New iPod Shuffle: Form 2, Function 0

A while back I opined that Apple shareholders should sit tight and relax even though Steve Jobs has "gone fishin'" until sometime this summer. Apple has a deep bench, I said. Don't worry. Be happy. Things are in good hands.

But then I took a look a the new iPod Shuffle.

I'm a big fan of the shuffle. I actually have three of the original "Wrigley's Spearmint" shuffles from a few years back. I've gotten moderately geeky with smart playlists in iTunes to easily create a selection of podcasts to load on a shuffle to keep me entertained and informed as I drive or walk from job to job. And since they probably have a current street value less than 20 bucks, I don't worry about a shuffle getting lost or stolen, as I would with a late generation Nano or Touch.

The new model gives us a feature I've long pined for on a Shuffle: the ability to load and play multiple playlists. It's very cool they've finally found a way to allow selection of playlists on an iPod with no LCD display. But as cool as that is, there are other design decisions that I find much more suspect.

OEM headphones only (at least for now) - Third party manufacturers will probably step in here, but with the controls built into the headphone cord, we are currently limited to Apple-made earphones. Two MacWorld writers (Christopher Breen and Dan Moren) reviewing the device say Apple's 'phones just fall out of their ears. With me, they stay in OK, but for some reason my ears start to ache after only an hour or so of listening. After some trial and error, I found Skullcandy in-ear earbuds, which are comfortable for hours and hours of use. I actually go to sleep most nights with these phones in and have no discomfort at all. So as long as it's Apple earphones only, I'll have to say "pass" on this new Shuffle.

No fast-forward/rewind? - I have no "hands-on" with this iPod yet, but I've read multiple articles and looked at the Apple website and their "guided tour" video. The in-line headphone control does, in an ingenious yet less intuitive way, carry out all the functions one would need on a shuffle EXCEPT. . . fast forward and rewind? I see no reference anywhere to how I can scrub forward or backward in the currently playing track. As I said, I play a lot of podcasts on the shuffle. If I'm distracted and miss part of a spoken word audio program, I just press and hold the "rewind" button for a few seconds and listen to the passage again. This is important to me, and is probably important to any podcast or audiobook fan. But if the new shuffle can do this, it is so far a mystery to me how it's done.

So, first glance, the score for the new shuffle is Form 2, Function 0. Was the previous generation shuffle really so big and ungainly that it needed this degree of shrinking and sleeking? I don't think so. This slicker new design seems to come at the expense of ease of use, simplicity, and one (at least to me) vital function.

This new device was probably in development well before the Steve Jobs hiatus, but I can't help but think this is a product he would not have let out the door in it's current form.

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