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This page is primarily intended to highlight the features and differences of the iPod shuffle vs a standard iPod. I don't attempt to describe how to operate the shuffle, the manual that comes with it does an excellent job of that.
In case you don't read this whole page, the difference between the iPod shuffle and the larger iPods is pretty easy to describe. If you want the ability to hear any given piece of music from your library at any given time then you won't like the shuffle. If you are willing to pre-select the range of music that you will hear for the next day or two, then the shuffle is your baby. It's the cheapest, smallest, easiest to use, most rugged, and lightest iPod of the bunch.
iPods and iTunes work in a particular way by design. iTunes wants you to keep your ENTIRE music library on your computer's disk at all times. If you elect to delete music from the library to conserve disk space, or for any other reason, the next time that an iPod is updated, ALL of the missing music will vanish from it as well unless you have set up iTunes to do manual management of the tunes on the iPod. If this design "feature" is unacceptable to you, don't mess with iPods. Get another kind of player or jukebox software. Disk is big and cheap, I don't see this "feature" as a disadvantage. All my music is available to me all the time, I don't have to find and retrieve it from somewhere if I want to listen to it. Disks do fail so keep a backup copy of ALL of your music somewhere else as well.
In January 2005, Apple announced a new member of the iPod product line, the iPod shuffle. This is a (relatively) inexpensive flash memory based music player. All previous iPods had used some form of hard disk for storage. The iPod shuffle comes in two capacities, 512 MB and 1 GB, considerably less than the previously smallest iPod mini at 4 GB. The shuffle is also less expensive at $79 and $129 as opposed to $199-$399 for the other iPod models.
Being somewhat of an Apple fan, I ordered one immediately. There was no rational basis for this purchase as I already own two other iPods (a 2nd generation 20 GB model and a 4th generation 60 GB model) however if I can classify something as a "new toy" then rational arguments are of little importance. I bought the 1 GB model just to play.
Update 4 Nov 06. The shuffle described on this page is obsolete, a newer smaller and less expensive version of the iPod shuffle when on sale yesterday. It looks different but it works the same.
What surprised me is that I now use the damn thing ALL of the time in deference to the other iPods. The other iPods store more and do more but are also bigger and heavier. Also, carrying around a $600 (what my iPod photo cost when I bought it) music player was scaring me. It is too precious to be carried around where it might be dropped or lost. The expense of this item pretty much negated it's portability. I had NEVER taken the older iPods to work, I take the shuffle with me every day.
The shuffle is a very simple device. It has no display because it is so simple that it really doesn't need one. It only holds one playlist which it will play in two ways, straight through or shuffled. The controls are very basic, volume up and down, skip a track forward or backward and play/pause. That's about it. It won't tell you what track it is playing, it won't tell you what it will play next. If you want to play a specific track, you can't. It's sort of like a personal radio station, you get what the DJ plays.
On the back of the shuffle is a slide switch that sets the mode. There are three positions, off, play the playlist straight through, or shuffle the playlist. There is also a small button that very roughly indicates the state of the battery charge. The shuffle charges and downloads music from the USB connector on the end of the device.
This simplicity may seem pretty restrictive but it really isn't an issue. What if you want to play a favorite song? Well, by definition, these songs are ALL my favorites because I loaded them from my favorites list in iTunes (the free music jukebox program for Mac or PC). I don't get to pick exactly WHEN I'll hear a particular song, but I can be pretty sure that I'll like the next song it will play. If you REALLY want to be able to play any particular song at any time, then the iPod shuffle isn't the right player for you, get a regular iPod or some other player instead.
The shuffle can also be used as a USB thumb drive. A control in iTunes sets the amount of memory that is reserved to store arbitrary data. ITunes will load up the balance with music. The internal flash memory is formatted FAT32 so that it is readable on both Macs and PCs.
I have minimal experience with non-iPod music players because I've touched only one. I have a Sony Clie that can act as an MP3 player. It sounds ok, but it's capacity is limited by the memory stick installed. I have a 128K stick available which is nowhere near big enough. I could buy a 1G stick, but that would cost the about the same as a whole iPod shuffle. The music player software that comes on it is pretty poor, you have to get out the stylus and tap on the screen to do anything and it's flexibility is very limited. Further, the headphone jack is on the side so that the Clie won't fit in a pocket or holster using headphones without the remote adaptor. The remote adaptor does make it fit in a pocket better and provides buttons for common functions, but it is yet another dongle to deal with. The thing is as bigger and heavier than a regular iPod and holds a miserably small amount of music. I don't have a way to automatically manage the music that is loaded, it must be done manually. It won't play AAC or protected AAC (iTunes Music Store format) so I have to encode in MP3 and can't play the stuff that I have that is encoded as AAC. It is really very frustrating.
