iPod Shuffle Review

For a while now I have owned a Motorola DAP M25 flash-based MP3/WMA player. While this is for the most part a decent player, my need to break the DRM on iTunes Music Store purchases so as to play them on it (or on my Sony MP3-capable CD changer), the lack of a rechargeable battery and the tendency of my brother David's unit to totally blow up if played until the batteries ran out led me to consider some other options.

One of these options was Apple Computer's own iPod music player. The trouble is, I didn't really see myself getting along well with a hard disk based version. Even the iPod mini was a bit bigger than I would have liked it to be. I don't really need several days worth of music with me either. Several CDs worth will do just fine. The only big selling point for me would be the interoperability with the iTunes music store--no more would I have to resort to potentially illegal (not that I care) methods to get my music onto a third-party player. I was stuck until Apple announced the iPod Shuffle--a flash based iPod music player with either 512MB or 1GB of onboard memory. I ordered the 512MB model about the same time as my Mac Mini.

This delay in getting the iPod Shuffle is my only major complaint with the player. Nearly four months later the Shuffle rolled in just as my Motorola M25 player started acting very strangely and oftentimes just plain failing to power up at all. I switched completely to the iPod and have been using it ever since.
Long story short, the iPod Shuffle is an excellent, if basic, portable music player. It boasts a rechargeable battery, up to 120 songs as per Apple, and compatibility with PCs using Windows 2000 or higher, as well as any Apple Macintosh running Mac OS X 10.2.8 or later.

Getting Started

As with the Mac Mini, pictures don't do the size of this thing justice. Box and player are both very small.

iPod Shuffle in its box

Of course, every review begins with opening the box. If you should buy an iPod Shuffle, this is pretty much what you're going to see upon opening the box.

Contents of the iPod Shuffle box...

When you open the box, one of the first things that greets you is Apple's famous "Designed By Apple In California" line. Almost immediately you are also urged to not steal music...a good idea given how the RIAA is cracking down these days, but sometimes a bit difficult to avoid since the iTunes music store doesn't carry every song ever recorded and sometimes CDs just aren't an option.

Once you get everything taken out of the box, you should have:

...which I usually ignore, but this time I figured since the iPod Shuffle was so small and not likely to attract attention that I should use them.

iPod Shuffle with an Apple logo stuck to it...

This didn't turn out well. I stuck the Apple logo onto the Shuffle and promptly struck out three times. Once because the thing overlapped which made it want to stick to everything in sight and pick up enormous amounts of pet hair, twice because it was darned hard to photograph and I had to do a lot of fiddling around with the camera to get a usable picture and the third time was the charm when I discovered that no matter where I placed it, the controls were blocked in some way. It was a joke. Hope you got it.

So I carefully stuck the Apple logo back onto the sheet (yes, really) with its partner and moved on to actually getting things set up. Maybe someday I will decorate a room with them or something. Can you say "border art"?

(Sorry, just kidding around and trying to keep the reading interesting.)

Plugging the Shuffle into my computer of choice--a Dell Latitude D800--was straighforward enough, but because the iPod Shuffle has a kind of surround around the USB port, it didn't fit well into the slightly recessed USB ports on the computer. I couldn't get the computer to recognize the iPod reliably until I switched to one of the slightly recessed back ports. Even then, Windows kept throwing the "unsafe removal of hardware" warning message if the iPod moved around even slightly in the USB port. Apple's manual hints at this being a problem with certain computers and suggests purchase of a USB expander cable if your computer's USB ports won't quite reach the iPod. I finally stole an extender that came with a USB memory key and that got things working nicely at last.

Personally, I feel Apple could have included a short extender in the box with the iPod, but I can also understand the reasons for not doing so. If nothing else, the design could be changed to make the USB connector just a fraction longer than it is now and all the connection woes would be gone forever. This would not solve the problem with some computers having awkardly placed front USB connectors though...so even if Apple did made said changes, your mileage could still vary. Let this just be a friendly notice that if you buy an iPod shuffle and have a laptop or desktop computer with slightly funky USB ports that you may either hooking it up in the back of your computer, using the extender cable or doing both.

