Apple's economical iPod Shuffle differs from the higher-priced iPods in two major ways: it stores music on flash memory rather than on a hard disk, and it lacks an LCD display, an omission that Apple is spinning as a virtue. By making track randomisation a prominent feature, Apple is marketing the Shuffle's lack of visual track information as an experience in aural spontaneity.
The real question, however, is whether you can live without visual navigation. If the answer is yes, you'll find that the Shuffle sounds great and is reasonably priced at £79 for a 512MB player and £99 for a 1GB player. Each includes Apple's trademark white earbuds and a lanyard for wearing the unit around your neck. The Shuffle charges while plugged into your PC's USB port, and Apple says the battery lasts up to 12 hours.
The 23g player comes in the standard iPod white and is a bit larger than your average USB 2.0 thumb drive. (It can double as one, too.) Setup is easy. Download or install Apple ITunes 4.7.1, import your music files, and plug in the iPod Shuffle. ITunes quickly recognises the unit and starts transferring music (MP3, AAC, WAV, or Audible tracks) onto the Shuffle. The tracks appear as a Playlist in the iTunes Source window. We managed to squeeze 116 songs onto a 512MB.
You have a few choices for moving music onto the Shuffle. You can tell iTunes to upload a random selection of your tunes, specified Playlists, Smart Playlists, songs you've rated highly in iTunes or a combination of all the above.
The Shuffle does not use the same algorithm as the 4GB iPod Mini, which figures out the songs you like best and loads those first. You can reorder the Shuffle's playlist to your liking and iTunes will update the device on the fly (unless you've opted for the random upload).
I don't recommend the random upload, however, unless you are completely in love with your entire iTunes library. Listening to the device away from your PC, you'll no doubt encounter songs you own but don't particularly like or even recognise. When that happens, you have little recourse other than skipping to the next song.
A sliding switch on the back of the Shuffle lets you power on the device and toggle between shuffle and sequential play modes of listening to music.
The player does have limited Morse-code style navigation. Pressing the Play/Pause button three times fast brings you to the first song on your playlist. Holding the Play/Pause button down for three seconds disables buttons as well as the shuffle feature. We recommend doing this because the slider that controls the power and the shuffle is rather sensitive.
If you primarily listen to music at the gym, then you're not fussing around with a scroll wheel anyhow. But if you're a music junkie who moves about life with white earbuds permanently attached to your ears, then you will miss the LCD and probably won't be happy with this little gadget.