The problem with Apple's new iPod shuffle? Humans

Apple today introduced its all-new iPod shuffle. I'm impressed by the engineering, but I'm disappointed by the package.

Apple today introduced its all-new iPod shuffle. I'm impressed by the engineering, but I'm disappointed by the package.

To be sure, improving on the shuffle is a challenging task: Apple must strike a precarious balance between innovation, size and cost. It must remain at a low price point, it must remain tiny enough to please gym rats, yet it must improve on a regular cycle like all of Apple's products.

The new shuffle still the world's smallest music player, and is nearly half of the size of the previous model. It's also the first music player "that talks to you," which I'll get to in a moment.

The third generation iPod shuffle is significantly smaller than a AA battery, which is a pretty remarkable feat of engineering. If you've ever had the pleasure of cracking open any iPod -- the touch, the nano, it doesn't matter -- you know that a whole lot of tech is crammed into a tiny shell. The latest shuffle takes that to the next step, obviously, by nearly halving the size but still holding 4GB of data.

Apple's third-gen iPod shuffle -- the picoPod

For all of that innovation, however, there's an end-user problem: the aluminum shuffle is truly becoming so small it's difficult to keep track of; worse, all of the controls have been relocated to the (Apple, natch) earphone cord.

I dig the aluminum housing -- every iPod I've ever bought has been aluminum because it holds up well under wear -- and the included clip. I'm not too worried about it being too small, since it's no more difficult to lose than a USB flash memory drive (which, in essence, it is, albeit on steroids). Nor am I worried about it being too light, because nothing's too light for the gym, so long as it's sturdy.

What I don't dig is the relocation of the controls. Now, the iPod really is just a glorified USB flash memory drive -- and I can't let a friend borrow my iPod without also letting them borrow my Apple headphones, which I've never particularly liked anyway, and usually replace immediately.

Which brings be to a question of innovation: yes, the device is smaller, but is it truly innovation if you relocate its working parts to another device (headphones)?

All this puts even more focus on the headphones, long an important aspect of the music listening experience by audiophiles but overlooked by most consumers, who simply use whatever earphones come with their listening device.

Apple's never had particularly good earphones -- the iconic look of them always outweighed their (generally poor) sound quality and uncomfortable fit. But that could always be fixed with a replacement.

Now, Apple's forcing you to use them. Your device is pretty much useless without it. (And, ironically, we're approaching the point where your earphones weigh more than the music listening device they're attached to.)

Sure, Apple has added better earphones as an option. But it almost had to, after enough people complained about the originals.

Shuffle, shut up

The other questionable addition to the new shuffle is Apple's new VoiceOver feature, which enables the device to speak your song titles, artists and playlist names on demand.

As its name suggests, the iPod shuffle randomly selects songs from your music library. Apple says you can use the VoiceOver feature when you can't remember the name of a song or an artist playing, with the press of a button iPod shuffle tells you the name of the song and artist. (It can even tell you status information, such as battery life, which is admittedly useful.)

Here's my question: the shuffle holds the least amount of songs of any iPod. Do you really need assistance to remember what song is playing? It's also popular with gym frequenters. Do you really need to know what song is playing when you're on your fifth mile?

Look, I'm all about choice. VoiceOver is clearly meant to fill in the gap for the shuffle not having a screen, and that's a good thing. But instead of offering alternatives, why can't we just have a small screen? Or perhaps use both sides of the shuffle: one side a screen, the other, controls?

The VoiceOver feature is also contingent on having song data to read, so I wonder what the shuffle will say when it plays music tracks that do not have perfect ID3 data.

The weak link: humans

The new iPod shuffle would be near-perfect if humans didn't have to use it, with their big fingers and hands. And that's the problem Apple faces -- how to innovate and keep a product from stagnating, while facing the physical limitations of humans (and keeping it's "premium" or "coveted" brand reputation at ever-lower price points).

You can always increase memory, you may even consider adding track selection -- despite the "shuffle" name. But form factor is a problem, and I fear Apple is treading the same ground that Asus did with its 7-inch and 9-inch Eee PC netbooks: novel, but too small or impractical for daily use.

Not that the shuffle is impractical, and it's not like you're e-mailing anyone on this thing. But with its iPod nano big brother just one price point away -- and offering a beautiful 320x240 2-in. LCD backlit screen, video support, and tipping the scales less and less with each incarnation -- it's becoming hard to justify another $79 for a shuffle that really doesn't do a whole lot more than the previous one did. Just look at the iPod nano: for $149, you get Nike + iPod support, twice the memory, twice the battery life, video playback, Genius support, shake-to-shuffle tech and a bunch more colors for just 0.9 ounces more in weight.

Take a look:

I also suspect that more shuffles get replaced thanks to losing them rather than damaging them, since they're nearly bulletproof by design. So not a whole lot of shuffle customers are in the market anyway.

Third-gen iPod shuffle? Impressive, but I'll skip.