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- CONFESSION -
Two confessions actually, the second more embarrassing than the first: I'm more loyal to Apple products than most people. Being a Mac user in a Microsoft world has made me defensive, if not paranoid.
Second, I love music, but hate predictability. This prompted bizarre behaviour in the past. Don't tell anyone, but I used to compile cassettes of random tracks from randomly-chosen CDs, taping them with my eyes closed so I didn't know what tracks I would hear, or in what order.
Little did I know that within a few years, my favourite computer company would guess at my shameful secret and give me an easy way to automate my musical perversion. Apple-haters may deride it, but the iPod Shuffle is, for me, close to musical heaven.
My flimsy justification for buying one was that, in an attempt at exercise, I occasionally trudge the damp streets of Hull. How better to enhance that experience than by wondering whether Rufus Wainwright will be followed by The Ramones or Respighi?
I didn't need the capacity of a proper iPod. Nor would a screen on the front be much use, as the thing would reside unseen in a coat or trouser pocket. The 1GB Shuffle can hold 16 hours of music - enough for several weeks of aimless pod-plod.
- DESCRIPTION -
The all-white, shiny plastic Shuffle comes with Apple's once-distinctive white earbud headphones and matching cable. This colour scheme is now copied by every £20 mp3 player in Sainsbury's. So it no longer has its former designer cachet. It might even make the iPod owner less of a mugger-magnet, but I'm sure that round here, street bandits aren't that fussy.
The headphones deliver impressive sound quality, with ample bass. But they are clearly designed for sedentary listening. They work loose as you walk, let alone jog. They also click a little as I move, and don't exclude the sound of passing cars very well. At the risk of damaging my hearing further, I may upgrade to a pair that fit better and block out ambient noise.
The controls are, as one would expect from Apple, minimal and intuitive. The main one is a convex button towards the top of the front of the Shuffle. This acts as a one-push pause/play control; press twice to lock it, to avoid accidental operation. The button has an outer concentric raised ring. Pressing the top or bottom of this raises or lowers the volume. Clicking left or right moves you on, or back, one track. It is easy to navigate by touch alone, even through the fabric of a coat pocket. But it's not so sensitive that it's accidentally activated all the time.
A tiny battery-test button on the rear has a miniscule LED. It glows green, yellow or red when pressed. This is almost impossible to see in daylight or in a brightly-lit room, but is perfect for the crepuscular murk of a summer day in Humberside.
The only other control is a slider on the back enabling you to choose to listen to tracks in sequence, randomly, or to turn the iPod off. This smooth flush rectangular panel is an example of Apple's tendency to sacrifice practicality to style. It's difficult to grip: a few ridges on the button's surface would have made it much easier to use. But of course that would have spoiled the minimal look. So you have to squeeze the player firmly to move it, often pressing the front control button accidentally as you do so.
At one end of the player is a 3.5mm jack socket - for headphones principally, although I have played the Shuffle through my normal hi-fi by plugging a suitable lead into the amplifier's auxiliary input. At the other end is an integral USB plug. The latter fits neatly into the sockets hidden annoyingly on the back of my iMac or, more conveniently, on the front of my G5 tower at work. A plain white cap covers the plug, or you can use the alternative supplied cap threaded with a loop of white cord (Apple call this a 'lanyard') and hang it round your neck.
- INSTRUCTION -
While plugged in, the Shuffle draws power from the computer to recharge its integral, (and non-removable) battery. Apart from the initial charge, I've never plugged the player in for more than an hour, and have not suffered a flat battery yet. I'm sure Apple's claimed 12-hour battery life is possible - with no moving parts or screen to drain the power, it's no juice-guzzler. But I'd put actual battery life at 10 hours, depending chiefly upon how loud you play your music.
Plugging in to your computer is also necessary to load files onto the iPod. Loading time varies according to bitrate and format of source files. I use it to play mp3s at 128kbps (ie 'good' quality). It takes about 20 minutes to load a full complement of these.
If you ask iTunes to squash higher-quality tracks down to 128kbps as it squirts them onto the Shuffle, loading time rises substantially. The number of tracks you can cram on varies according to the quality, and thus the size, of the files you prefer. The Shuffle will also play music in Apple's own AAC format as well as WAV files and of course the m4p 'protected' files sold by the iTunes store.
You can select tracks either automatically, randomly or manually via iTunes. This application is supplied for Mac or PC on a CD with the Shuffle. I find iTunes very easy to use for this purpose. It's simply a question of opening the application. When you plug in the iPod, it appears as an icon in the playlist menu. Clicking on this shows you the iPod's current contents and enables you to choose how to transfer tracks (you can also use a variable amount of the Shuffle's capacity for data if you wish).
To playback simply push the play button. A green LED blinks briefly through the translucent casing above the main control to show it's working. If you set the rear slider to play in order, it will play the tracks in the sequence you placed them in iTunes. Select 'random', and the Shuffle chooses the order in which they play.
It is not true randomness though. If you have, say, tracks A,B,C,D E, and F, the Shuffle may play them in the order B,F,A,C,E,D. Once it has gone though all the tracks, though, it will repeat its original order of selection, so you'll be faced with the same 'random' track sequence over and over again.
- CONCLUSION -
Those minor reservations hardly detract from a product I still find miraculous. Like a caveman gaping slack-jawed at a steam engine, I still marvel that so much high-quality sound can fit into something weighing less than an ounce, which is only one-third of an inch thick and three inches long.
Which means that I thought it expensive but ultimately worth the £99 I paid for for mine. That was direct from Apple (including free delivery) in April 2005. The price has since dropped to a more reasonable £89 for the 1GB version. Give it a year, and they'll be free in packets of Cheerios.
For full technical spec, details of accessories and extensive marketing guff, go to www.apple.com/uk/ipodshuffle
They are rather cute to look at, never mind the specs! Are you still a slack jawed hillbilly though, 4 years on?
kirstymack80 18.08.2006 11:11
Excellent. That title alone deserves an 'E'! KirstyM
mongo_bongocat 30.06.2006 15:31
I must admit that I've been a bit of a cheapskate and bought an MP3 player for £14.99 (256MB) hasn't arrived yet so don't know if it's any cop or not! Good review. I agree that 1GB seems quite sensible (what do people do with 40GB?)