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iPod shuffle Tips and Tricks

by Scott Knaster

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPod shuffle last month, everybody had an instant opinion about Apple's decision not to include a display. Depending on your point of view, it was either a bold solution for reducing cost and complexity, or the latest example of an unclothed emperor. The iPod shuffle has now been in the world for a few weeks, and so far, it looks like a big winner, with mostly positive reviews and plenty of demand.

The shuffle is so simple to operate that even your 2-year-old might soon be nagging you for one. But there are plenty of fun intricacies and nuances to learn about in iPod shuffle and in its faithful companion, iTunes 4.7.1. In this article, we'll take a deeper look at the newest iPod and iTunes.

Buttoned Up

There aren't many buttons to push on the shuffle, and that's a good thing: it makes it hard to push the wrong one. Most people can figure out how to press the big button to start and stop the music, and perform other basic functions using the four other buttons to control volume and navigation.

There are a few interesting features hiding behind those buttons. Unlike other iPods, the shuffle has no "hold" switch to prevent tragic button-push accidents. On the shuffle, you can lock the buttons by holding down Play/Pause for a few seconds until the amber (you might think it looks more like orange or yellow) light blinks at you a few times. To unlock the buttons, hold down Play/Pause again until you get the blinking green light.

Although iPod shuffle lacks the fancy song-scrubbing trick that lets you quickly skip through a track, it does have the same basic fast-forward and rewind feature as other iPods: just hold down Next or Previous to move around in the current song.

 The iPod shuffle

When you pause an iPod shuffle, then press Next or Previous, the iPod moves to the new song and starts playing. That's different from other iPods: on those, the iPod stays paused when you press Next or Previous. This is another example of how Apple wisely simplified a feature to accommodate a screen-less design.

When you pause the shuffle, the green light blinks at you. If you leave the shuffle paused, the light stops blinking after a minute, and it's easy to forget that it's still on. The shuffle has clever hardware and software that greatly conserves power if the iPod has been paused for more than a minute or so, but when you're not using your shuffle, you should use the good old-fashioned off switch to be sure it isn't using its battery when you don't want it to.

Once in awhile, iPods get confused and must be brought back to their senses by resetting them. iPod shuffle is no exception to that, but there is a unique way of resetting it: turn it off using the slider switch on the back, wait awhile (at least 5 seconds), then turn it back on again, to either the play-in-order or shuffle mode position.

The iPod shuffle includes a handy shortcut for going back to the beginning of its playlist: just press Play/Pause three times and the shuffle will start playing at the beginning of the first song. (You don't even have to say, "There's no place like home.")

If the iPod is in shuffle mode, it will reorder the playlist before starting over. You can use this trick to quickly get to songs at the end of the playlist, too. Just triple-click to go to the start, then press Previous to wrap around and get to the last song. While other iPods let you choose whether they start over or stop when finishing a playlist, the iPod shuffle always starts over, for the sake of simplicity, which makes this tip work. (It also works on other iPods if you turn on Repeat All in the settings. But other iPods have screens, which makes them somewhat easier to navigate.)

Das Blinkenlights

The iPod shuffle has two subcutaneous LEDs on the front to help you figure out what it's doing in the absence of a display. There's a green light, which is mostly useful when you're listening, and an amber light that's primarily needed when the iPod is connected to your computer. The lights give you reassuring feedback that all is well, or help you figure out when something is wrong. Here are some of the most important iPod shuffle light shows:

  • Usually, when you press any button, the green light will shine as long as you hold down the button.
  • If you press a button and you see the orange light instead, and nothing else happens, your iPod is locked. Hold down Play/Pause for a few seconds to unlock it.
  • If absolutely nothing happens when you press a button, not even a light, you probably need to charge your shuffle's battery.
  • If you press a button and see both the green and amber lights blinking, one after another, that usually means there are no songs on the iPod, or some other error has occurred. Try resetting it by turning it off for 5 seconds, then back on. If you still get the psychedelic lights, you'll need to connect to a computer and load some music.

