If you want to use a Shuffle to shuttle other sorts of files between computers, a setting in iTunes walls off part of its capacity for data use. The Shuffle then works like a standard USB memory key chain, even if plugged into a computer without iTunes.
Once loaded up -- thanks to the limited capacity, this happens quickly even over slower USB 1.1 ports -- the Shuffle is the definition of simplicity to operate. Slide a switch on its back to turn it on, then press the big play/pause button on its front. A circular button surrounds that, with volume up/down and next/previous controls arranged in the same north-south-east-west layout as other iPods. (To skip forward or backward within a song, push down on east or west.)
The new iPod Shuffle.
(Courtesy Apple Inc.)
Want to listen to a playlist in its original order? Move the back switch to its middle position. That's the entire set of controls. Where other manufacturers cram all the features of higher-end MP3 players in subcompact models -- with generally confusing, cluttered results -- Apple seems to have decided its real competition is portable CD and tape players, and it has crafted an interface that any Walkman owner can pick up in seconds.
I've taken a 512MB Shuffle (that's 492MB of usable space, or about eight hours of listening) on my daily commute, a plane or two and a couple of days of skiing, and I've been pleased to have it around. Its unpadded headphones aren't the best fit for vigorous activity, as they can fall out of your ears easily, but otherwise it has worked well. The only glitch I found came on those ski days, when it wouldn't turn on if left exposed for a few minutes. (Both the temperature and altitude were right at Apple's specified limits, 32 degrees and 10,000 feet.)
An internal, rechargeable battery is hidden inside. Apple says it's good for 12 hours, but the tested Shuffle lasted for almost 16. Check its status by pressing the smaller button on the back; a tiny LED will glow green if you've got time left, yellow if you're low, or red if the Shuffle is about to expire. The Shuffle recharges when docked to a computer's USB port (excluding those in Apple's keyboards and some external USB hubs).
As with other iPods, this battery can't be readily replaced when, after a few hundred recharge cycles, it stops working. Apple says it will offer a battery-replacement service for this model but hasn't given details yet.
What I can't quite figure out is which iPod is best. If you don't listen to music for extended periods, the iPod Shuffle is the easy choice. But if you want to carry a much bigger chunk of your library, select songs on the go or carry around your address book and calendar, get the $249 iPod Mini. Then again, the remaining iPods, at $299 and up, can hold an entire music collection (not to mention pictures, in the case of the $499 and $599 iPod Photo). I suppose Apple would prefer we collected them all.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.