Apple's third-generation iPod Shuffle, offered for $80 in dark or light gray, is already controversial. Not only does it move most controls from the player to a module on the included earphones--meaning that they're the only earphones, for now, that will work with it--but the controls themselves are different, with odd morse-code like sequences replacing the standard rack.
Apple's business is built on creating simpler, better user interfaces, so we come immediately to the simple question of whether it's better than the last model.
The short answer is an equally simple "no." The new iPod Shuffle is Apple's worst product in years. Its headphone module-interface fails because it's really about physical appearances: it does nothing to improve the experience of listening to music, and is in fact irritating until you've learned how to use it.
The long answer, however, is that it's just not that big of a deal, and the worst Apple music player is still not a bad one. Beyond this flash-point issue, the new Shuffle is a tiny and inconspicuous metal sliver with generous storage and at least one cool novelty: Voiceover, an androgynous robot voice that tells you information about the tracks loaded onto the machine. It's not completely dumb text-to-speech, either: It pronounced Saint Etienne correctly!
With 4GB of storage, it can hold a thousand songs. The looks are fantastic --the clip now has a mirror-finish--and give it a businesslike elegance the last generation lacks. (Still, it's a shame it doesn't come in the same range of gorgeous colors as its predecessor, or the current iPod Nano.)
Voiceover, installed as a "kit" when you register the Shuffle with iTunes, reads track and playlist info at a touch. If you plan to fill all that space, you'll want it -- and be glad that you can now use it to navigate playlists, finally transferable to the Shuffle.
In the service of novelty, Apple has turned basic, generic technology into yet another private little ecosystem: you'll either buy into that or you won't. If the third-gen Shuffle fails, it will instead result from the irksome practical consequences: adapters that can't yet be bought, expenses incurred on special headphones, and the "rat a tat-tat" button dances learned just to perform simple functions.
* It's tiny and it's beautiful
* Having it read track and playlist info is cute and even useful.
* Yes, I said playlists. In the Shuffle. At last!
* Generous 4GB of space.
* Self-parodying interface worthy of a Peter Serafinowicz sketch.
* Until others release theirs, only Apple earphones work.
* Apple's earphones suck.
* Seriously, screw headphone adapters. What is this, a cheap cellphone?