I have been listening to digital music for several years now, but it mostly has been limited to my home computer, or CDs (which don't hold alot of songs). Recently, however, I bought an iPod shuffle, the latest in Apple's iPod line. To put it succinctly, it has revolutionized the way I listen to digital music. No longer am I tethered to a computer, or to a heavy portable CD player. I can put it around my neck and go.
The first thing I noticed was lack of a screen. For a long time, I considered a multi-digit screen to be a necessity in a portable CD player, so I could tell how much time had elapsed in a track. However, I don't find it necessary with the iPod. Since it holds much more music than a CD, there's no need to know how much of a song has elapsed, since the track listing virtually never ends thanks to shuffle mode (more on that shortly). The second thing I noticed was the shuffle capacity. This isn't a new thing for me: iTunes (which I used before getting this iPod) offers it, as do other digital music players I've owned, but the lack of a screen makes it interesting. Also, the selection is big enough to make the randomness truly useful (unlike CDs, which really don't have more than 15-20 tracks to choose randomly). This comes in very handy while driving, as all I have to do is press play on the iPod shuffle, tune the transmitter, and go. With CDs, once one was finished playing, I would have to attempt to change the CD while driving, which is fairly difficult, especially if you don't have a slot-loading CD player.
This technically isn't my first portable MP3 player, but it might as well should be. I have owned two Sony NetMD Walkmans, which use the obscure Mini-Disc format. The NetMD system, at least in the itineration I used, is tethered to Sony's proprietary audio format, ATRAC-3 (the NetMD Walkman does not directly take MP3 files, contrary to the labeling on the front of the player!), which is very restrictive with regards to digital rights management (DRM). Also, Sony's SonicStage software (needed to convert the files to ATRAC-3 format for the MD Walkman) has the need to attach this DRM to every file it converts, including songs ripped from your own CDs! I didn't use the SonicStage software more than a few times, before I relegated the NetMD Walkman to live recording from it's Line In jack (one of the few features I miss on the iPod shuffle). My second NetMD Walkman has a AM/FM/TV/Weather tuner (only available on an external remote which, itself, is about the same size as an iPod shuffle!), but the reception quality tends to be poor.
There are only a few disadvantages to the iPod shuffle. One is the lack of a line input jack for recording from a stereo system, though I am able to make MP3s from my stereo system using my computer. Another is the fact that it tends to clip the very beginnings off of some MP3s it plays, something which I hope will be fixed in a future firmware update. Other than that, the iPod shuffle has been an absolute joy to own and use. I hope to acquire one of the better iPod models someday, but for now, the little shuffle will do nicely. I give it 4.5/5.
4/21/06 Update: I have owned one of the 30GB video-capable iPods for some time now, and it has replaced the shuffle for the most part. Product line-wise, it is also no longer the only flash memory-based iPod, with the color screen iPod nano on the market. However, the shuffle has a few advantages. For example, the shuffle has no screen to get scratched or scuffed up from being in a pocket (especially with the lanyard). Also, there are no menus to navigate, which makes operation simpler and quicker. Therefore, I still think that the iPod shuffle is a good value, especially at it's revised price points.
10/18/06 Update: Once again, Apple has changed their iPod lineup. The iPod shuffle is now in it's second generation; I didn't think they could make it any smaller, but they somehow did! The new iPod shuffle is now the size of the iPod radio remote which I recently purchased for my 30GB iPod, minus the cord. About the only thing which I see as a detriment is the fact that the new shuffle no longer has an integrated USB plug. I found that the original shuffle made a neat thumbdrive in a pinch, making it quite versatile. My 30GB iPod is usually set to disk mode, allowing it to accomplish similar things, but it's a bit awkward to use in this fashion; since the new shuffle requires a dock, it no longer has quite the same ease-of-use in this mode as the original shuffle did. However, the new $79 price point for the 1GB model might make up for that... ;)
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