There are so many various products in the market of audio players that it's rather hard to surprise consumers. Manufacturers usually try to attract users with new features, which in their turn raise product costs. Creative decided differently - to stir up the market of portable audio equipment by launching a budget Zen Stone instead of an expensive device with advanced features.
The budget nature of this player is expressed by the lack of a display, which may disappoint many users. "We've already seen it somewhere" - this thought may flash in your mind, if you keep tabs on the technical development. Indeed, Apple have already launched a player without a display. Later on, this idea was borrowed by other manufacturers (for example, the Iriver S7). And now a similar product is launched by Creative. It's nothing more than a return to origins - the times of such models seem to have gone five years ago (by the way, Creative MuVo also lacked a display). But the history and Apple decided differently. The trump card of the marketing campaign is the price of this device - about $38 for the model with 1 GB of memory. In fact, there are no other modifications, only enclosure colors are different - black, white, red, blue, pink, or lemon. Many people call the Stone "iPod Shuffle killer" (the second generation). The reasons are not far-fetched. We'll not reveal all features at once, let's review them one by one.
The enclosure is a plastic "pebble" with smooth streamlined edges. Hence the name of this model - stone. It looks original and stylish, it's very small and light-weight. Many girls adore the new product from Creative :)
But all is not that peachy. As we've already said, the player is made of plastic, but its quality is not very high. You shouldn't carry the tiny Stone in your pocket with keys or other hard objects. You will have to use a holster to protect the enclosure. However, it's not included into the bundle. So the new product is outscored by the Shuffle here, which has a metal case. Speaking of the bundle: the tiny box contains a player, a short (~15 cm) USB-miniUSB cable, and stock Creative headphones that come with all Zen players. Not a horn of plenty, but there are reasons for it. The company minimized the bundle to cut down the costs. But the company promises to deliver various interesting accessories.
The front panel of the Stone houses a single round button, which rocks up and down to control volume and left-right to change tracks. There is another small transparent button in the middle of it to turn the player on and to pause playback. By the way, its transparency adds some charm to the Zen Stone. There is a LED to the left of the controls, at the edge of the player. On top of the device we can see a headphones-out, a reset hole (in case your player freezes), and another control - a slider to change directories, enable/disable shuffle. The player has a built-in battery (we failed to find out its capacity), so it has no removable parts. A single mini-USB jack is located on the bottom of the device. Fortunately, it's a standard jack. That's an advantage over the competing product from Apple, which uses a non-standard cable. If you lose it, you will have to part with a considerable sum of money for a new original device. Non-original devices are not cheap either.
Music Playback, PC Sync
This player has a single function - to play music. And it can be used as a flash drive, of course. Unfortunately, it does not have a built-in radio - it would have been mostly welcome here.
Let's talk about a PC connection first. Unlike most modern models from Creative, this device does not need additional software to upload music. This feature is used to lure potential buyers on the official web site. Windows XP detects it as a regular flash drive. You can copy music to this player with Windows Explorer or with any other file manager, for example, Total Commander. It's one of the most important advantages of Creative Zen Stone versus iPod Shuffle, which needs iTunes (by the way, not all users like it).
Even though you can use the player without special software, Creative still developed a small program with a simple interface for Stone players. Its features suit those of the player. It can convert music CDs, transfer music to the player and back. The program also displays data that are stored in memory. As you cannot delete files from the device directly, the program offers this feature. There are actually some other functions, which are available only in Creative Media Lite (that's how the program is called). It can update the firmware and limit a maximum volume level. Battery charge is also indicated in the program, so you shouldn't watch the battery LED when the device is connected to a PC.
Data transfer rate is 750 KB/s - it's very slow compared to other models. But don't forget that it's a budget device, and we shouldn't expect much from it. The player can be used as a flash drive, of course. But you will want to use this feature only in urgency situations. Especially as prices for flash drives are very low these days and are still going down.
General performance: Very good.
