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DURABILITY TESTING—A .22-caliber bullet fired by MIT Pistol Coach Will Hart Jr. hits the latest iPod Shuffle at the MIT Rifle Range. The strobe used to illuminate the shot was provided by Jim Bales of the Edgerton Center, who also helped set up the scene.
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What it is: Apple’s newest iPod Shuffle, a portable music player that holds 4 gigabytes of songs (about 72 hours, more than a thousand songs).

What it does: Plays music in random order.

iPod: $79

Apple in-ear headphones (accessory): $79

One-sentence review: We lost it, we found another one, and we shot it.

First things first: The iPod Shuffle is seriously so small that we lost it.

To test the Shuffle’s durability, we treated it the way we treat all review hardware — if someone wants to see it, they have to be standing on the other side of the room, and you have to throw it. Within days, the device simply disappeared.

I think maybe our Roomba ate it. (One-sentence Roomba review: it keeps getting lost in corners so obscure that we once reported it stolen.)

The good news is, we had a backup Shuffle, so here’s the review.

Unexpectedly good user interface

The iPod’s single button lets you choose between playing music randomly or playing from lists of songs you can make in iTunes while the Shuffle is connected to your computer.

Want to change the volume? Switch between tracks or playlists? Pause the music? You’ll need to press the buttons on your headphones. The Shuffle has no display; instead it will “say” the names of your songs, artists, and playlists using a speech synthesizer.

I was skeptical of the idea of pressing buttons near my neck to pick songs and change earphone volume. But even though I kind of felt like a dork using the interface, I’m forced to admit that it comes naturally and works efficiently.

One problem: Those extra buttons are only available on the earphones that came with the iPod or on the $79 accessory earphones. If you have “other” headphones or speakers, you’ll be lucky if the Shuffle even plays music through them — I was able to get music to come out at a neutral volume but inconsistently. Third-party adapters to give “other” headphones those extra controls are on the way to the market.

There’s nothing to say about the Shuffle’s sound quality; it’s perfectly fine. The device is tiny, but it comes with a reassuringly strong clip that will keep it attached to a shirt or pocket.

The Shuffle has only one input, a headphone jack that can be hooked up to a USB port to charge its battery or add music, along with a special Apple dongle which is almost bigger than the Shuffle itself. (Maybe that’s why we managed not to lose the dongle.)

I couldn’t manage to wear down its battery, even after ten hours of playing music. (Apple rates its life at ten hours.) It’s tiny and it’s very light (10.7 grams), but it has no display and it seemed to last forever. Later, a bullet through the battery did the trick (see sidebar).

Earphones provide good isolation

The earphones that came with the Shuffle made my ears hurt. They sounded OK — I could hear low bass and high treble fine — but any other headphones would be better.

Because of this iPod’s proprietary connection, Apple’s in-ear earphones are your only choice for other headphones. At $79, they cost as much as the Shuffle itself, but these earphones are priced well for their performance. I could hear soft, high parts of the theme song to the game “Peggle Deluxe” that I didn’t know existed.

They fit snugly in my ears and provided isolation that was noticeable, if not extraordinary. (MIT pistol coach Will Hart Jr.’s noise-canceling headphones worked much better — but more on that later.) One downside: After a week of normal use, the earphones get covered in ear wax. Don’t lend them to a friend. That’s weird.

Is it worth it?

If you want the real iPod Shuffle experience, you should expect to pay $79–158 for the Shuffle and $79 for the best available earphones. That’s awfully close to the cost of an iPod Nano, which has a screen, offers better control over what songs you get to hear, and can more easily be hooked up to speakers at a party.

But if you want something so light you might lose it, with a comfortable, long-lasting music listening experience, this could well be the iPod for you.