Keep in mind that though the Shuffle's features are impressive for its size, its capabilities are far from groundbreaking in the world of portable audio as a whole. There's no FM radio, no voice recording, and--obviously--no photo or video playback. Audio formats supported include biggies like MP3, AAC, Audible, WAV, AIF, and Apple Lossless, but still no love for WMA or FLAC.
The only new feature to show off is a VoiceOver button located on the top edge of the player, represented by a small cartoon speech bubble icon on the back of the Shuffle. Pressing the button once will cause a synthetic voice to announce the artist and song title of the currently playing song. Pressing the button twice announces the current battery life percentage. Holding down the button for a few seconds takes you into a menu mode where you can use the track skip controls to switch between any synced playlists, Genius Mixes, audiobooks, or podcasts. Each menu item is reeled off by the pleasant little robot voice, which can be configured in iTunes to speak in one of 25 languages.
The Shuffle handles the playback of audiobook and podcast content differently than music files, and assumes you'd prefer to always play this type of content sequentially--even if the iPod's shuffle switch is on. Audiobook and podcast content is also kept out of the Shuffle's start-up music mix, ensuring that a stray chapter of "A Tale of Two Cities" never ruins the mood of your workout. But if jogging to classical literature is your thing, you'll be relieved to know that any audiobook synced to the Shuffle is treated as a separate playlist. Podcasts are also treated as separate playlists, with each playlist titled after the name of the show. Like any other iPod, the Shuffle automatically resumes your podcasts or audiobooks where you last left off, allowing you to enjoy them in small doses without scanning back and forth to find your place.
As far as charging goes, the Shuffle comes with a 4-inch USB adapter that connects between the iPod's headphone output and your computer. The Shuffle can also be used on your computer in disk mode, allowing you to store and transfer files without interfering with the audio content on your iPod. As expected, you can't access the music files stored on the Shuffle without going through Apple's iTunes music software (version 10 or later is a required download for the Shuffle).
For a $49 MP3 player, the Shuffle sounds surprisingly good, though you'd never know it from the standard Apple earbuds that come included. Given it's small size, it's worth mentioning that under the device's iTunes settings you can lock in a maximum volume level for the Shuffle, which can be helpful if the player is for a child or just to ensure your ears don't get blasted if you accidentally sit on the thing.
The Shuffle is rated at 15 hours of playback time, with a full recharge in about 3 hours. Our CNET Labs test results consistently achieved 17.6 hours of uninterrupted playback, surpassing Apple's modest estimate.
Is it worth it?
In terms of features, design, sound quality, and price, the fourth-generation iPod Shuffle is the best version of the player we've seen yet. That said, the world of sub-$100 MP3 players is chock full of interesting options, many of which deliver larger capacities, color screens, and broader compatibility with files and applications beyond the world of iTunes.
As the closest competitor, the SanDisk Sansa Clip+ offers twice the capacity, a built-in screen, MicroSD card expansion, FM radio, voice recording, and broader file and application compatibility. It's certainly not as sexy, but it's a much better value overall. Fitness fanatics also owe it to themselves to check out the Sony W-Series Walkman, which kills two birds with one stone by rolling an MP3 player into a great pair of sweat-resistant headphones.
If your music library and playlists are already in iTunes, however, the Shuffle offers the path of least resistance to those in the market for a small, fitness-friendly MP3 player, and a good value at $49.