between the three might have been a nice idea so at a glace you can see what option (ie between Shuffle and Playlist you are on)
Below the switch there is a power indicator button similar to that found on Apple PowerBook range. A quick depress allows you to get some idea of the available battery life: green is good, amber means your waning and red means you're virtually out of juice. Apart from a headphones jack on the top of the player and a further LED on the front to give you a bit of understanding of what you are doing; again green for command accepted etc. and that's all the player has to offer from an input output perspective. You won't find an equalizer, you won't find a radio and you certainly won't be able to see what you've got on the player once you take it away from your desktop.
Returning to the Shuffle mode, Apple has decided, and for all intents and purposes are probably right, that iTunes and iPod users don't listen to music as an album any more. It's not good enough that an artist has worked out the best way to hear their tracks on a CD, what we want is to shuffle. Taking this ideology to heart (the slogan for the ad campaign is “Life is random” the iPod Shuffle is all about shuffling through the music on the player. In a further moment of true randomness you can even set iTunes to fill your 512Mb or 1Gb model with random tracks selected from you music library. The add-in to iTunes will come in the box along with a lanyard and white headphones. It's shrewd of Apple to take something that's been commonplace to portable CD players for the past decade and give it a new coat of paint, but if you think a radio's a waste of space, the iPod Shuffle's still appealing.
At half the price of the competition and with twice the memory this new device will be a force to be reckoned with especially for those who have perhaps held back from buying an iPod. Apple's Senior Product Manager for the iPod, Danika Cleary believes the iPod Shuffle to be perfect for teenagers, those on a budget market or iPod users looking for a smaller player (we personally think this is pushing it although Apple fans can be dedicated at times) and she isn't far wrong.
It's easy to see where Apple is coming from, and Jobs and the company believe that it is here to mop up the confusion in the flash-based MP3 market. Is there confusion? We aren't so sure. iriver, Creative and Rio, just two of the main competitors seem to be doing not so bad a job. One thing that we are sure of, is that Apple's very aggressive price can only benefit the consumer and our bet is a price war between the other manufacturers will ensue. So hold off buying that MP3 player from the competition for a month and watch the prices tumble if you're not sold on the idea of random living.