Unfortunately, if it scores big for sound quality, the E2 doesn’t do so well when it comes to usability. Part of the problem sits with the cut-down control set and the lack of any audible or visual feedback, except when you’re switching between sound presets. You can switch shuffle mode on and off or skip tracks, but there’s no way of using or flicking between playlists, or of flicking from one album to another. It’s not perfect, but it’s something the iPod shuffle actually manages quite well, and it’s a shame that the E2 can’t match Apple feature for feature here.
What’s more, while the decision to use small, identically sized, symmetrically aligned buttons on either side of the unit might work from a design point of view, it can make it hard to hit the right control when you’re not looking straight at the E2 in decent lighting. Try to change the volume, and a good half of the time you’ll end up skipping the track, and visa-versa. Neither of these issues is a deal-breaker, and if you just want a player you can leave in Shuffle mode then you won’t get too annoyed. All the same, I’d be a liar if I said that it didn’t drag my overall opinion down.
On the plus side, there’s definitely one other area where the E2 beats the iPod shuffle, and that’s on price. The cheapest 2GB shuffle will currently set you back £45, with the 4GB model taking that up to £59, or £75 if you’re the sort of mug who fancies the stainless steel model. Add the Apple In-Ear Headphones you’ll need to get a decent sound out of it, and you’re talking about a hefty £104 total outlay (though you could get this down by buying a £15 Belkin headphone adaptor and some cheaper IEMs). Buy even the 4GB E2 for £35 and spend £20 to £35 on headphones and you’ll get a better sound for much, much less.
Is this enough to put our few gripes about usability in perspective? Up to a point. Unless you’re obsessed with size and style the E2 is certainly a better buy than the shuffle. But when you consider that it’s not actually that much smaller or lighter than the SanDisk Clip+ you have to wonder whether the compromise is really worth it. As a take anywhere player the E2 has the shuffle beat, but is it the ultimate ultra-portable? Nope. Not quite.
A strong, top value rival to the iPod Shuffle, which skilfully avoids the limitations of the Apple player, but suffers slightly when it comes to usability.