Minimalism has been the prevailing aesthetic at Apple for some time. Products are monochromatic, mostly white or silver. Buttons, ports, or anything else that would spoil the clean lines of the design is held to an absolute minimum. The result has been beautiful products that sometimes sacrifice functionality to appearance.
The minimalist approach is taken to the ultimate with the new iPod Shuffle ($79, 4GB of storage, in black or silver), announced March 11. I can’t think of a way to design a product any cleaner than this. The third-generation shuffle is about the size and shape of half a stick of chewing gum and not a whole lot thicker. As on the previous Shuffles, there is no display. But this time, Apple went further and eliminated the play and volume controls. The monolith-with-a-pocket-clip design is marred only by a tiny slider that serves as a power switch and a 3.5 mm hole for a headphone plug, which may have kept the unit from being even thinner; the Shuffle is just thick enough to contain the jack.
So how do you work the thing? Through a remote control embedded into the headphone cord, similar to the one on the standard iPhone stereo headphone. As on other Shuffles, you have no control over the order in which songs play other than to choose the next or the previous track. There are three buttons on the remote: volume up and down and play/pause. What if you don’t like the indifferent ear buds Apple supplies or, if like me, ear buds just won’t stay in your ears? You can buy the iPhone In-Ear Stereo headphones ($79); the remote is the same. Apple says there will also be third-party adapters that will let you add a remote to your favorite headphones.
iPod remotes, are common, but on the Shuffle, the play/pause button has acquired some completely new tricks. Through a feature called VoiceOver, if you press and hold the button a synthesized voice announces the current track. There’s quite a bit more to this than it might appear at first listen, since there’s no way the feeble processing circuitry on the Shuffle could handle text-to-speech conversion of the metadata.
Here’s how it works: When you set up the Shuffle on a Mac (it works slightly differently on Windows, but the principle is the same), you install a piece of software called VoiceOver along with the new version of iTunes (8.1). VoiceOver uses the text-to-speech capabilities built into Mac software to create a little title audio to accompany each track, and when you press the button to get the track information, that little audio file plays. I have only one problem with this design, and it’s one that applies to any product that uses multi-modal buttons, that is, buttons that do more than one thing depending on the context. The center button on this remote has an awful lot to do. A single tap starts the music, or stops it if it is already playing. A double tap skips to the next track and a triple tap moves back to the previous track. If you hold the button down, you get the track announcement. And if you hold it down even longer until you hear a beep, it will announce the playlists on the shuffle. You then press it again to select a playlist. Use it for a while, and you’ll get used to it, but this sort of multi-modalism always makes for a confusing user experience.
At least for the time being, Apple is keeping the current-design 1 GB Shuffle in the product line as the least expensive iPod at $49. The 2 GB $69 version is being discontinued.