Apart from the new minimalist look, a new feature called VoiceOver has been added into the mix. In a nutshell, VoiceOver is Apple's text-to-speech software that speaks the title of the song, artist name, playlist title and battery life status. The VoiceOver function supposedly makes up for the lack of a display.
We find that this feature comes in handy if you have a huge library of music that you have been collecting over the years and you have forgotten the track title. Obviously though, it's not going to make up for the lack of a display, not to mention the additional bit of time taken to listen to the VoiceOver.
VoiceOver features 14 languages including Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish, English and ten others. The shuffle also uses different voices depending on whether you sync to a PC or Mac, though in both, the voice sounded rigid to us. Not surprisingly, the voice (also known as Alex) sounds way clearer on the Mac than when it is heard on the PC or Macs running on the Tiger OS. Apple has stated that it's not deliberate, but that the difference is in the voice synthesizer used in the different OSes.
The VoiceOver function can only be heard or activated when you click and hold the centre button twice on the remote. When we tested the accuracy of this feature, it managed to speak the artiste and track in Chinese with 80% accuracy. To test it further, we played a track from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack and it managed to accurately narrate the track title, "Ringa Ringa" by AR Rahman but the rest of the track information came off sounding like gibberish resulting in a roughly 60% accuracy.
Also, a first for this shuffle is the inclusion of the playlist function that lets you customize and create your own lists of music. This is much better than previous iPod shuffles that relied on the AutoFill feature, thus preventing you from organizing your music choices. To listen to the names of the playlists that you have, simply click the center button until a tone is heard and the names of the playlists will be read aloud. When you want to listen to that playlist, simply click to launch it. The volume buttons come into play too in speeding up the process when you cycle through the playlist, both forwards and backwards.
To make full use of the latest shuffle and its VoiceOver capabilities, you have to download the most recent iTunes 8.1 version. The updated version allows you to control the speech function by switching it off and adjusting it to your fancy.
Unlike the previous iPod shuffle that included a cradle in the retail package for charging and transferring music, the latest shuffle does away with the cradle. In its place is a proprietary USB cable for charging and transferring music. We think this as more of a cost saving measure by Apple but we can honestly say that we miss the cradle for sentimental reasons.
As it has been for previous iPods, this shuffle can double up as a thumbdrive once disk use is enabled in iTunes. While Apple claims that 4GB of music is available for use, a quick check showed that there is actually 3.77GB of space remaining for use so in actual fact, you can store up to 940 songs.
Although the audio quality was decent through the included earphones, it lacked thumping bass. Even when we swapped the included earbuds with our own set of Bang & Olufsen A8 earphones, music still lacked bass although it did sound warmer.
The bad news is that when you use your own set of earphones, you lose the remote functionality and you have no control over the player's volume. That said, we're crossing our fingers for third party adapters with built-in remote function in the near future so you can plug in your own set of earphones and still control your iPod shuffle. However, from some of the reports circulating around, the possibility remains that this will cost you.
But for now, if you lose the current set of earphones, you have to purchase a new pair at S$55, almost half the price of a new iPod shuffle - a costly mistake to say the least.