Audio quality is on a par with other Creative players despite its miniature dimensions. You cannot adjust sound, which is certainly bad for owners of low-quality headphones. What concerns users of high-end headphones, they shouldn't worry about this fact, as they don't need equalizers. I think there is no need to describe the quality of the bundled headphones - it's not very good, as usual. However, I can assume that many users will stick to the stock model - those who want their headphones to produce music, nothing more. So this model is the best solution for such people, especially as it comes from a respectable manufacturer.
You'll have to control playback by touch. There are no other options, as there is no display. I haven't actually used "displayless" models before, so I'll describe impressions of a newbie. It seemed odd to seek a track without a visual first. But having organized a folder structure well, you can facilitate your experience with the player. You can use a button to advance to the next folder, which is not available in the Shuffle. In fact, it's not a button, it's the slider on top of the device (I've already mentioned it). You can arrange music files into folders and remember which folder contains which music. Then you can use the slider to navigate through these folders faster than just by skipping all tracks one by one. This is definitely an advantage of the Stone, which is much easier to navigate.
The LED I mentioned in the beginning of the article is not placed on the front side for decoration. It provides various information with its color and blinking rate. For example, it blinks green during payback, and glows constantly when paused.
There are two playback modes: repeat all tracks and shuffle. So we can see one drawback: if you forget to stop the player, it will work until its battery is discharged. Besides, you can turn it on accidentally: you cannot lock its keys. Unfortunately, this possibility of spontaneous engagement is a reality, so you should watch your Stone. If there are no tracks in memory, the player's LED will blink orange for some time, and then the player will turn off automatically.
Zen Stone is loud enough. The volume up button has an embossed plus sign on it. Other inscriptions are impressed into the enclosure, they are not painted. The embossed plus sign makes it easier to grope for the volume up button.
As it's a miniature player, the built-in battery is not very capacious. According to the manufacturer, the device can play 64 Kbps WMA music for 10 hours. It's hardly possible in real life, so the player will have a shorter battery life. Unlike PMP devices, it's better to run tests of battery life charged once, because the device can play only music. In practice, the difference from the official 10 hours is not big: the device played music files of mostly high quality for about 8 hours at an average volume level (17 out of 25).
The player charges up from USB, it takes a little more than an hour and a half. You can also buy an AC power adapter. The LED also shows battery status. Its blinking shows how the battery is charging.
There are actually a lot of LED signals for various occasions. We shall not describe them all here - you'll read about them in the mini-manual.
The company promises that the players will appear in retail simultaneously with accessories. You may buy a holster, which can be clipped to your clothes. It's a useful and stylish accessory: this fashionable accessory will certainly attract attention, and it will protect the enclosure from scratches. Besides, it's very convenient. The Stone is less convenient than the iPod Shuffle II, which comes with a clip on its metal enclosure. But unlike Stone, Shuffle is not a budget model.
The second interesting accessory is a keychain. You can see it on the picture. It's an alternative to the previous accessory with a latch hook instead of the clip.
The third accessory will please those users who like to do sports to music. We have nothing to add - you can see it on the picture.
Our player also came with portable mini speakers for the Stone family, which will also be available as an accessory. We may publish the review at ixbt.com. As for now, this accessory is for those users who really need it - for example, if you want to listen to music out in the country where there are no mains sockets. It's powered by two AAA batteries.
This is a truly budget player for those users who don't need modern bells and whistles, just a simple music box. This device can be your sole fellow traveler, or a backup player when you walk your dog or do sports. Anyway, the model will win the hearts of its users with its price - it's one of the best solutions for the money. With its recommended price of ~ $38 for 1 GB of memory (the average price for such flash drives is $41) , it's affordable to any user, who wants a small and light-weight portable music box. Zen Stone will certainly be an excellent present, which won't ruin your budget :) But will this player "kill" iPod? From the point of view of enclosure materials and accessories it needs - the answer is probably no. But what concerns its usability and price - it's quite possible.
Danila Kudriavtsev aka Mirabilis (firstname.lastname@example.org)
September 19, 2007
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