The first thing I noticed after extracting the shuffle from the box is its size. It's small, as in really, really small. I hadn't seen one in person before mine arrived in the mail, so I was amazed at its size. It's about half the height of a 2oz. bottle of Tabasco and is virtually weightless in the hand.
The package contains the 'Pod itself, a pair of earbud headphones (which I immediately discarded) with two paris of foam covers, an instructional booklet, lanyard, USB port cover and install CD. The CD includes an iPod Updater installer as well an install of iTunes 4.7.1. After running through both of these I plugged in the 'Pod and iTunes launched.
Shuffle, Meet iTunes
By default, the autofill option wants to fill the 'Pod directly from the library. This may work for you, but I have an iTrip for my 40GB iPod, which means those nasty iTrip "station" tracks are lurking about. Not exactly the thing you want to suddenly blast into your ears as you're going about your day. Luckily iTunes gives you the option to pull music from any playlist if you don't want to give the 'Pod free reign over your entire library. I've created a "random" smart playlist that I use to shuffle my music on my 'Pod, which excludes the iTrip tunes, my collection of kids' songs (no offense to my daughter) and a few others. I selected this as the Shuffle's pool of songs and clicked the "Autofill" button.
Incidentally, if you want to exercise a little more control over exactly what makes it onto your shuffle, you have that option, too. Like I said, you can let the 'Pod run hog wild on your entire library if you wish, choosing songs for itself at random. Or you can have it give priority to songs you've rated highly, limit its pool of songs to a given playlist or even let you drag and drop tracks manually. Once your music has been transfered, the shuffle can play the songs in the order you (or the shuffle) created during the transfer or . . . well. . . . "shuffle" all those tracks.
Music transfer was noticeably slower over USB when compared to the firewire transfer of other iPod models, but not intolerable. Perhaps an USB 2.0 option next time, Apple? A few minutes later I was ready to tackle the day's errands with my new companion.
Real World Use
I immediately abandoned the lanyard. It might look hip on Apple's younger customers, but I looked like a Class A Dork with this thing hanging from my neck. Plus, it was very cumbersome and in the way. It did, however, fit beautifully in my shirt's breast pocket, and it's so light I didn't even know it was in there. As I went about my afternoon the 'Pod served up song after song dutifully.
In some respect, I found the shuffle more pleasant to use in the real world than my full sized iPod. There's no case to take it in and out of when I want to change tracks or adjust the volume (for some reason I feel less scratch-phobic with the shuffle), which makes these activities quicker. I was even able to hit "pause" and "play" without extracting it from my pocket. Nice.
There were a couple of occasions I wished for a display. Once to check the time (I don't own a watch) and once to see what album a particular track was from. Not a huge problem, just habits that carried over from my other iPod. The transferred playlist included some music that I just don't feel like listening to anymore. After three hours of running around town, I found the shuffle's small size, light weight, ease of use and ability to carry out its appointed duty. . . play music for me. . . made it a lot of fun to use.
Back at home, I made a few more smart playlists in iTunes specifically for use with the shuffle. "Recent additions" is a list limited to the 35 songs added to the iTunes library over the past 14 days. "Top 35 most played" is limited to the 35 songs I've listened to most frequently and "Top rated" is limited to the top rated 35 songs in my library. I found these make great lists of the shuffle, as they guarantee I'll have with me precisely the music I'm currently into. With this I started to think of the shuffle as a way to carry around a playlist more than a library of music. Only my absolute favorites make it to the shuffle, a small, white package of my favorite tunes. Thinking of it like this, I really love the iPod shuffle.
This and That
I enabled disk use, which worked just as I expected it to. A slider in the shuffle's preference window allows you to choose how much space to dedicate to music and how much to data. I have one of those USB flash memory devices already, but now I don't see the need to have it plus the shuffle. I wish there were an option to attach the shuffle to my keychain where my USB device use to hang. Maybe I'll hack the lanyard clip to do this job.
I also think tossing a book on tape onto the shuffle for a particular road trip would be fun. All in all, I have to say the shuffle operates just as advertised. Carry a smaller, more focused version of my music library, transfer files via USB and elicit envious stares with your little piece of Apple magic. Despite the slow transfer of music and lack of display, I have to label the shuffle a winner. And at $99, you really can't go wrong.