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First Impressions of the New Shuffle

Sunday, November 5th, 2006

Apple delivered a second-generation shuffle, finally on sale, to my office on Friday. I’d first put my hands on one when Steve Jobs announced it at the September launch event in San Francisco (when he also introduced the 2G nano and [Disney] movies on the iTunes store. I was impressed then, and eager to try it out.

The shuffle is a funny kind of device. As I said in The Perfect Thing, Apple and Jobs have done a classic job of processing some lemons–a music player that can’t tell you what’s playing, and won’t allow you to choose which song to play–and making lemonade. No screen? No wheel? No problem! It’s about randomness, and novelty and choice! Even though I have incessantly flogged the virtues of shuffling one’s music collection, the fact is many if not most of iPod’s users do not choose shuffle as their main means of playback. The only way you can control what comes up on shuffle is to use the other, “play-in-order” mode, after first determining the order on iTunes. Nonetheless, though there’s no sales figures, the stick-of-gum model of the shuffle seems to have been successful. And now the category is ready for breakout.

Can a device with such limited navigation be useful? Yes, especially as one’s second iPod. Since songs load into the shuffle so quickly, this actually allows a lot of flexibility. If you get a new album, it’s easy to simply put it on the shuffle and set it up so it plays first. Or if you’re listening to an audio book, you can dedicate the shuffle to that spoken text. And many people simply move their workout playlists to a shuffle, and take it to the gym, or on a run.

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The new shuffle is just great for any of these. But first I have to say that the 2G iPod is an astounding statement on how far technology has come. Barely bigger than a postage stamp, and virtually weightless–about half an ounce–the thing clips onto your clothes. (Jobs told me in September that when brainstorming it, he and Apple Industrial Design guru Jonny Ive began with the concept of wearability and went on from there.) It’s got a gig of flash memory, good for about 240 four-minute songs (my own first “autofill” gave me 230 tunes). Here’s a place that shows you what it looks disassembled. The sound quality sounds fine. (Though others, maybe with better ears than mine, have expressed gripes._ Batteries last 12 hours on a charge. (I haven’t tested this yet.) And Apple offers free engraving.

Like the new nano, it comes in packaging that’s very compact and earth friendly–but has no iTunes software disk. Many people who buy it will already have iTunes or will have no problem downloading iTunes from the Apple site. But there are millions of people in the US who do not have broadband, and for those the lack of a disk is problematic.

Essentially, it’s the same interface as the iPod radio/remote that came out about a year ago–you get the buttons of the click wheel but no wheel itself. On top there are two buttons–no bigger than deer ticks–that turn it on and off and set the mode in either shuffle or sequential. It does what you need to do–modulate volume and go back and forth with selections, and pause. But the big thing is that it’s so fricking small! It’s maybe the first time that techno-jewelry has gone beyond the point of novelty and attained actual functionality. When I showed it to people at Newsweek they couldn’t believe it wasn’t a remote control for a device but the actual device.

I think that the new Shuffle will be a tremendous hit–especially with those who already have iPods but want another for exercise or travel. (It’s a great way for a family to make iPods available to all its members). At $79 it’s almost an impulse buy. It will find its way in zillions of goodie bags. Yesterday I did an appearance at the Apple Store in Soho, and my son queued up to buy one as the gift for a sweet sixteen party he was attending that night (he split the cost with a friend). My bet is that the young lady will be very happy to get it. On Friday someone supposedly bought 200 of them at Apple Store on 57th Street!

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