Though Apple has unequivocally dominated the market for hard disk based audio, up until Steve Jobs' Macworld announcement in January, it had completely ignored the solid-state market. The reason was simply that up until recently, flash memory was prohibitively expensive, making it impossible to provide a generous amount of storage for a reasonable price. In fact, one of the strengths of the iPod on its original launch was that its hard disk enabled it to hold a far greater amount of music compared to anything else out there.
Recently however, the price of flash memory has come down to such a level that Apple felt that the time was right to bring out a player to market, no doubt bringing a collective groan from all of those companies who up to then had the market to themselves. The result is the iPod shuffle.
The shuffle is available with two capacities, 512MB and 1GB. Usually Apple’s products are priced at a premium compared to its competitors but the shuffle is actually remarkably good value. For example the http://www.trustedreviews.com/article.aspx?art=940 award winning iRiver N10 will set you back £129 for the 512MB version, whereas you’ll only pay £99 for a 1GB shuffle and £69 for the 512MB version. There’s a very good reason for Apple’s price competitiveness. The shuffle doesn’t have a display of any kind. This is probably the most expensive part of any player so it’s only reasonable that Apple is able to price the shuffle so competitively.
Actually it’s no surprise that the iPod shuffle has no screen. Perhaps the biggest strength of the iPod is its interface and though some are better than others, no really small MP3 player has had what I’d call a really good interface. For the average user, trying to navigate these things can be a nightmare, with mysterious words such as ‘Root’ likely to leave them nonplussed. So Apple’s attitude was that if it couldn’t do it properly it wouldn’t do it at all.
Apple boasts that the player is smaller than a pack of gum, and it certainly resembles one. It is 8.4cm long, and a mere 0.84cm thin and incredibly light at only 22g, so you can hang it round your neck it slip it into a pocket without you noticing it.
The design is minimalist in a way that only Apple knows how. Bereft of the fiddly little buttons that festoon other players the controls are laid out in a circle in a manner that is a visual but not functional echo of the click wheel on the 4G iPod. The centre button acts as a play/pause with forward and back to the sides and plus and minus volume buttons above and below. Having the control system easily accessible on the front means that I was able to control the player even with it hidden underneath a shirt, which is useful when you want don’t want to advertise the fact that you have Apple’s latest piece of high-tech fashion jewellery round your neck.
On the reverse is a simple sliding switch, with three positions, shuffle, repeat and off. Below this is a battery power indicator. Press it and a small light illuminates green if it has a good charge, amber for medium and red for low. Beneath this is the Apple logo and the word iPod, with the legend, “Designed by Apple in California” on the base – the word ‘shuffle’ isn’t actually written anywhere.
At the end of the shuffle stick is a removable cap that covers the USB connection labelled either 512MB or 1GB. When plugged in to a powered USB port the shuffle will reach full charge in four hours, reaching 80 per cent of its capacity in two hours. On full charge it will give 12 hours of playback.
As the cap is fully removable it could quite easily be lost, which is something I really don’t like with regular flash memory keys. Considering Apple’s reputation for great design I would have expected a more elegant solution. A saving grace is that another cap is included in the box which has a white neck strap attached to it, and I used this to carry the player around.