The minimalist third-generation Apple iPod shuffle has innovative text-to-voice technology, but the controls take some getting used to.

Apple's third-generation iPod shuffle will please minimalist-design enthusiasts. Smaller than a USB thumb drive, it is completely devoid of buttons, knobs, and a screen. While it is attractive, the shuffle's earbud controls and VoiceOver feature might not be for everyone.

The latest Apple iPod shuffle looks like no other MP3 player - or even iPod - out there. Aside from the earbuds, the only indicator that it does something other than accessorise your outfit is the Apple logo on the backside clip.

Measuring 45.2x17.5x7.8mm and weighing a scant 10.7g, this minuscule device could easily get lost in your pocket or bag if you're not careful. At the top of the device, next to the headphone jack, resides a switch for iPod shuffle, Play in Order, or Power Off. Between the switch and the jack is a status light that indicates how much life is left in the battery.

The controls for the iPod shuffle are located on the included earbuds, housed in a tiny remote on a cable below the right ear. This earbud design debuted last fall alongside the newest versions of the Apple iPod touch, iPod nano, and iPod classic. The controls are pretty basic: volume up/down buttons sit on either side of a multifunction centre button.

Using the multifunction button for playback isn't difficult, but it might take some time getting used to. Pressing the button once plays or pauses a song; twice skips forward and three times skips back.

Apple iPod shuffle

Although the earbud controls are quite small, they're very easy to press. Our main issue with the iPod shuffle design is the placement of the controls.

We had a lot of difficulty trying to skip songs and adjust volume while we were jogging or working out with the iPod shuffle. Since the controls are too close to the right ear, we had to move our neck in an awkward way to grasp them. And unsurprisingly, the earbuds fell out of our ears very easily.

We imagine that a lot of people use their iPod shuffles while working out, so we were disappointed when we learned that the controls were located on the bundled earbuds. And, let's face it, Apple's bundled earbuds have never been the best.

Luckily, a few third-party manufacturers such as Eytmotic Research and Klipsch have headphones compatible with the new iPod shuffle. Apple has also said that third-party adaptors will be available, as well.

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The minimalist third-generation Apple iPod shuffle has innovative text-to-voice technology, but the controls take some getting used to.

Admittedly, we've always been reluctant to buy a shuffle due to the lack of a screen - we like to be able to see what we're listening to. The iPod shuffle's new VoiceOver feature solves that issue: hold the headphone's centre button while a song is playing, and a synthesised voice (female, if you're on a PC) will announce the artist's name and song title.

iTunes automatically downloads and installs the software and uses its own text-to-speech engine to generate the voices.

VoiceOver supports 14 languages, so if you have a large collection of French pop, for example, it will pronounce the song and artist with the correct accent. VoiceOver also makes sorting through your iPod shuffle playlists a breeze.

If you hold down the iPod shuffle's centre button and keep holding it after the voice says the name and artist, you'll hear a beep. When you let go, the shuffle will start naming your playlists. You press the centre button again to select the playlist you'd like to hear. Audiobooks get their own playlists, and podcasts sort into one single playlist.

VoiceOver is a welcome feature. On the other hand, the robotic voice is a bit creepy, and it seems disruptive when it pops up in the middle of a song.

The new iPod shuffle's audio quality is good. Older-generation shuffles have sounded a bit tinny, in our experience, but the third generation is an improvement. It sounds fuller, and the bass is deeper and stronger.

It had no audible hiss, either. In our audio tests, the shuffle had a signal-to-noise ratio of 75dB (where the higher the number indicates a cleaner sound). Our top ranked players generally score in the 80s.

The diminutive iPod shuffle packs a generous 4GB of storage. While added storage is always appreciated, we would have liked to see some 2GB shuffles available at a lower price. For one thing, 4GB might be too much for people expecting to use their shuffles only at the gym or while running errands.

And other than VoiceOver, features are pretty sparse on the iPod shuffle, so we're not sure whether it warrants the £59 price tag. It also has no FM radio, no voice recording, and no support for the WMA or FLAC file formats.

iPod shuffle 3G (2009): Specs

  • 4GB flash drive
  • holds up to 1,000 songs in 128-Kbps AAC format
  • Skip-free playback
  • Frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz
  • Audio formats supported: AAC (16 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3 and 4), Apple Lossless, WAV and AIFF
  • stores data via USB flash drive
  • built-in rechargeable lithium polymer battery
  • 3.5-mm stereo headphone jack
  • earbuds with remote control included
  • 45.2x17.5x7.8mm
  • 10.7g
  • 4GB flash drive
  • holds up to 1,000 songs in 128-Kbps AAC format
  • Skip-free playback
  • Frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz
  • Audio formats supported: AAC (16 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3 and 4), Apple Lossless, WAV and AIFF
  • stores data via USB flash drive
  • built-in rechargeable lithium polymer battery
  • 3.5-mm stereo headphone jack
  • earbuds with remote control included
  • 45.2x17.5x7.8mm
  • 10.7g

OUR VERDICT

If you're looking strictly for an audio player that doesn't take up a lot of space, the third-generation iPod shuffle is ideal. But if you're unwilling to drop sixty quid for a feature-scarce MP3 player, you might want to consider some less expensive alternatives. The 4GB SanDisk Sansa Clip (£25), for example, has a screen, an FM radio, and a built-in microphone - and it doesn't tie you to the bundled earphones.

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