Introduced alongside the new iPod 5G (see my review), iPod nano 2G (see my review), and iTunes 7 (see my review) at a special Showtime event in September 2006, the new iPod shuffle 2G (for second generation) didn't start shipping until October 31 (allowing Apple to meet its "shipping in October" promise). The new iPod shuffle is famously tiny and, like its predecessor, lacks a screen as well as other niceties such as an FM tuner (Photo). And you know what? Who cares? Like the iPod 5G and iPod nano, the new iPod shuffle is nearly perfect, an exhilarating combination of portability and usability. I love it.

I was a huge fan of the first generation iPod shuffle (Photo), which makes it all the more curious that I never reviewed it. I ended up purchasing two versions of the original shuffle, a 1GB version and a 512 MB version, the latter of which I gave to my wife. Both shuffles were frequent flyers, accompanying us on several trips to Europe last year, thanks to their small size, light weight, and lanyards.

One side note about the original shuffle: Since I would wear it around my neck using the included lanyard, I often forgot to take it off going through security at the airport. Despite this, it never once set off the metal detector. I'm curious to see whether the new version will perform similarly, though obviously I'd never attempt such a maneuver on purpose.

When it was first released, the original iPod shuffle was ridiculed for not having a screen, and many pointed out its various other limitations. But the iPod shuffle was one of those perfectly simple devices, and since they could only contain 120 to 240 songs, they were perfect for "best of" playlists and those new to the MP3 phenomenon. I used my shuffle at the gym regularly, as a companion on 30 minute elliptical trainer runs, and on the aforementioned flights, when it was loaded up with what I think of as "sleep music": select New Age songs I'd listen to on overnight flights. My wife, who also has an iPod nano, typically put language lessons on her shuffle, so she could catch up on French.

Given the small size of the original shuffle--it is about the size of a pack of Wriggley's gum--it was unclear how Apple could improve on the design. Indeed, there were even rumors that Apple was getting ready to kill the shuffle, fueled partially by news that the mid-line iPod nano quickly became the best seller of the iPod family. But September's Showtime event put those rumors to rest for good.

Enter the iPod shuffle 2G

The second generation iPod shuffle is almost comically small (Photo). Measuring just a little over an inch and a half long, and weighing in at about half an ounce, the new iPod shuffle is absolutely tiny, with barely enough surface area for the Play button and tiny surrounding buttons. It is, in fact, less than half the size of the original shuffle (Photo), which was itself quite small. (At least it seemed so at the time.) The actual player is thinner than the original, but thanks to the integrated clip (see below), it's thicker overall.

With this version, Apple has dispensed with the 512 MB model. Now, only a 1 GB unit is offered, which Apple says is good for about 240 songs. This seems like a fine decision, especially given the new shuffle's reasonable $79 price point and the fact that a 2GB iPod nano can be had for about double the price.

While the original shuffle was clad in an iBook-like white plastic, the new version is covered in anodized aluminum, like the MacBook Pro. (Which is curious, when you think about it: Now, Apple's cheapest iPod is wrapped in the same material as Apple's most expensive notebook.) The Play button and surrounding buttons appear to be of the same size and materials as those on the original iPod shuffle, but the colors are reversed. Whereas the Play button was white on the original, its aluminum on the new version. Likewise, the surrounding buttons were gray before but are now white, presumably for a visual contrast with the surrounding materials.

The new iPod dispenses with the detachable lanyard of the original, which has both pluses and minuses. I always liked the shuffle's lanyard, because it made the device wearable. This time around, Apple answers that need by integrating a clip onto the back of the new shuffle (Photo). This clip appears to be quite sturdy (contrary to some reports I've seen online), though I find myself worrying that I'm going to lose the iPod if it falls off. I've only had a chance to wear it a few times, but it's worked perfectly so far.

What you lose with the removal of the lanyard, and the reduction in size, is the built-in USB port that graced the first unit. Instead, Apple bundles a tiny iPod shuffle dock with the device, allowing you to sync with a Mac or Windows PC via USB (Photo). I'd have preferred a bigger dock with a true iPod sync cable, which would have allowed the new shuffle to work with the host of iPod add-ons out there, but it's not a huge omission. At least the dock comes with the device.

Curiously, the new shuffle retains the odd "upside down" orientation of the original. That is the headphone connector (which, on the new shuffle, doubles as the dock connector), is on the logical "bottom" of the device. So when you dock the new shuffle, the device is upside down. Since the new iPod shuffle is truly wearable, you can put it on your shirtsleeve, collar, pants top, or other location, and the orientation of the device, at that time, will vary depending on where its placed. With the original shuffle, the upside down orientation made sense, since it would be right-side-up if you lifted it up off your chest to view the controls. With this version, I'm curious why they didn't orient the controls (and the Apple logo on the back) to be right-side up when docked.