When your iPod shuffle is connected to a computer, you'll see the amber light. A blinking amber light means, "I'm busy. Please don't disconnect me." If you have disk mode turned on, the light will blink whenever the iPod is plugged in. With disk mode off, the light blinks only when it's transferring music. Be sure you click the eject icon next to the iPod name in iTunes before unplugging a blinking iPod. If the amber light isn't blinking, feel free to unplug at will.

There's another set of LEDs on the back of the iPod shuffle. When you're playing tunes and you press the oval button on the back, these tiny lights tell you about your battery level: green for a good charge, amber for low, red for uh-oh, and no light for no charge. When the shuffle is connected, the battery light blinks if the orange light on the front is blinking, as an additional reminder not to disconnect if you happen to be staring at the wrong side of your shuffle.

iTunes 4.7.1

The iPod shuffle comes with iTunes 4.7.1, a new version. (It's interesting that a release of iTunes that supports new hardware and includes new, user-interface features only merits a second-level dot increase in the version number. I guess 4.8 is really going to be awesome!) The main addition in iTunes 4.7.1 is Autofill, a new feature expressly for iPod shuffle.

When you connect an iPod shuffle, it appears in the Source list of iTunes. Getting tracks onto your shuffle takes two steps:

  1. Put tunes in the shuffle playlist. You can do this by clicking the Autofill button, manually by dragging songs in or deleting songs, or a combination of these methods.
  2. Copy the songs to the iPod. iTunes does this automatically whenever the shuffle is connected to your computer.

Note a couple of interesting facts about Autofill: you always have to click the Autofill button to get it to do its thing -- it never generates a playlist unless you click. And, using Autofill is not required in order to load up your shuffle. No matter how you build your shuffle playlist, iTunes automatically copies the music to your iPod. It doesn't hate you if you fail to use Autofill.

(There is one time when iTunes fills your shuffle playlist without you clicking Autofill. The very first time you connect a new iPod shuffle to iTunes, you see an iPod Setup Assistant screen that includes a checkbox, "Automatically choose songs for my iPod." If you leave this checked, it's just like clicking Autofill. But after you listen to music, then reconnect your iPod, Autofill isn't triggered unless you click the Autofill button.)

If you decide not to use Autofill, iPod shuffle works a lot like any iPod that's set to manual sync. You can drag tracks or whole playlists from your music library to the iPod, and you can remove tracks by pressing Delete. As soon as you drop the tracks on the iPod, iTunes starts to copy them over. The new feature that iTunes 4.7.1 adds is the ability to create a playlist with Autofill -- not the automatic syncing, which has always been there.

Fill Harmonic

Autofill includes some handy options that let you tweak its behavior. The Autofill from popup lets you choose which playlist you want to use as the source of the Autofill list. It defaults to your music library, but you can restrict it to any playlist you want. If you turn off the Choose songs randomly option, iTunes will simply grab as many songs as it can cram onto the shuffle, starting from the beginning of the chosen playlist.

Pick a playlist for Autofill. Pick a playlist for Autofill.

By default, Autofill empties out the playlist before generating a new one. You can disable that behavior by turning off Replace all songs when Autofilling. With this setting turned off, you can create a manual playlist by dragging in your favorite tracks, then "top it off" by clicking Autofill to add some random tracks automatically to fill up the remaining space.

iTunes 4.7.1 iTunes 4.7.1 includes Autofill and other handy tools to upload and change the music on your iPod shuffle.

When you use Autofill, you don't have to settle for what iTunes provides for you. Let's say you click Autofill and get a list that includes "There is a Mountain" by Donovan, and you just can't bear to hear that one again. Just select it and press Delete -- it's gone. You can replace it by dragging another track, or by clicking Autofill to top off the playlist.

Unlike other iPods, you can't move your shuffle from one computer to another and add tracks from each. If you plug your shuffle into another computer, iTunes notes that it's an alien iPod and asks if you want to start using it with this machine instead. If you say yes, the songs on the iPod are erased and you have to start building a playlist from scratch (or from Autofill). If you say no, iTunes refuses to have anything to do with the iPod.

