Apple 2GB iPod shuffle (fourth generation, late 2010) review

I’m on the record somewhere as saying that my favourite iPod of all time is the second-generation (2G) iPod shuffle. There was just something about that little guy, with its clip-on body and its circle of easy-to-navigate control buttons, that I found irresistible. I still have a battered old silver one that I take on trips and use when I’m mowing the lawn.

On the other hand, the third-generation (3G) iPod shuffle introduced in March 2009 was an example of Apple’s design language taken to an extreme. Gone were the onboard controls of previous models: the 3G shuffle was a little metal nub with a headphone jack and a power switch, and not much else. Though it added support for multiple playlists and a nifty spoken navigation system, it also forced users to rely on a set of three-button headphones (a clicker, plus volume up and down buttons) to control the thing. I hated it.

Now here’s the £39 fourth-generation (4G) iPod shuffle model, or (if you prefer) the second generation of the 2G shuffle. From outside appearances it’s been designed as if that entire 3G shuffle had fallen into a crack in time, erasing its entire existence from our collective memories. This new shuffle is a little guy with a clip-on body and a circle of easy-to-navigate control buttons. While the 2G shuffle was rectangular, this new shuffle is almost perfectly square, shaving off a third of that past model’s size.

Apple iPod shuffleMarch of time (left to right): first-, second-, third-, and fourth-generation iPod shuffles.

Unlike the now-disgraced 3G iPod shuffle, which was available in 2GB and 4GB variations (as well as a stainless-steel special-edition model), this new shuffle comes in a single configuration: 2GB for £39. You do, however, get your choice of five colours: silver, blue, green, orange, and pink. That 2GB of space is enough to store “hundreds of songs,” according to Apple. As with previous generations of shuffle, you can choose to load the device with your music as it was originally encoded, or have iTunes re-encode large tracks at a smaller file size in order to save space.

While it’s admirable for Apple to continue its quest to create the smallest products possible—a statement we might now be able to amend to “the smallest products possible without abandoning all on-device controls”—the shrinking of the 4G shuffle poses a small usability problem. The controls of the 2G shuffle were off centre, placed away from the side of the device where the clip hinged. This provided a decent amount of space for a thumb and finger to pinch the clip open.

The 4G shuffle, in contrast, has no such extra space available—the 2G’s open space is what has been shaved off to make the shuffle smaller and squarer. As a result, though, it is much more awkward to squeeze open the clip and attach it to clothing. Several times when I tried to attach it, I found myself inadvertently pressing the back button, which took me back to the beginning of the currently playing track. If you’re careful, you can squeeze the corners of the device and manage to open the clip, but it’s easy for fingers to slip. Bottom line: clipping the 4G shuffle on your shirt just isn’t as easy as with the 2G model unless you don’t care about inadvertently pressing the previous-track button.

The controls on the device are fairly simple: a circular set of buttons allows you to move forward and backward between tracks (right and left), and increase and decrease the volume (top and bottom). Clicking the center button toggles between playback and pause. On the top edge of the device, there’s the same three-position power switch as in the 3G model (off, play in order, and shuffle) and a new VoiceOver button. As with previous shuffle models, there’s no room for the standard iPod dock connector port; instead, the shuffle comes with a small cable that plugs in to the device’s headphone jack and into your computer’s USB port for both charging and data syncing.

Apple iPod shuffle

In a tip of the cap to the marquee feature of the now-disappeared 3G shuffle, this new shuffle incorporates its best attribute: the ability to talk. More specifically, if you press the VoiceOver button, the iPod will speak the title and artist of the track that it’s currently playing. VoiceOver is also how you determine how much battery is left in the iPod shuffle. A quick double-tap (I actually had trouble accomplishing the proper timing until I practiced), and the shuffle will tell you its battery status.

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