By Jon Deragon, Visca Consulting
Tuesday June 20, 2005; 11:30am EST
Over the last few years portable MP3 players have grown in popularity by leaps and bounds, not only with consumers, but with manufacturers. Name just about any major and not so major electronics manufacturer and they will most likely have a line of MP3 players. This is great in that we are seeing an incredible combination of variety, functionality, high build quality and style at ridiculously affordable prices across the board.
One of the major forces in this MP3 player revolution is Apple with their iPod line of products. The iPod line stands at the higher end of the market with large music capacities due to their internal hard drive, large screen for track navigation and their expandability. The spectacular success of the iPod has inevitably led to a number of variants of the device, with the most recent being a more economical version called the iPod Shuffle. This is clearly a product built to compete with the heavily saturated but well selling low to mid level MP3 player market with the likes of Sony, SanDisk, Samsung, Rio, iRiver and many others.
The iPod Shuffle comes in 2 flavors, with memory capacity (512mb or 1GB) being the only differentiator. Taking one out of its box, you are immediately greeted with a sleek and smooth "traditional Apple" bright white casing, not much larger (.33" thick) or heavier (.78 ounce) than a pack of chewing gum. The front features a circular navigator for next / previous track and volume; with a central play / pause button; and a concealed indicator light just above it. The back has an off / on continuous play / on random play toggle slider, and a button to check battery status. On top of the device is the headphones plug, and the bottom is removable to reveal a USB connector for transferring music. Also included in the box are headphones, lanyard, manuals and CDs for iPod drivers and iTunes software.
To use the iPod you must install iTunes and driver software which is provided on the included CD. Once you have iTunes running and you have your library of music indexed, you may then connect your iPod to your computer and transfer songs back and forth as desired. I found the process of transferring music from iTunes did the job, but was at times frustrating and cumbersome, and using another media player is out of the question. The iPod Shuffle's rechargeable battery (with 12 hour battery life) is built into the device and charges when inserted into a USB port.
With a selection of my favorite tunes on board, battery charged and head phones dawned, I was ready for a good old fashion ear blasting walk across town. Immediately my first challenge was the fact that there is no screen whatsoever to indicate things like current track, volume, battery status, etc. So finding a favorite track to start my voyage with was tedious. A shuffle mode (read "random play mode") can be selected by the slider on the back of the unit. Apple markets this as a novel feature that is the key to 'a life less ordinary'. But the novelty of random play quickly wears thin, and ultimately doesn't compensate for the lack of a screen to read track names and other pertinent information.
Using the circular navigator on the front of the iPod was for the most part intuitive for changing the volume or moving between tracks. When in the depths of your jacket pocket it was sometimes difficult for your fingers to read the non-descript navigation circle to figure out which side of the ring to push.
The headphones are light weight, fit well and are comfortable to wear over long periods of time. The music they produced, however, was certainly not what I would call thrilling. Overall the music was shallow, thin and completely devoid of any bass reproduction whatsoever. The lack of a soundstage, combined with an almost complete absence of highs and lows made the music sound as flat and lifeless as a concrete wall. In fact they made many of my favorite high energy dance songs sound almost boring. Part of an enjoyable music listening experience is feeling those extreme highs (crisp clear cymbals) and lows (thundering pounding bass lines), they bring life and exuberance to the music, and the iPod Shuffle clearly struggles to reproduce these elements.
When you compare it to the truck loads of different models from other manufacturers on the market in the same price bracket, it would be hard to justify purchasing an iPod Shuffle. Similar models from other manufacturers include a laundry list of features that leave the iPod looking, well, lame. It is not uncommon for MP3 players to feature a backlit 2 and even 3 line LCD display, an equalizer, surround sound emulation, an FM radio receiver, a voice recorder and FM recorder, embedded MP3 encoder, multiple music file format support, and replaceable batteries - iPod has absolutely NONE of these things. Not only that, but the other manufactures fit all of these features in a form factor equivalent to the iPod. In addition to this, the rechargeable battery is non-serviceable which pretty much means no more battery, no more shuffling - disposable MP3 player.
Overall, with such a fantastic variety of truly feature rich MP3 players on the market, there is little I can say that would warrant recommending the iPod Shuffle. The iPod Shuffle 512mb retails for $99, 1GB for $149, offers 1 year parts and labor warranty, and is available immediately from all major electronics retailers across North America.
PROS - Attractively designed; lightweight and compact design; comfortable headphones; competitive storage capacity.
CONS - Lifeless music reproduction with non-existent highs and lows, flat sound with no sound stage; non-serviceable internal battery; compatible only with iTunes software; lacks LCD display making track navigation tedious; no audio equalization or surround sound settings; no FM radio receiver; no voice recorder or internal MP3 encoding.
About The Author
Jon Deragon is president and founder of Visca Consulting, a firm specializing in web site design, development and usability for businesses of all sizes. His many years in the technology industry has enabled him to write quality, in-depth product reviews to assist businesses make more informed technology purchases. He welcomes any questions or comments you may have regarding his company's services, this review or interest in having your company's products reviewed.
http://www. viscaconsulting. com/