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Apple iPod shuffle 3G Review

I don't think I've ever seen Apple botch a product as badly as the iPod shuffle 3G, which the company belatedly added to its current generation iPod lineup about a month ago. (The other iPods all launched in September 2008.) Previous versions of the shuffle were excellent, despite their lack of a screen, and I awarded the 2nd gen device a rare five out of five stars as a result. The key to the early shuffles, however, was simplicity. They just did a handful of things, and they did them very well.

That's no longer true. With the 3G, Apple has gone off the deep end. First, there are simply too many pieces involved. There's a silly little USB charging cable that, like with the 2G version, is required because the device itself is so small. But the 3G charging cable is tiny and will be easily lost, much like the iPod shuffle itself. In fact, the shuffle 3G is so small, it's actually dwarfed by the tiny charging cable. Ridiculous.

Secondly, the iPod shuffle does too much. Whereas previous versions featured a single playlist which you could play sequentially or shuffled via a single hardware button, the new version overloads the capabilities by adding a so-called "control center" to the bundled ear bud headphones. The problem, of course, is that you actually can't use many iPod shuffle features unless you have these headphones. That shuts out all the headphones you already own, no matter how carefully chosen they were. And these controls very easily could have been added to the body of the shuffle, or to a headphone extension cord that would work with any headphones. Shame on you, Apple.

What you get with the control center is a way to access multiple playlists, a first for the shuffle. But this feature requires a bizarre new set of button pushes combined with a new speech synthesis capability called VoiceOver that is, for now at least, unique to the iPod shuffle. That is, the iPod shuffle can speak to you now, and alert you about the name of the currently playing song, as well as help you pick playlists from a list.

VoiceOver actually works pretty well, though I laughed out loud when one song was identified as something akin to "frzt." And while the quality of the voice is decent, it's nowhere near as good as that of the Amazon Kindle 2 (see my review), and sounds a bit robotic. I'm sure voice synthesis will be a godsend to a certain portion of the user base, especially those with sight handicaps. But for most people, it's simply an impediment. Consider other devices like the Sansa Clip, which feature a usable screen. A combination of screen and voice would serve a wider market than a screen-less device that has so much storage capacity that it demanded such weird workarounds.

Voice aside, needing to remember which number of button presses and holds does what is silly. This is another example of how Apple's miniaturization push gets in the way of usability. It's like an SNL skit come to life.

The Apple iPod shuffle 3G costs $79 and offers 4 GB of storage. It comes in just two colors, silver and black. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Apple still sells the previous generation shuffle, in multiple colors and with 1 GB of storage, for $49.00. I feel that's a much better device.)

I can't recommend the new iPod shuffle. This is a rare misstep for Apple, and, I hope, the end of the miniaturization silliness that currently grips the company. Smaller isn't always better. Nowhere is that more true than with the iPod shuffle 3G.

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