Magid: Apple Still Thinking Small
A man walks past the Bank of Spain building in Madrid, Friday May 18, 2012. Spain's stock market flirted with seven-year lows Friday as investors continued to worry about the stability of the eurozone's financial system in light of the downgrading by credit ratings agency Moody's of the country's banking industry. The Bank of Spain reported Friday that banks' and savings banks' bad loan ratio had risen to 8.36 percent in March from 8.15 percent the previous month. The new figure is the highest in 18 years. Engraving on lampost reads ' Spanish Style, Madrid'. (AP Photo/Paul White) / Paul White
Last week, Apple introduced an even smaller version of the iPod and, based on a few days of use, I have the feeling that the iPod shuffle will do very well.
The iPod, of course, is the world's most popular portable digital music player. Apple has sold more than 10 million units, accounting for 65% of the entire market, according to Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
The only serious competition Apple has are the low-cost flash memory units that account for 29% of the market. Apple is about to take a bite out of that market as well.
The iPod shuffle's hardware is very different than the other iPods but the key to its likely success is the fact that it uses the identical iTunes software that has helped rocket the other iPods to success. There are two shuffle models. The $99 version has 512 megabytes of memory, enough for about 120 songs. The $249 shuffle has a gigabyte of memory for about 240 songs.
The iPod shuffle gets its name because it is designed to play tunes in random (i.e., shuffle) order, although you can also play them in the sequence that they were copied to the device.
Apple decided on this strategy for a couple of reasons. First, it turns out that a lot of people already use the shuffle option on the regular iPods. There is something delightful about being surprised by what song will come up next along with the reassuring feeling that whatever song it is, it will probably be one you like because it's from your own music library. In a way, it's like listening to a radio station that only plays your songs.
The main reason Apple decided on the shuffle mode as the default is that it makes the interface simple. Because users don't get a choice of songs, it means there's no need for a screen. It's limited but it's simple.
Like most flash players, the shuffle is tiny. It weighs less than 8/10 on an ounce and measures 3.3 by .98 by .33 inch. I have small hands and it's not even as long as my index finger.
The device comes with a lanyard that lets you wear it around your neck. It doesn't take batteries but it also doesn't use a battery charger. It has an internal battery that charges up when you plug it into the USB port of a Mac or Windows machine. There are no cables. The USB connector is built into the shuffle. Plugging it into the USB port is also the way you transfer music from the computer to the device.
The shuffle comes with the latest copy of iTunes (for Mac and Windows) that is identical to the iTunes that works with other iPods as well as the Apple Music store. iTunes is arguably, the easiest to use music software on the market which is the main reason that the iPod shuffle will do well against its many competitors.
Once iTunes is installed, plugging the Shuffle into the USB port automatically launches iTunes. Of course, most people will have more music on their machines than can fit on a shuffle, but Apple offers several ways to deal with that.
One option is to simply drag the songs from your iPod library to the iPod shuttle icon that pops up on your source list on the left side of the screen. Another option is to create one or more play lists with songs for the shuffle and drag the play lists over to the Shuffle icon.
An alternative is to let iTunes decide for you what music to copy over. You can, for example, allow iTunes to randomly select songs for you from your entire library, a specific play list or select such options as "recently added," "recently played," "top 25 played" or "my top rated.
The shuffle is not a replacement for a regular iPod or any other hard disk music player. 120 or 240 songs is great if you're out of a walk, a jog or some time at the gym but if you're a serious music fan, there will be times that you'll want access to a larger library.
If I were about to get on a plane for Europe, for example, I'd much rather have a player that can store thousands of songs. I also enjoy using a regular capacity iPod or other hard drive player in my car so that I can chose any song in my library while I'm on the road.
But there are times when less can be more and the simplicity of the shuffle makes it a good choice. The price is also right. $99 for the 512 MB player is a lot cheaper than the iPod mini and, per megabyte; it turns out to be cheaper than most of the other flash memory players on the market.
The one gigabyte version is even a better bargain. I did a froogle.com search for 512 mb MP3 players and the ones that popped up all cost more than $100. CNET's reviews from flash memory players all feature devices that cost a lot more or have a lot less capacity than the shuffle.
It's rare for Apple to be the price leader, but in this category that seems to be the case. That will change of course as the competition adjusts its strategy to compete with Apple's new offering which, of course, will be good news to consumers.
There are few downsides. Some users will miss having an LCD screen and the battery life (rated by Apple at 12 hours) is lower than many other flash players. Some flash players use AAA batteries which can be convenient if you're not in a position to recharge.
Unlike some flash players, there is no FM radio. Another problem: between the lanyard and the earphones, wearing the iPod around your neck can be a bit messy. And if you're accustomed to the fit and finish of the shiny metal iPods, you might find the shuffle to be a bit cheap looking.
Still, the new product is likely to shuffle Apple right where it wants to be: the leader in the flash - as well as hard drive - sector of the digital music player market.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid
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