Upon getting a successful connection, Apple's manual stated that for first time use that the iPod should be charged for at least four hours prior to first use. I did this and let Windows install the drivers for the hardware. After Windows was done, my installed copy of iTunes picked up on my new purchase and stepped me through getting it registered and downloading a set of complimentary songs (known as a "iTunes New Music Sampler") so as to get started with it. The songs included weren't my cup of tea (in fact, I'd liked to have been able to select from various genres of music) but you might enjoy them and they are free. I noticed that the collection I got was known as the "Atlantic/Lava Edition". This seems to suggest that perhaps various editions abound...and if anyone has gotten a different one with different songs, I would like to know about it.

iTMS Atlantic/Lava New Music Sampler

In any event, here's a breakdown of the songs I got in track order:

Title & Registration - Death Cab For Cutie
Welcome To My Life - Simple Plan
Drive Away - Gratitude
Gotta Get Up From Here - Ellie Lawson
Lost Control - Unwritten Law
What You Want - John Butler Trio
When I'm Gone (Sadie) - No Address
Funny Little Feeling - Rock 'n' Roll Soldiers
Yesterday Never Tomorrows - The Stills
Louis XIV - Louis XIV
Broken Promises - Moments In Grace
You'll Never Guess Who Died - The Kinison
Pressure -Skindred
On Your Porch - The Format
Everyday - Toby Lightman
Shallow - Porcupine Tree

(No, I didn't keep these songs in my library...but I did archive the files for later use or something. And if you're particularly astute, you'll notice that iTunes isn't sorting the list correctly in the screenshot above...)

Anyway...upon getting all hooked up, I started loading music onto the Shuffle itself. The process was a breeze...drag and drop simple. While not really reviewed here, the iTunes software does have strong points in ease of use, good interface design and easy loading of music onto to an Apple player. It's pretty well designed and might convince you to give up your current music player software...in fact, you will have to at least use iTunes to put music on the iPod. Despite the fact that the Shuffle is powered by a common SigmaTel MP3 decoder, Apple has customized the firmware so that you cannot simply copy music files to the device and have them play. iTunes not only does this, but it also updates the database file that the player uses to find and play your music.

There are only two moderate gripes here. iTunes is Windows 2000/XP or Mac OS X-only software. No other operating systems are supported, and as far as I can tell, nobody has yet hacked the database file used on the iPod so that it can be modified by other programs that run on other systems. So if you're still using Windows 98(SE), Mac OS 9, or Linux then the iPod Shuffle won't work for you out of the box or possibly at all.

Secondly...back in the days of my Motorola M25 player, I used dBpowerAMP software and the works of the Hymn project to remove the DRM from my Apple Music Store purchases. (I still do this, and while some might consider it criminal, I do happen to reserve at least the right to play the music I purchased on any device I happen to own. If it doesn't support DRM, that's just too bad. So what if my neighbors happen to hear it?) With this setup (while it had lots of steps to perform before having a finished product) I could output to any format at any bitrate I desired.

iTunes (probably in the interest of simplicity) doesn't allow this level of control. You can only reduce quality to the point of 128KBp/s AAC. I'd really like to see a slider or other setting implemented in iTunes for maybe 96KBp/s or even 64. This would have the advantage of being easy to use and yet still allowing a person like myself to have some choice in output quality. Sometimes I just don't need 128KBp/s quality audio. I could also make more efficient use of the iPod's internal memory...with the Motorola having had half the memory of the iPod, it could hold almost 120 songs at the 64KBp/s WMA format.

Sound Quality

If you're looking for a portable music player with excellent sound quality, the iPod Shuffle should be high on your list for the most part. The sound output--while not really adjustable given the Shuffle's simplified control set--is excellent with plenty of power and clarity when needed.

My one recommendation here would be not to use the included earbuds. Other than my extreme dislike of earbuds (they don't fit my ears and I find that they either fall out or exert painful pressure in my ear) I would say that the sound quality isn't nearly as good as even a cheap set of over-the-ear headphones. I used the earbuds for a while before switching to a set of Panasonic-supplied "XBS" over-the-ear headphones that came with a cheap Panasonic cassette player. It was a night and day difference. The sound immediately had a lot more depth, power and clarity than it did the earbuds.

If you enjoy music and want to hear the best sound possible from your Shuffle, take the time to spend even a little money on some better headphones or even earbuds if you happen to like them.

I have only one complaint about sound quality. Upon connecting the iPod Shuffle to the cassette shell adapter in my pickup truck, I noticed that the sound was rather shrill in spots. The volume differential between songs also became more prevalent. Regrettably, the Shuffle doesn't seem to support Apple's "Sound Check" volume normalizer. I was, however, able to restore an acceptable tonal balance to the sound using the tone controls on my radio. The volume difference I either ignored or just adjusted the volume control in the worst cases.


