I’m calling this a post-review because I don’t like the term post-mortem, which perhaps is technically more correct.
The other day I made an impulsive purchase. In the window of a local second-hand shop, I noticed this little buddy at €15. I know this iPod is possibly one of the quirkiest Apple products, but at that price I thought it was foolish not to seize the opportunity. Sadly, the iPod didn’t came with its original box or packaging. I was simply given the unit and its connection cable — and that I consider one of the coolest dongles Apple has made. Look at it:
Anyway, this is a third-generation iPod shuffle, first introduced in March 2009, and discontinued in September 2010. It is the model with the shortest lifespan of all the iPod shuffles. Even the first-generation (the white stick) lasted a couple of months longer. But it’s also the model with the most daring design of all. For how it looks and how it works.
Apple made a bold move at the time. They retired the successful second-generation iPod shuffle (the second from the left in this image) and introduced a new iPod shuffle that lacked physical controls entirely. The only one is the ON/In order/Shuffle three-way switch on top of the unit:
For all media controls, you relied on the included Apple Earphones with Remote. The iPod ‘revolutionary’ feature was VoiceOver: after enabling it in iTunes, the iPod could speak song names, artist names, album names, playlist contents, and even battery status in 20 different languages. This iPod shuffle was also smaller and lighter than its predecessor, and it’s also the smallest and lightest (10.7 grams) product Apple ever made.
The third-generation iPod shuffle was introduced in two series. The first came in March 2009, with 4 GB models in silver and black. The second came in September 2009, and came in colours — black, silver, blue, green, pink models available in 2 GB and 4 GB capacities, plus a more expensive 4 GB stainless steel model, exclusively available through the Apple online Store. My recent purchase is one of these third-generation Late 2009 models, a silver 2 GB iPod.
Using the iPod
While I appreciated Apple’s will to innovate, at the time this iPod shuffle was presented I thought that moving all controls to the earphones was too drastic a move, and that having only the three physical controls on the earphones’ remote was a step back usability-wise, in that you had to memorise additional gestures to control media playback. Finally being able to use this iPod eight years later, I can say that:
1. Having all the essential media controls on the earphones and not on the device was not a good choice on Apple’s part. Of all the earphones and headphones I own, only the Apple Earphones with Remote work with this iPod. The current Apple EarPods work only partially: the central button is recognised, but the Volume +/- buttons are not. A no-brand, third-party pair of earphones with a similar remote aren’t recognised at all (you can only listen to music; no play/pause, no volume up/down). If you acquire a third-generation iPod shuffle today, make sure you have a pair of Apple Earphones with Remote. According to this paragraph on the iPod shuffle Wikipedia page, Several months after the third generation release, several third-party companies, including Belkin and Scosche, released adaptors which can be used to add the controls to standard headphones. I believe they’re an essential addition if you want to use the iPod shuffle with your favorite earphones. The Belkin adapter mentioned before looks like this:
2. For basic playback control, things aren’t so bad. The volume buttons on the earphones are self-explanatory. Then, all you have to remember is to click the Center button once to play or pause, double-click it to play the next track, and triple-click it to play the previous track. If you want to hear artist and song title, press and hold the Center button. The iPod manual gives you the basics:
Navigating playlists with the VoiceOver feature feels more complicated. From the manual:
To choose an item from the playlist menu:
- Click and hold the Center button on the remote.
- Continue holding after you hear the current song announcement, until you hear a tone.
- Release the Center button at the tone. You hear the names of your playlists.
When you’re listening to the playlist menu, you can click the Volume Up (+) or Volume Down (-) button to move forward or backward in the playlist menu.
- When you hear the name of the playlist you want, click the Center button to select it. You hear a tone, and then the first item in your playlist plays.
To restart a playlist, follow these steps to select the playlist you want.
All this dance of clicks, pauses, double-clicks is a bit confusing. This happens when you have only three buttons to accomplish several tasks of varying complexity. That’s why Apple produced a Guided Tour video, explaining the interactions in the clearest possible way. I remember some people back then complaining about the lack of intuitiveness of this iPod’s controls — they felt the navigation to be awkward and frustrating. I tend to agree, although I want to point out that, if you keep things simple (play/pause/skip and volume up/down), the third-generation iPod shuffle is rather intuitive to use.
3. When it debuted in 2009, I thought the VoiceOver feature was essentially a gimmick, but its usefulness was quickly apparent to me the first day of use. The night before, I had filled the iPod shuffle with random selections from my sizeable iTunes library, and when I was listening to the music the day after, there were some songs I didn’t immediately recognise (probably picked from the least played in my collection), so hearing artist and title via VoiceOver was helpful.
4. It is no surprise that the aspect I find most amazing about this iPod is just how small and lightweight it is. I own other ‘wearable’ iPods — the 2nd-generation shuffle and the 6th-generation nano — which aren’t exactly heavy devices (15.5 and 21.1 grams respectively), but this shuffle truly disappears after you clip it on what you’re wearing. And you can easily fit earphones and iPod in a small pocket of your jacket, trousers or backpack when you’re not using it. Imagine if Apple had added Bluetooth capabilities to this minute iPod. Coupled with wireless earphones, this solution would feel even more invisible.
The third-generation iPod shuffle is without doubt one of the most peculiar and unique iPods. It seems rather obvious that its success at the time was limited: the fact that Apple went back to the design of the second-generation iPod shuffle when they introduced the fourth-generation model is a clear indicator that people were not happy with the user interface and interaction of the third-generation model. Some didn’t like the limited choice of headphones; some didn’t like the revolutionised controls; some didn’t even like its size, too minuscule for their taste. I admit I was sceptical, too, back in 2009. After a few days of use, however, I’ve definitely warmed up to the little guy, finding it quite practical and inconspicuous when out and about, its interface less weird than anticipated. At €15, it was an irresistible purchase (this particular model was €55 new), but I think I’ll have to look for one of those aforementioned adapters if I want to be able to use the iPod with more than just one pair of earphones…