Announced this morning, the little stainless steel slab is beautifully minimalist, and about the size of a piece of Trident. But its control buttons are conspicuously absent—hidden in the earbud cord, in a little nodule like the one on the iPhone's headphones, where it houses the microphone and call/pause button.
The iPhone's nodule does several things: click the button once, and it pauses or plays your music, or acts as a send/end key during calls. Double-click it, and you skip forward to the next song. Triple-click it, and you go back to the previous track. Sounds great in theory. In real life, it's enough of a hindrance that I'm occasionally tempted to cut it out and re-wire the headphones without it.
In cold weather, the button seems to harden, so you can't tell whether or not it's clicked (it doesn't help if you live in the Northeast, where you can't feel your fingertips from November to March anyway). When you do click it to skip a song, you're sometimes left at the mercy of the button's capricious definition of what "double-clicking" means. You think you've double-clicked, and then you wait in silence; have you shuffled to Pink Floyd's "Money"? No, no, you're not waiting a long intro to ramp up; you've accidentally paused your music because you didn't click fast enough.
Now you click it again to resume playing, and you're back at the same damn song you wanted to skip in the first place.
If you jog with your iPhone, you've probably noticed that sweat can easily penetrate the button housing and mess with both the button and the microphone. After using my iPhone for about 9 months as a running companion (largely thanks to a great GPS-enabled running app called RunKeeper), my button got crusty enough that it couldn't keep its tactile clicking feel. The microphone also suffered, but less noticeably. New headphones, with button nodule: $30. Thanks, Apple.
There's another problem: the location of the button bud. It's up near your chin on the new Shuffle, just like the iPhone. That makes sense on the latter, where you have a microphone that needs to be near your face. But as iPhone owners know, shuffling along blindly using the earbud button can leave you with your elbow up in the air minute after minute. It's not just tiring—and I'm no geriatric, but it aches my shoulder—but you look like a moron, clinging onto your little button at mouth-level, trying desperately to randomly find that Kanye West remix of Lollipop. On the shuffle, why not put the button down by your chest, so it doesn't feel like you're doing a dumbell-press everytime you want a new song?
All the problems with the iPhone button will be amplified on the Shuffle, thanks to its frequent use as a workout buddy. Try holding your hand up near your face while you're running on the treadmill—turns out, you swing your hands for a reason when you run: to keep your balance. The fact that the volume controls are on the button too means even more hand-to-face action. Did I mention that to use the Voice-Over feature you have to press and hold the middle button for several seconds?
That Voice-Over software, which allows the Shuffle to "speak" the name of your songs and playlists, is another ill-conceived novelty feature. A lot of people use the Shuffle because it's expendible; if you drop your Nano or your iPhone while you're jogging, painting, mowing the lawn, or playing tennis, you run the risk of a $200 loss. The Shuffle is light and easy, sure, but most of all, it's durable and low-value. All those scenarios above? They're noisy. No amount of computerized yammering is going to drown out the ambient sounds of the gym, or the hammer-on-nails noise on a worksite, so what's the point? Why not introduce something like this on more civilized iPods first with a simple software update?
Then there's the obvious gripe: you can't use your new Shuffle without Apple's special headphones. But hey: at least there's room for engraving.
Related Post: Apple Shrinks its Smallest iPod, Adds Voice Feedback