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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

A Surprising New Mini-Player in the Music Game

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page F07

Before two weeks ago, I would not have guessed that a 3 1/2-inch-long stick of white plastic that plays music could be much of a conversation piece. But then Apple introduced the iPod Shuffle, and it's been drawing oohs and aahs since.

Think of this tiny device (just 1 1/2 ounces with its headphones and lanyard) as the iPod for the rest of us. Where Apple's bigger music players sell for $249 to $599, its two Shuffle models go for just $99 and $149. The cheaper model offers 512 megabytes of storage, the pricier one a gigabyte's worth -- 120 and 240 songs, respectively, by Apple's estimates.

The new iPod Shuffle. (Courtesy Apple Inc.)

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The iPod Shuffle's prices aren't just cheap, they undercut those of every major competitor. At Amazon.com, opting for a non-Apple player with the same capacity as the $99 Shuffle will cost at least $20 more; at Best Buy, the not-Apple tax runs to $80 -- or $30 more than Apple's one-gig model. And unlike most competitors, the Shuffle isn't sold in a "blister-pack" that will maim you when you try to open it.

Other manufacturers might already seem doomed to wind up splattered across Apple's windshield.

The music-player business, however, does not revolve around price alone -- otherwise, the iPod would have never gotten a bite at the market. The iPod Shuffle isn't even the cheapest (or lightest) player around: Budget-minded buyers can grab an MP3-capable portable CD player for as little as $20, and Virgin Electronics sells an $80 disc-shaped device that weighs under an ounce.

But those other gadgets aren't iPods. They don't have the iPod's style or elegance, they can't sync to Apple's justly popular iTunes software and they can't play songs downloaded from Apple's market-leading iTunes Music Store.

The iPod Shuffle can. Because of that lineage, however, it also must meet high expectations -- despite leaving out the iPod's ingenious click-wheel control and sharp screen.

The lack of a display alone would seem to cripple this thing: You can't see what's playing now or next, much less jump to a particular song. Apple ads with cute taglines like "Give chance a chance" can be read as the worst sort of marketing hucksterism -- we couldn't put a display on this, so we'll sell that absence as a feature!

But I understand Apple's logic. When I listen to iTunes or an iPod, I usually have it set in shuffle mode -- my CD rack can't pleasantly surprise me with its contents, but these things can. If I don't like what gets served up, I usually skip to whatever's next instead of seeking out a specific song.

The Shuffle, as per its name, caters to that kind of listening. Plug a Shuffle into a PC or Mac's USB port, and Apple's iTunes program (it requires either Windows 2000 or XP, or Mac OS X 10.2 or 10.3) will fill it up with a random selection from your iTunes library. Feeling pickier? You can tell iTunes to choose songs you've rated higher or only those in a designated playlist. You can also drag individual songs or albums onto it.

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