iPod Shuffles to the front of digital tunes

Apple's diminutive iPod is big on performance and ease of use.
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Since Apple Computer Inc. introduced the iPod in 2001, competitors have been scrambling to match the simplicity and style of the popular digital music player. But try as they might, the original just keeps getting better.
The latest flavor, the diminutive iPod Shuffle, proves that fewer bells and whistles can be just as good as more.
Unlike previous models, it uses flash memory instead of a hard drive. It's also much more compact. And, starting at $99, much less expensive.
Ease of use unrivaled
And despite the absence of a display to tell you what's playing, the Shuffle's ease of use is unrivaled. It's also a solid performer with sounds that holds up against most other flash memory-based MP3 players you'll find on store shelves.
The iPod shuffle weighs less than my watch, is smaller than a pack of Trident gum and can hold 120 songs on the 512-megabyte model ($99) and twice as much on the 1-gigabyte model ($149).
Visually, it's little more than a small white stick with a USB plug on one end and a headphone jack on the other. Tracks are navigated with buttons that are arranged to resemble the familiar iPod click wheel.
There's no docking cradle. No bulky battery pack. No AC adapter. There's really not much here except the best portable music player for the money. Paired with Apple's popular online music store -- 250 million songs downloaded and counting as of Jan. 24 -- this iPod shuffle could be just the low-priced entry-level player those on the sidelines have been waiting for.
Simple to use
The installation disc includes the latest version of iTunes music management software. Once you've got that on your computer (Windows or Mac) you simply plug the Shuffle's USB plug directly into an available USB port on your computer and up pops your music collection, ripe for the shuffling.
And herein lies the feature that may change the way I listen to music. At the click of a new button called "Autofill" on the iTunes interface, the software automatically loads the shuffle with a random selection from my digital music library.
It was a bit of a personal revelation when I first autofilled the loaner 512 MB model from my hearty music folder. The result? Too much Insane Clown Posse and not enough Andres Segovia. The Shuffle also grabbed some lengthy drum 'n bass mix tracks which ate up a bit too much space.
If you're not sure you want a random mix, you can upload a specific order of songs and the unit will play them nicely. If you change your mind and want them shuffled, a sliding switch on the back of the unit will do the trick instantly.
Status light
Also on the backside of the shuffle is a battery status check light: green means plenty, amber means low and red means you don't have much juice left. No light means no power.
The specs say the Shuffle's rechargeable battery, juiced up by plugging it into a computer's USB port, will last for 12 hours. It takes about 4 hours for a full charge.
After at least 3 hours of use upon first filling the Shuffle with music, I never dipped into the amber level once.
But there are some drawbacks.
Since there's no LCD screen on the Shuffle, there's really no way to navigate to a particular track without memorizing the order and clicking through them. That might be a bummer for some who want quick access to a particular song.
Otherwise, there's little fault to find here. For those looking for simplicity and ultra-portability, less can be more.

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