The Clie is a "convergent" type of device. It tries to do many things but like most convergent devices, it does none of them optimally well. As a Palm based PDA, it is pretty good and I use it all the time even though Sony has abandoned it. iPods are "divergent" devices. They are optimized to do few things, but do them very well. Overall, I have been more pleased with divergent devices even though I may have to carry more than one device to do different things.
I can relate the experience of others that I know who have some other kind of player. They complain about:
These are exactly the same complaints that I have with the Clie.
The iPod shuffle seems to suffer from none of these problems. The shuffle controls are very easy to use, even by feel. The capacity is good for 16 hours without repeats (1 GB model) which is longer than the internal rechargeable battery lasts. iTunes is very easy to use and downloads are virtually automatic.
A couple of people that I know who were frustrated with their existing players have become shuffle owners and they relate the difference as startling.
As good as it is, the iPod shuffle is not without annoyances. I have found several.
The first annoyance is that the headphone cord is too long. When the shuffle is hung from the neck with the supplied lanyard, the headphone cord hangs well below the belt and tends to catch on things. This is relatively easily fixed as shown in the photo. I've looped the cord back on itself twice to take up about 18" extra inches. The loops are retained with 1/4" white shrink tubing.
Also many people don't like the standard Apple earbuds for various reasons. They fit my ears well and sound good. Other "better" earbuds didn't suit me at all. One size truly does not fit all. The stock earbuds don't block external sounds at all. This is good when you have to hear stuff over the music, bad if you want to block that stuff out.
If you really want to block out the outside world, get the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones. These actually work (especially well on airplanes) but are MUCH bigger than the shuffle and also MUCH more expensive ($300).
After many months of using the earbuds this way I got tired of having to fish the earbuds out of my shirt pocket where I would stash them when I couldn't listen to the shuffle for awhile. They would get tangled up and figuring out was left and right was a bother.
I took a hint from the iPod nano accessory earbuds (which integrate with the lanyard) and used two small cable ties to fasten the buds to the lanyard. After a few adjustments, this is what I came up with. Now I can just take the buds from my ears and drop them. They hang at about the same height as the shuffle itself and don't wrap around each other. I don't have to bother looking at them to get then in the correct ear. The downside is that the bud cords are not quite long enough and they effectively reduce the opening in the lanyard making it a little more difficult to fit the lanyard over my head, but it still fits.
My hacked up lanyard worked pretty well for a couple of months, but at Christmas Santa brought me a set of Griffin Tunebuds. These are the shuffle's true equivilent to the nano lanyard headphones but they cost half as much. This setup materially improves the wiring clutter while wearing the shuffle. Apparently, there is a headphone signal on at the USB connector because there is no longer a need to use the headphone jack. These buds fit my ears well enough and they sound ok. I am not an audiophile so I can't really tell if they are better or worse than the stock earbuds. However, they are MUCH louder than the Apple earbuds. These earbuds and the regular ones can be used at the same time for whatever that is worth.
Another annoyance is a very faint click that can be heard at the end of each cut and at the beginning of the next one. I assume that this is a transient that is generated by the audio power amp in the shuffle being turned off and on again. It is possible that a firmware fix may improve this situation. The click is faint and can only be heard in the supplied headphones. When the shuffle drives a high impedance load (such as powered speakers), the click cannot be heard.
Update. As of 22Feb05, an updater for the shuffle firmware was released that made the click go away.
The dimensions of the body of the iPod shuffle are somewhat larger than a typical USB thumb drive. This can cause problems when connecting to some USB ports. The shuffle will partially obscure the adjacent USB port of a 12" Powerbook or iBook. It will also not fully insert into some USB ports on some computers. I know that it won't work on the front ports of a Dell Optiplex (but it will work in the rear ports) and I have heard that it won't work in an eMac. All of these interferences can be solved with a cheap USB extension cable. If you have a USB media reader, you probably got one with the reader because these usually have a similar interference problem. The shuffle will work fine on the end of an extension cable.
The shuffle may or may not work with USB 1.1 ports. If it does work at all it will be slow. The problem is that some USB 1.1 ports do not provide sufficient power to run the shuffle and it will shut down. The USB ports on Apple keyboards fall into this category. You will need "high power" USB port to use and charge the shuffle. Actually you can use ANY powered USB port as long as it has enough power. The Airport Express or Extreme printer port, many USB hubs, a Blackberry charger or other similar device will charge it. The charge indicators may not behave in an expected fashion, but as long as there are lights, it is getting charged.
The battery indicator on the back is a less than totally readable. The "amber" indication is really "less green." Somebody with partial red/green colorblindness (not me) would not be able to tell anything from the indicator at all.
