Walt Mossberg

The Littlest iPod Packs In Songs and Finds Its Voice

In these days of economic distress, it’s nice when technology companies add innovative features to the products at the bottom of their price ranges. So it’s notable that Apple’s cheapest iPod, the oft-forgotten Shuffle model, is getting smarter.

In fact, the latest iPod Shuffle, announced Wednesday and available now for $79, is the first portable music player I’ve tested that announces what’s playing. Push a button and it will tell you, in a computerized voice, the title and artist of whatever song you’re hearing. Keep holding that button and it will recite a roll call of all your playlists, allowing you to select among them. In my tests, this worked as advertised.

In addition, this new Shuffle is almost impossibly small. The company has moved the playback and volume controls off the device and onto a small, convenient module built into one of the earbud cords. That allowed Apple (AAPL) to severely shrink the player itself, which, like the two Shuffle models before it, lacks a screen. Apple claims it’s the world’s smallest music player, smaller than a AA battery or a house key.

The result is an iPod that contains four gigabytes of memory and holds 1,000 songs — twice the capacity of its $69 predecessor — yet is just a little blank rectangle of aluminum, available in silver or black. It’s a mere 1.8″ long, 0.7″ wide, and 0.3 inch thick — including a stainless-steel clip that’s built into the back for attaching it to clothing or backpacks.

This player is so small and thin that it reminds me of the popular “Saturday Night Live” skit in which an actor playing Apple CEO Steve Jobs shows off a series of tinier and tinier iPods culminating in a final fictional model that’s invisible. I actually dropped the new Shuffle while testing it and it took a couple of minutes to locate it behind a table leg.

After using this new iPod Shuffle for a few days, I can say that I like it. It does a good job at playing back music, podcasts and audio books. I found the speech function intelligible and helpful, and the earbud-mounted controls convenient and easy to master. And its tiny size and weight of about a third of an ounce make it an especially good choice for people who use their iPods while exercising.

iPod Shuffle
Apple’s new iPod Shuffle

Only a single button appears on the iPod itself, as opposed to on the earbuds. It’s a sliding power button on the top edge that has three positions — one for “off,” one for shuffling your music, and one for playing your songs in order. Once you set this button, you never have to touch the iPod itself, until you want to turn it off.

The new speech-based navigation feature allows the Shuffle, for the first time, to handle multiple playlists, just like on the larger iPods.

In my tests, I managed to squeeze in more than the 1,000 songs Apple claims. I filled my test Shuffle with nearly 1,100 songs, plus a half dozen podcasts and an abridged audio-book edition of President Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope,” read by the author. My music was organized into about 15 playlists, and I was able to switch among them easily using the voice system.

To pause or resume a song, you click the large center portion of the earbud controller once, quickly. To skip to the next song, you click the same button twice, quickly. To change to the previous song, you click it three times quickly.

If you want the computerized “announcer” to identify the song, you press the center button for a longer time, and you keep holding it to start the playlist roll call. When you hear a playlist you want, you press the button again. Smaller buttons at the top and bottom of this earbud controller adjust the volume up and down. It sounds more complicated than it is. While the voice function is in use, the music keeps playing in the background, at reduced volume.

The computerized voice, available in multiple languages, is hardly perfect. Like all such computer voices, its cadence can sound robotic, and it clips some syllables, but I found it perfectly understandable.

The spoken names of your particular songs, artists and playlists are added when you sync the Shuffle with iTunes. The voice quality is best when using a Mac with the latest operating system. It is slightly cruder on Windows or older Mac operating systems.

Even on the latest Macs, the voice got some words wrong. For a live concert album, it pronounced the word “live” as “liv,” and in another case, it pronounced the Roman numeral “IV” as “eye-vee.”

There are some other downsides. The claimed battery life is just 10 hours, down from 12 on the prior Shuffle model. You can’t fully operate the Shuffle with regular earbuds or headphones that lack the special controller. And, if you have numerous playlists, it could be tedious waiting for the voice control to say all their names until it reaches the one you want.

Still, Apple has packed a lot of new intelligence into a truly tiny music player, at a pretty low price.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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