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The Little iPod That Could

By Cliff Edwards


Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good Great-sounding music on a shoestring budget

The Bad No LCD screen, lousy headphones

The Bottom Line A solid lower-end machine that will expand Apple's music dominance

Simplicity on a stick. That's Apple's iPod Shuffle, introduced in January by Steve Jobs & Co. to grab the last bit of the digital-music player market that the company doesn't already own. The size of a pack of chewing gum, measuring 3.3 inches by 0.98 inches by 0.33 inches and weighing less than an ounce, the elegant and distinctively Apple-white iPod Shuffle is hard not to immediately take a liking to.

The 512-megabyte Shuffle, which sells for $99, and the 1-gigabyte Shuffle, at $149, help answer the question of what more Apple (AAPL) could do on top of the iPod and iPod mini hard-drive players that have conquered the digital music world. Apple has continually improved both battery life and the size of the hard drive on those players, as well as updated color schemes and "special edition" models.

With the Shuffle, Apple targets different consumers -- either those tempted more by price and ease of use or sports buffs, such as runners, who wish to avoid the jarring interruptions that come with fast movement on all hard drive-based players.

SMOOTH SETUP. The Shuffle is just the thing for newcomers to digital music. It sports a simple gray ring of button controls -- "play" and "pause" in the middle of a circular interface, "reverse" and "forward" on the sides, and volume up and down. A tiny, green LED light tells when the unit is playing, and a light on the back changes color from green to yellow to red as the battery winds down from an advertised 12-hour charge (the 1-GB unit actually lasted nearly 17 hours before needing a recharge).

The USB 2.0 jack, which also charges the battery when you plug it into a computer, is covered by a white cap. The cap can be exchanged with another included cap attached to a lanyard. On the back, a slider switch turns the unit on and off, also letting you choose between shuffling songs and playing them in order.

Setup is a snap. An installation CD includes iTunes version 4.7 software that works on both PCs and Macs, with a built-in link to the Apple Music Store for purchasing music downloads. With the music collection already residing on your PC or Mac, encoded in MP3, WAV, AAC, and Audible digital formats, you set the software to automatically choose songs to download or can opt to pick your own playlist. The automatic-download feature, called Autofill, randomly chooses songs from your collection.

MISSING THE SCREEN. I ran into trouble when it grabbed a couple of station presets I once used for Griffin Technology's iTrip wireless radio transmitter for listening to iPod music in the car. It was a bummer hearing dead air later on, which made me vow to program my own playlists.

The Shuffle's biggest drawback, in my view: its lack of an LCD screen. The reasons for the omission are obvious. LCDs tend to make up a good chunk of the cost of any consumer-electronics gadget, so including one would have cut into Apple's margins or boosted the cost for a device geared mainly toward cost-conscious customers.

Plus, the tiny screens often are in short supply, which could have prompted delays in making the Shuffle widely available if Apple had decided to go with one. But if you have a big music collection, it's often nice to be reminded of what group is singing a particular song, or how long it lasts. And if you're hankering to hear a certain song quickly, you're out of luck trying to find it fast. The omission is even more glaring since rivals, including Sony (SNE), offer LCD screens on their USB flash players at prices not much more than the Shuffle.

JOGGERS AND NOVICES. Even though the Shuffle has the same good sound quality as its iPod predecessors, that quality doesn't get its due from the included headphones. Because the Shuffle is designed as much for its looks as for its sound and cost, the fashion-conscious will have to decide whether it's worth replacing the Shuffle's white headphones with those from another manufacturer.

For the newbie, the Shuffle is a cool, cost-attuned way to step into the digital-music world. And for athletes looking to break up the tedium of long runs, this device is for you. For anyone else, I'd recommend taking a look at other players, or stepping up to Apple's iPod mini line, which starts at $199 for 4 gigabytes.

That's quadruple the space for only $50 more -- and it lets you take most, if not all, of your music collection everywhere, along with offering rudimentary games and calendaring. Otherwise, the Shuffle makes a nice addition to the iPod line.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau

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