The iPod shuffle appears to be designed to work with only one computer at a time. If you try to connect it to a second computer with iTunes installed, the shuffle will detect that the Library on the 2nd computer isn't the same as the one it's tunes were loaded from. If you elect to connect to the new computer (you can decline), then ALL of the music that was loaded from the 1st computer will simply vanish and be replaced with music from the second computer. You therefore cannot mix and match tunes from multiple computers. Some users find that that this "feature" is an intolerable screw-up on Apple's part. Others (myself included) have no problem with it because they don't use the shuffle with more than one computer. It is not clear why Apple chose to do this, but this is the way that it is. If this is not acceptable to you, then the shuffle will not satisfy you.
Also, if you elect to load up the shuffle and then delete the tunes from the iTunes Library for any reason, iTunes will delete those tunes from the shuffle the next time it is plugged in. If you want tunes on the shuffle, they MUST be left in the iTunes library.
The shuffle sometimes does not recover properly from a pause state. This can happen if paused only for a few seconds. When the play button is pressed to exit a pause state, the player apparently does nothing. Sometimes a 2nd or 3rd 5 second wait and another push will get it going again. Sometimes, no amount of mashing on the buttons will cause it to recover. It is then necessary to reset it by sliding the power switch to "off" for 5 seconds and sliding it back to the desired play mode. The player will then pick up where it left off....most of the time. Sometimes it will start at a different song, and it may play a newly shuffled list as well. As of Oct 05, this occurs with the newest firmware which indicates that Apple still hasn't got it completely right.
Other times, especially if the shuffle has been paused for only a minute or so, it'll skip to the start of the next song when it is un-paused. If you really wanted to hear the song it was playing, you can always click the back button but it will start at the beginning of the previous song.
After a short time with the Griffin TuneBuds, they seem to influence the pause behavior. After short pauses, the shuffle will play a half second burst of the song that was playing and then stop. Another press of the pause button will start the shuffle in the same song. With the TuneBuds, the shuffle still skips tracks, becomes catatonic or reshuffles the playlist.
Update 17Jul06. After 18 months, Apple has finally released an iPod update that appears to materially improve the shuffle's response to a pause. The update is version 1.1.4 and is included in the 06-06-28 iPod software updater.
The shuffle seems to be intolerant of some songs or some playlists. It may do some odd things. I built one particular playlist and after that, every time that I unplugged it from the computer, it would not work. When I tried to play it, the green and yellow lights alternately flashed indicating an error. Simply plugging it in and letting iTunes "update" it again (took about 5 seconds) fixed this problem each time. It would play fine until I plugged it in again. The annoying part is that if I forgot to go through this extra cycle, it was dead for the day. It continued to do this until I loaded a new playlist, then the problem went away.
Others have reported odd behavior with some songs and these problem may be related. I would suspect that once Apple figures out what is happening, a firmware fix may correct this issue.
The little foam pads that come with the earbuds tend to fall off easily, especially after considerable use. Apple supplies an extra set and sells more but there is an easy way to prevent losing them until they literally fall apart. Use a toothpick to push the edge of the foam down. Then with another toothpick, apply a very small drop of rubber or contact cement near the edge of the earbud and then let the foam edge up back over the drop. Do this in three places on each earbud and give them an hour or so to dry. The foam pads won't come off again until they simply fall apart.
For those of you that like the Apple foam earbud pads, they fit the TuneBuds well and the same patch to hold the pads works as well.
I did one test of battery life when it was brand new and it ran 16 hours in two sessions before it died. Another test (4 months later) resulted in 14.5 hours of battery life in one continuos session. Another test at after I'd had it for a little over 9 months indicated that the run time had decreased again. The data points indicate a pretty linear degradation in battery life as a function of time. Further, extrapolation from the points indicates that the battery will be seriously degraded after 3 or 4 years. This is pretty normal for a Li-ion battery. See my PowerBook Battery Life Test page for more details on the life and death of a Li-ion battery. I estimate that this particular shuffle gets charged from a nearly discharged state about 120 times per year. I suppose that 3rd party manufacturers will come up with a battery replacement option for the shuffle. However, it may not be a user replaceable battery as the shuffle is harder to get apart than the larger iPods and the battery is soldered in place.
As of Nov 06 my 2nd generation iPod is nearly 5 years old. It was rated for 10 hours of battery life, but when it was new it would run 12 hours. 5 years later, the battery is hurting, the playtime is less than 3 hours. This life is actually excellent for this battery technology, 25% remaining capacity in 5 years is about all one could expect although the shuffle looks like it might do a little better if it follows it's 2 year degradation rate.
I left it at work one weekend paused and it was dead when I got back on Monday. I thought that the battery had died, but now I think that it may have become catatonic as others have described. I didn't try to revive it then, I just took it home and charged it so I don't really know. However I have run another test of the battery life while paused and it has gone 14 full days while paused after a day of normal use. Twice each day, I woke it up to check the battery indicator and then paused it again. At the end of the 14th day, the battery indicator was still green. This was long enough to show that the paused mode is a very low battery drain mode. It may not be necessary to ever turn it off.
