We just nabbed one of Apple's new button-free iPod shuffles, and in case you were wondering: yes, it's really small. We're gonna play around a bit with the VoiceOver navigation and get you our full impressions in a few, but at first glance we think this is totally usable, especially for the shuffle's sweaty target demographic. Also: it's really small.

Update: In-depth impressions are after the break, along with video!
Gallery | 38 Photos

New iPod shuffle first hands-on


Gallery | 24 Photos

New iPod shuffle unboxing and close-ups



Setup
Unboxing wasn't the Apple's best, but it was easy enough to get at all three components in there: the shuffle, the earbuds and the USB adapter. Setup was similarly slightly more complicated than the regular iPod, since in addition to requiring an update to 8.1, it required an installation of VoiceOver -- it all happens quite automatically with a couple clicks of automation, but it's an extra step all the same.

The actual formation of VoiceOvers for our tracks and playlists was easy enough that it was actually difficult to even spot iTunes working on it. Since our iTunes library is larger than 4GB, we built a few playlists, set them to sync with the shuffle, clicked sync and were ready to go in seconds. According to Apple, the space used up by the VoiceOvers on the shuffle is "negligible" and doesn't impact that vague "1000 songs" figure.

Usage

Excuse the audio, we had to tape the earbud to our camera mic for obvious reasons (to Apple, anyway). Also note that VoiceOver mispronounces the words "live," "VH1" and "Pitchfork."

The controls are harder to use than a traditional shuffle button layout, and it depends on how you wear the shuffle as to whether the placement of the controls on the cord is better than having them on the player. That said, it's really not difficult at all to use even the most "advanced" features here (like playlist browsing) and Apple has essentially made the controls to train you to delve into that functionality.

With the newer iPods and iPhones people are already used to pausing and starting the music with a click, and double clicking for skipping forward isn't much of a stretch. A triple click to skip backwards seems like the silliest gesture here -- and really, would it have been so hard for Apple to put a set of controls on the player? -- but it's not a deal breaker. The track identification and playlist features, however, both being unavailable on the original shuffle, would have required some learning any way you slice it, unless Apple were to add a button or two to the original layout -- something they're none too fond of doing.

Holding the button to hear the track name is simple and easy, and to go to the playlist mode, you just press and hold long enough to hear a beep. After that the shuffle just starts reading off names of playlists, you don't need to keep clicking to tab through them, and a single click sends you to one of the playlists. If you don't hear anything worth jumping to, you don't need to touch anything and the shuffle will return to the music you were playing. Both the song identification and playlist features speak over top of the song you're currently playing, which fades in and out accordingly.

Hardware
The player itself makes the old shuffles like almost giant in comparison. Its featureless face might be a bit odd if it weren't for the fact that your thumb covers the entirety of the player when you hold it. The shiny clip in back is impressively strong, and gravity should have a tough time knocking this off your workout clothes. Though suspiciously small, the off / shuffle / loop switch is easy enough to toggle with a fingernail.

Unfortunately, Apple's biggest mistake here might be with the one thing it didn't change: the earbuds themselves are terrible at staying in most ears, which just doesn't fly for a player that's primarily designed for workouts and those "on the go." It's also a needless hassle to buy an adapter cable to output songs to a stereo or a car -- Apple itself had a hacked cable to demonstrate the player to us with a sound system. Interestingly, you can plug a regular old pair of headphones into the player, turn it on, and it'll play music just fine -- you just don't have any playback controls. The stop / start button on existing Apple headphones does nothing.

Wrap-up
Still, people seem quite satisfied to put up with this sort of inconvenience and hassle when it comes to Apple, and with design, size and build quality like this, not to mention the welcome addition of VoiceOver, we imagine those third party accessory makers are going to like this new shuffle just fine.

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New iPod shuffle first hands-on (with video!)