From a controls standpoint, the new iPod shuffle is much improved. In addition to the Play button and surrounding Volume Up, Volume Down, Previous/Rewind and Next/Fast Forward buttons, which are functionally identical to the previous version, the new shuffle includes a few nice improvements. You may recall that the first shuffle had a balky slider switch on the back that moved between Off, Play, and Shuffle modes. There was also a separate small button for checking the battery life, which alternated between green, orange, and red lights. On the new shuffle, these other controls have been replaced. Now, we get an actual On/Off button (really a slider, but with a nice round button control) and a separate Shuffle button/slider which can be toggled between normal playback and shuffle modes. When the unit is turned on, a small light next to the On/Off button indicates the battery life.

Frankly, from an aesthetics standpoint, the only downside to the new design is the size. It's a bit small for my tastes, and I'm constantly worried that I'm going to lose it. Granted, I have huge hands. (And let's be fair, these things are so cheap they'll be giving them away in cereal boxes within a year anyway.) Indeed, it's so small that Apple couldn't even build a normal USB port into it. I would have preferred such a thing to the dock, which is just yet another thing to worry about it.

The new iPod shuffle comes in a tiny plastic package with a tiny Quick Start guide, the aforementioned dock, a handy iPod shuffle quick reference card (similar to the one that came with the original, but less necessary this time around), and a pair of headphones (Photo). Sadly, stupidly, the headphones are the old Apple 'phones, with two sets of foam ear bud covers, and not the nice new ear buds that Apple ships with the new iPod 5G and iPod nano 2G. Why Apple chose to cheap out in this area is unknown. It is the only serious misstep in the whole package. As a result, I recommend that all iPod shuffle users also invest in a better pair of headphones.

Speaking of which, the sound quality is stunning, though I tested the iPod shuffle with the nicer headphones Apple ships with its other new iPods. Apple rates the battery life at up to 12 hours. I've not been able to test it for that long, but it's been in sporadic use since Thursday on a single charge, including two sessions at the gym. If the device delivers dramatically worse battery life than that over time, I'll note it here.

Software interface

The iPod shuffle 2G requires Apple iTunes 7.0.2 or newer, which is a free download from the Apple Web site. (The iPod shuffle packaging is too small to include an install CD.) This is just fine with me, as iTunes is the best digital media jukebox out there anyway, and the software provides you with access to Apple's market leading iTunes Store online service. As with the other new iPods, iTunes 7 is also used to manage the iPod shuffle, via a nice graphical interface. However, because the iPod shuffle is dedicated solely to music (well, audio really), this interface is far simpler than it is with other iPod types.

When you first setup the iPod shuffle with iTunes, you're presented with an option to rename the device and register. Then, you can access the simple two-tab management interface (Figure). In the first tab, Settings, you can update your iPod to the latest system software, or restore the device to its original factory settings. You can also set a variety of options related to how iTunes interacts with the device. If you enable disk use, for example, you can set aside a portion of the iPod's 1 GB for data storage.

In the second tab, Contents, you determine how the iPod is updated (Figure). If you own less than 1 GB worth of songs, you can simply synchronize your entire music collection (as well as related audio files, such as podcasts) with the device. Frankly, that's probably a lot of people, and clearly a big part of the market the iPod shuffle is aimed at. If you own more music, you will need to create a playlist that contains the content that will sync with the shuffle. Or, you can choose to shuffle with your entire music library, and have iTunes randomly copy 1 GB worth of content each time you choose Auto Fill. In this case, you can choose to have iTunes favor songs you've highly rated, which is a nice touch. Power users--the other major portion of the iPod shuffle user base--will probably choose create their own shuffle playlists. For example, I've created separate playlists for the gym and for flights.

Conclusions

Well, they've done it again. Apple's new iPod shuffle is a wonder of size, weight, and usability, and the perfect companion for music lovers who don't want their portable audio player to get in the way. If you need something more sophisticated--say a device with more storage or a screen--then Apple's got you covered with the new iPod nano. And naturally, those with even more dramatic requirements will find the new iPod 5G to be the best portable audio player of them all. How Apple is able to keep hitting them out of the park is unclear, but they do. The iPod shuffle is cute, wearable, durable, and features great battery life and excellent sound. There's no such thing as perfect, of course, but the new iPod shuffle comes pretty close. Highly recommended.