The response of the shuffle after being taken out of an extended pause looks just like when it starts when it is first turned on. I suspect that after a minute or so of pause, it shuts itself down. By the way, the click that used to occur between songs (initial firmware version) now only occurs when you wake it up or it finally goes back to sleep.
A shuffle can be reset by turning it off for 5 seconds and turning it back on. I didn't know about this that Monday so I didn't try it then. On subsequent occasions when the shuffle has played dead again, a reset has recovered its "life" every time.
The shuffle is a little sensitive to the characteristics of the USB port that it is plugged into. If the port isn't a "high power" port, the current draw of the shuffle while trying to charge may overload the port and shut it down. When discharged, the shuffle requires up to 170 mA of charging current. If the computer and shuffle don't communicate properly when the shuffle is plugged in, the lights on the shuffle may not make much sense. This also occurs when the shuffle is plugged into "dumb" USB ports such as straight chargers or computers without iTunes installed. Even if the lights don't make any sense, if there are any lights at all, the shuffle is charging, give it 2-4 hours and you will have an adequate charge. The shuffle can also be unplugged from a "dumb" port at any time no matter what the lights indicate.
When a shuffle is charging it gets a little warm on the backside. The region at the bottom of the power switch (right next to the battery button) will run at about 110°F.
With the Apple USB charger, the light on the battery indicator on the back will indicate the state of the charge, solid yellow indicates charging, solid green indicates charged. The lights do not respond the same in other "dumb" chargers. It appears that the shuffle can tell the difference between an Apple USB charger and other powered USB sources.
There is another way to deal with a dead shuffle battery. Apple sells a battery pack that clips onto the shuffle and holds two AAA sized alkaline batteries. The instructions indicate that recharable batteries are not recommended. It is supposed to play another 20 hours on a set of batteries. Some reports have indicated that it may go another 30 hours.
All of this rambling discussion brings me to the actual reason for this page. I want to describe why someone who already owns an iPod would want a shuffle. The table below describes the differences. Not all of the other iPods have the same feature set, so a capability listed may not be available on every model.
|less than 1 oz
|shuffle feels like nothing
|$99 or $149
|$199 to $399
|shuffle costs more per megabyte
|512 MB or 1 GB
|2 to 60 GB
|shuffle is not likely to hold anybody's full library
|very comfortable, virtually weightless
|weight is obvious no matter how carried
|shuffle is hands down winner
|large pack of gum
|large pack of cigarettes
|iPod will fill a pocket, shuffle won't
|lower cost exposure if lost, damaged or stolen
|higher cost exposure, more likely damaged if dropped
|Won't skip at all
|Can skip if jarred when accessing disk
|shuffle (and nano) much more suited to exercise
|play what you want, exactly when you want it
|Multiline Color LCD
|nano and iPod
|iPod only (not supported on nano)
|up to 16 hours
|12 to 20 hours
|when new, batteries degrade over time
shuffle can get 20 to 30 hours more with an optional battery pack (takes two AAA cells). Battery pack weighs much more than the shuffle.
|Compatibility with Multiple Computers
|music can be added from several different computers
|Syncing the shuffle to a 2nd computer will automatically delete anything added from the original computer
|supported most iPods
|sound check can somewhat level the volume when the songs have different volume
|Equalization set in iTunes is transferred to the iPod
|several lame games
|3G iPod and later
|3G iPod and later
|To Do List
|3G and 4G iPods only
|Real Time Song Ratings
|later models only
|On the Go Playlists
|later models only
|not implemented on any iPod. FM radios in music players usually work only marginally well and are typically hard to use. Then there are the ads...
|not implemented on any iPod. Buy a Dictaphone.
The table pretty much tells the tale. If you are going to go out about your business for a day or two, the iPod shuffle will serve you well. It's easier to carry, less obtrusive and carries lower risk of loss due to physical damage or theft. The downside is that you have to get back to your computer once in awhile to reload it with new tunes or the shuffle playlist can get stale. If you want the iPod to be the source of all of your music such that you can get to anything at any time then a regular iPod, sized to match your music Library, is the hot setup. The new models will work as an alarm clock and a read only PDA provided that you keep your address book and iCal info up to date. The larger iPods can also be used as a backup disk (an important function of my iPod photo) so that I can keep my data in at least two places easily when I travel (with computer and iPod).
I feel that the obvious solution to the question of which to get is to get both. Each has it's uses, each does what it does best very well, each does significant stuff that the other does not.
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This page has been accessed times since 20 Feb 2005
© 2005-2007 George Schreyer
Created 20 Feb 2005
Last Updated July 15, 2007