The iPod Shuffle was designed for simplicity in operation. This is reflected in the control layout. The only controls on the unit let you adjust volume, skip tracks, pause or start playback, select between "straight" play or "shuffle" mode and check the built in battery's state of charge. The play/pause button also lets you lock or unlock the controls on the Shuffle if you hold it down for several seconds. This helps prevent mistaken or accidental operation of the Shuffle.

There is no display beyond the main LEDs and a battery state-of-charge LED. There is also no radio tuner, which some people might miss. Given that most of the personal radios I've worked with over the years have been total crap when it came to receiving anything but the station you are standing next to, I wouldn't miss one. It should be noted, though, that some gyms use low power FM to relay TV audio to patrons. Some drive-in movie theaters do this as well. If either of these things are on your list of things that your music player should do, you will have to look past the Shuffle for now.

I don't know that you could operate this player while wearing gloves, but the simplified control layout does mean that you can work the player without looking at or even thinking much of doing so.


The iPod Shuffle is shipped in a fairly plain configuration. One of the few goodies you get is a neck lanyard that replaces the snap-on cover that is normally placed over the USB port. Apple also sells an armband and some cases that can help improve the water resistance of the unit if you take it into moderately wet locations.

The neck lanyard is a nice touch and can provide a handy place to put your Shuffle if you don't have any pockets, but I found it very easy to get the cord from my earphones tangled up in it from time to time if I was not careful. I also noticed that the iPod Shuffle can sometimes escape from the lanyard if pulled or tugged on. This isn't a show stopper, but if the music quits playing, you had better get to looking for your Shuffle right then and there as it may have escaped!

Some people love 'em and others don't...but I am a big fan of the rechargeable battery inside the Shuffle. Yes, the use of a rechargeable battery does mean that someday you may have to shell out for a replacement, but the convenience outweighs this concern for me.


The iPod Shuffle is not without a very few quirks. I have found two so far. The first makes the music stop playing if for some reason the headphones are disconnected. Why this is I don't know, but it can be annoying if you disconnect the headphones in error for a moment. You will have to restart the music after plugging your headphones back in.

The other quirk involves pausing music. If for some reason you pause a song toward the end, the Shuffle may skip right on past to the next song when you resume it. This has only happened with a few of my songs, but since all were ripped or purchased through iTunes, the behavior does seem odd and unnecessary. (Since this was written, I've come to understand that this may have been addressed in later iPod software releases.)


All things considered, the iPod Shuffle is a worthwhile entry from Apple Computer into the flash-based music player market. The biggest selling points are probably audio quality, presence of a rechargeable battery, the small form factor, compatibility with iTunes and most certainly price. The iPod Shuffle is priced less than some smaller flash-based players on the market today.

I certainly recommend giving one a long hard look if you are in the market for a portable personal music player and happen to own a computer with which the iPod Shuffle will be compatible.


Before wrapping up the review, I thought I would mention a few things I have learned.

  1. If you make the iPod Shuffle visible as a storage volume from within iTunes, you can run a disk defragmentation tool on the contents of its memory. Do this when the memory is about 80% full of music and you can usually sneak about 20~35 more songs onto it than Apple advertises. I don't know why, but when iTunes puts music on the device, it does so in a way that seems to fragment the onboard file system rather heavily. I'd suggest doing this at 80% and every few songs later until iTunes will simply place no more songs on the device. You may be in for a pleasant surprise and I doubt very much that this can hurt anything as the iPod Shuffle is simply a flash-type file system.
  2. A guide to nonviolent iPod Shuffle disassembly is available over at Hack-A-Day. I haven't done this and don't suggest you do either for obvious reasons (Apple is notorious for making things hard to take apart without destruction being an unfortunate and all too common possibility...) relating your iPod's health. Still, a look inside lets you see what goes on inside and just how small the technology inside must really be for the iPod Shuffle to sport such a small case and overall tiny exterior. It is quite impressive to look at.

Copyright © 2005-2006 by William R. Walsh. All Rights Reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce this page in its entirety with all copyright notices intact and pictures present for no charge other than reasonable media, access time or duplicating fees. Questions? Comments? I'm listening.

Please do not send me angry or derogatory comments (or threats of legal action) about the references to removing DRM from purchased music files. You should know that A) I'm well within my rights to make music I purchased the right to listen to play on the devices I have at hand and B) that I don't share these files or distribute them beyond the walls of my house.