Autofill is a super-simple way to grab songs for you iPod, but maybe you think it's too simple. With a little effort, you can construct a Smart Playlist that's cleverer than the Autofill list. For example, you can use the Time is greater than 1:00 criterion to make sure your playlist doesn't include any random songlet snippets, and you can add a Time is less than 10:00 (or for you Neil Young fans, less than 18:00) if you want to keep out epics. Add any other criteria you like. You can then drag this playlist to your shuffle, or even use it as the source for the Autofill from popup in iTunes.

iPod Preferences

When you connect your shuffle, you'll get access to a few iPod settings in iTunes preferences. Keep this iPod in the source list, also known as shadow mode, is a cool feature that lets you modify the shuffle playlist even when the shuffle isn't connected. You can add, delete, Autofill, and top off to your heart's content, just as if the iPod were there. When you connect it, your spiffy playlist is copied over to the iPod.

By turning on "Keep this iPod in the source list", you can edit By turning on "Keep this iPod in the source list", you can edit
your shuffle's playlist even when the iPod isn't there.

If you create a playlist you're particularly fond of, you can save it forever. Just select all the songs, then choose New Playlist From Selection from the File menu.

There's also a preferences setting for Enable disk use, including a slider that lets you indicate how much space you plan to use for files vs. tunes. This slider simply tells iTunes how much space to leave for songs when you Autofill or add songs to your shuffle manually -- it doesn't actually partition or reserve space in the shuffle's flash memory.

A Few More Things

The shuffle is the first iPod that only works when it's formatted as a FAT32 volume. If you're adventurous and you try formatting your shuffle as an HFS disk, you won't be able to use it as a music player again until you use iPod Updater to restore it to iPod-hood.

If you're using disk mode on the shuffle, FAT32 has some unfortunate implications for Mac users. You'll notice that the shuffle insists on yelling its name in ALL UPPERCASE in the Finder. If you change it to include lowercase characters, it will revert to uppercase the next time you connect it. Bummer.

Apple's support for FAT32 has a list of seemingly innocent characters you can't use in file names, such as * and [ . If you try copying a file with any of these characters in its name from an HFS volume to your shuffle, the Finder will complain. (The details are provided here.) Apple doesn't support formatting your shuffle as an HFS volume. At best, you'll get a slightly pricey flash drive that fails to play music.

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Code Fragments only

Unlike its bigger siblings, the iPod shuffle has no real-time clock. You will find that out if you use the Last Played date in smart playlists or AppleScripts. When you play a song on the shuffle, it increments the play count, but doesn't change the last played value.

Apple urges us to "Enjoy uncertainty" with the iPod shuffle, but if you like predictability, you might spend a lot of time with your shuffle switched to Play in order (the middle setting of the slider on the back). You can hand-tweak your play order in iTunes by dragging songs where you want them.

You can also easily rearrange your play order to match any of the column sort orders in iTunes. For example, if you want to listen to your songs in order from shortest to longest play times, click the Time column, then Control-click (or right-click) on the iPod name in the Source list, and choose Copy to Play Order. The shuffle's play order will change to match the way they're listed in iTunes, and that's the way you'll hear them if you switch the shuffle to Play in order.

For you audio-book fans (we know who you are by your massive iTunes Music Store bills), here are a couple of notes about how the iPod shuffle handles audio books. If your iPod is in shuffle mode, it won't play parts from audio books, because most people reportedly don't like to hear book chapters in random order. For the same reason, Autofill will never choose audio book tracks for its playlists.

Shuffling Off

With the shuffle, Apple has innovated the iPod line in a new direction: instead of more features, the shuffle has fewer, along with less complexity and a much lower price. Even with all that simplicity, there are still a few tweaks left for us to talk about. The shuffle is the easiest iPod yet, but there are plenty of ways to make iPods even easier in the future. For example, imagine fully automatic Autofill that loads up your iPod with new music without having to click a button or even launch iTunes, or a fast wireless connection that transfers songs before you even plug your iPod in. You think they would sell any of those?

Scott Knaster is a technical writer on the Mac team at Google.

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