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Apple iPod Shuffle

Random fandom?

Review Many people listen to their digital music in no particular order at all: album tracklists are becoming a thing of the past, 'shuffle' play (making random selections from a huge collection of hundreds or thousands of songs) is the norm, and to hell with imposed order. Apple, with the iPod Shuffle, says that's how life should be lived, and who are we to argue?

Apple iPod ShuffleThe Shuffle could be seen as the regression of the species. It's just a USB flash memory stick, after all, and so not much bigger - though harder to masticate - than a stick of chewing gum, available in minty 512MB or 1GB capacities, both the same size, for £69 and £99, including VAT.

The packaging poses some questions to ask yourself, if you're short of them. "How does it know which song to play next?" Because it has an algorithm, you twit. The shocking thing about the Shuffle is the size, and lack of weight. You can really get all that music into that? Battery life is claimed to be 12 hours, recharged from the computer, though subject to slow death through recharging. At the price, it undercuts the majority of its Flash-based rivals, who have dismissed it as first-generation product.

To whit, the lack of a display. You realise after a bit that having a display would be useful, though there's also some pleasure in having a player you can put into the coin pocket of your jeans and forget.

"Can it read your mind? Can it read your moods?" the packaging probes. Some people think their iPods can. Apple's marketing people insist that the lack of a display grew out of campus tests, that somehow it didn't seem necessary. But they're muppets. Likely it's more that, as with the Mac Mini, they're building down to a price, aiming for the biggest market possible. Apple already has a lock on the top and middle end of the existing digital music player market.

First the top-end daddy iPod with its big scroll wheel. Then the mid-market girly iPod Mini, which puts the buttons into the scroll wheel. They can hold about 120 or 240 songs encoded at 128Kbps; I managed 220 on a 1GB stick with songs encoded at 160Kbps, still more than enough to get lost in music. Now the scroll wheel is gone, leaving just the buttons. If you've just ripped a CD, you won't know the track names, but the songs will play anyhow. The sound quality is like all iPods - so you'll either like or hate it - and you can play AAC, MP3, WAV, Audible files; CD format AIFF is out, which will disappoint audiophiles. iTunes will convert DRM-less WMA files to a supported format.

The Shuffle is Apple's stab - a potentially deadly one for rivals - at the bottom end. If any of them introduced a stick-like minimalist MP3 player, they'd get laughed out of the shops. Apple does it and everyone swoons. Overall, you can see it's going to sell no matter what an objective analysis says. The Shuffle is priced within the reach of pretty much anyone. You'll have to plug it back into your PC, where in iTunes a column headed Last Played will reveal what the hell that catchy - or crap - song was called.

But shuffling isn't obligatory. A slider on the back also lets the songs play sequentially, though you still won't know where you are in the 'order' - beginning, middle, end? A tiny light indicates when a button has been pressed (you can lock the buttons). The front controls are fingertip-sized, in contrast with some comparably-priced Flash memory players which shrink the controls too far, trying to do too much in too little space. Yet rivals can also justly claim to have more features for barely more money. However, they don't have the marketing message - go from sequential to shuffle with the click of a button on the back.

Apple iPod Shuffle DockAs ever the product is only half the experience. Some computers' USB ports don't have enough clearance from the body for the shuffle to plug in, so Apple offers a 'dock' at a jaw-dropping £19;/$29 - far cheaper to get a USB extender cable for a couple of quid. The iTunes software lets you choose how much memory is devoted to songs, how much to data; a neat recognition of the stick's dual purpose. The whole idea of onboard playlists simply doesn't exist on the Shuffle. You either play it in order, randomly or not at all.

And enjoy it, darn you, because everyone around you will. ®

Apple iPod Shuffle
Rating 80%
Pros — Cheap; small; good software; doubles up for data storage.
Cons — No display; pricey extras; no playlists; won't play AIFF or WMA files.
Price £69/$99 (512MB), £99/$149 (1GB)
More info Apple's iPod Shuffle page

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