So with no screen you may wonder how you navigate the player. In fact your choices are limited to playing tracks purely in the order they are copied over, or using the much hyped ‘shuffle’ feature. The fact that Apple has based its product around its ability to shuffle tracks, is of course, completely ridiculous. In a remarkably clever piece of marketing Apple has taken a feature already offered by probably every single digital audio player ever released and made it the products unique selling point. It’s a move that’s so brazenly cheeky that it almost has to be admired – almost.
As it turned out the lack of screen rarely bothered me but it did on occasion. Sometimes I found myself wondering what the track I was listening to was called but of course there was no way of finding out. And if you want to find a particular track you simply have to keep clicking next until you eventually get to it. The shuffle is clearly not aimed at being used in this way. Rather it’s aimed at those who want to grab some tunes and go, without being too bothered about what’s on there.
You can do this using the new ‘Autofill’ feature in the latest version of iTunes. This automatically fills up the shuffle with songs from your iTunes library and you can choose give preference to songs with a higher rating. This is a quick and easy way of getting your music onto your player and on the 512MB version took just over five minutes to fill it up. Combined with an eclectic music taste, this can make for a bizarre listening experience. Would I have ever have chosen to play Tupac’s California Love followed by Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. Probably not, but hey, that's what the shuffle is all about.
Sound quality was excellent - the same as any other iPod. However, the sound can be a bit bass light. Normally this can be corrected by applying an equaliser preset, but this can’t be done on the shuffle as it doesn’t have any. The now famous distinctive white bud headphones are actually very good quality as far as in-ear phones go but as with every audio device the sound improves if you use a better pair.
Another use for the shuffle is simply as a storage device, with the drive appearing as a drive letter in Windows. Of course, to be able access music on the go you have to use iTunes to transfer it over. iTunes will also let you specifiy how much of the drive you wish to use for music and how much for data. You can also tell iTunes to re-encode higher bit-rate music to 128Kbps to maximise space on the drive. Apple gives a figure of 120 songs for the 512MB shuffle, but as I prefer to use higher bit-rate songs I was only able to fit 63.
As its competitors pile ever more features into their players in an attempt to dislodge Apple, it goes the other way and makes an even more simplistic player. It’s true that if any other company tried to release a MP3 player without a screen they’d get laughed out of town - but then it wouldn’t look like an iPod.
Ultimately if you’re in the market for a flash based player, what makes or breaks the deal on the shuffle is whether you feel you’ll miss having a screen or not. The absence of one will certainly put off anyone who wants to have control of their music, but by going down this path Apple has been able to offer a serious amount of storage for the price and as ever, the integration with iTunes gives it a step-up over other players. So while it may not appeal to a more demanding user, if you want a second player for the gym or something relatively inexpensive and easy to use for the kids, the iPod shuffle is a good choice. But control freaks need not apply.
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Many thanks to the nice people at MR Systems for loaning us an iPod shuffle for review.