Soon after Apple introduced the iPod shuffle, its newest, diminutive digital music player, the manufacturers of competing devices quickly...

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Soon after Apple introduced the iPod shuffle, its newest, diminutive digital music player, the manufacturers of competing devices quickly pointed out what the shuffle lacks.

Compared with their players, they said, the shuffle didn’t have an FM radio tuner, a voice recorder, a memory-expansion slot and especially an LCD screen. They said it was outdated on arrival, equivalent to products they introduced years ago.

I’m sure Apple appreciated the comparisons, because it made me (and no doubt others) wonder why I’d want to pay money for any of those features.

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To quickly dispute those features: Most of FM radio isn’t worth listening to anymore, and I already have a voice recorder built into my Palm handheld that never gets used. And if you’re going to spend money on buying memory cards, you might as well just buy an iPod mini instead.

As for the absence of a screen, at times I miss being able to see what’s playing. It’s the car-radio problem: I hear a good tune on the radio but don’t catch the DJ mention the artist or the title, and I have no way of looking it up later. However, after using the shuffle for a few days I realized how infrequently I needed to consult a display.

The iPod shuffle is yet another device that captures the character of the New Apple. It values ease of use and elegant design over the electronics industry’s relentless drive to add features.

The shuffle is a minimal rounded slab of white plastic. It’s not festooned with buttons that can get accidentally pushed when you pick it up; compare it with SanDisk’s Digital Audio Player (www.sandisk.com/retail/dap.asp).

You don’t have to spend several seconds figuring out which button does what; the single play/pause button and the surrounding ring that controls previous/next and volume controls are immediately understandable. (However, Apple loses points for the power switch on the back, which could be a little clearer about which mode you’re in.)

The iPod shuffle is available in two configurations: The $99 model includes 512 MB and holds roughly 120 songs, while the $149 model includes 1 GB and holds about 240 songs.

Compared with the higher-capacity iPod and iPod mini, that doesn’t sound like much, but that’s still many hours of music, fine for most driving vacations or the daily commute (which can feel like the same amount of time, depending on the day).

Actually, what draws me to the shuffle isn’t just its size and weight (making the iPod mini seem large). Instead, you can use part of the shuffle’s memory as a USB memory disk, just like the key-chain devices that are replacing the old floppy disk as an easy way to transfer files.

In fact, if I hadn’t already bought a SanDisk Cruzer a few months earlier, I would have bought an iPod shuffle at Macworld Expo just for this capability. A slider in the iTunes preferences lets you determine how much memory to devote to songs and data.


Shuffle up and deal:


Apple’s marketing promotes the device’s shuffle feature, which simply plays songs back in random order. The feature isn’t new, but in the digital age it’s proved to be much more useful than just randomizing the songs on a CD.

I play music in shuffle mode over my home stereo using iTunes and an AirPort Express during dinner parties or on weekend mornings.

On a personal-listening device like the iPod shuffle, the shuffle mode often turns up surprises, songs I haven’t heard in a while or even artists I wasn’t familiar with who my wife added to our library.

Since the iPod shuffle holds a relatively small number of songs compared with my full library (which approaches 8 GB), Apple added a new feature to iTunes called Autofill. When the Autofill button is clicked, iTunes grabs as many songs as will fit in the memory you’ve allotted. It’s a slick way of populating the device, and you can customize how it chooses songs.

For example, instead of telling Autofill to pick from my entire music library, I created a Smart Playlist that excludes songs belonging to the genre Classical; if I wanted to try to cram more songs into memory, I could also adjust my Smart Playlist to exclude songs longer than, say, 4 minutes.

(Although the Autofill button appears only when an iPod shuffle is attached, owners of other iPods can replicate its behavior using a Smart Playlist with the option that limits the number of songs or memory enabled.)

For those who don’t want to yield control to a narrow slab of plastic, you can switch to a playlist mode that plays songs in the order you set up in iTunes.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.