In a world of iPod domination, you can't really blame competitors for taking cues from the MP3 player giant. Such is the case with the Creative Zen Stone, a simple and diminutive flash player reminiscent of the second-generation iPod Shuffle. Though the Stone may have taken its design cues from the popular iPod, it outshines the latter in sound quality and costs only half the price: the 1GB Stone lists at a mere $39.99.
The Zen Stone is swathed in the same shiny-plastic casing as the Zen V Plus and that, combined with its rounded-rectangle shape, does rather give it the appearance of a pebble; too bad that name was already taken. As with the Shuffle, the Stone's user interface has no screen and uses a tactile control pad consisting of volume controls and track shuttle keys circling a play/pause button. You also get a choice of colors: black, white, blue, pink, red, or yellow. The similarities pretty much end there, though.
Measuring 2.1 inches by 1.3 inches by 0.4 inch, the Zen Stone is noticeably larger than the iPod Shuffle, and it lacks the handy clip found on the Apple player. Instead, there's a lanyard loop built into the left edge. You'll have to supply your own lanyard, though; Creative merely supplies some standard earbuds and a syncing cable. However, I was happy to see that the Stone syncs via a standard mini-USB port found on the bottom edge of the device. The top side houses the reset hole, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a playback switch. The latter lets you switch between shuffle and repeat modes and includes a function called "Folder Skip," a handy navigational feature to be discussed in more detail shortly.
As for other features, the Zen Stone is predictably light on those; it's hard to offer many extras when there's no screen. The player supports MP3, WMA (purchased but not subscription), and Audible files, and it can be synced via drag-and-drop in Windows Explorer or through Windows Media Player. In the case of the Stone, I prefer to use drag-and-drop syncing because of the aforementioned Folder Skip function. This handy feature lets you shuttle between folders, which can be useful for getting to the artist or playlist that you want, depending how you organize things. The skipping goes in alphabetical order, so if you know the names of all the artists and playlists on the device, you can find them fairly easily.
When a player costs a mere $40, I don't expect much in terms of sound quality, but the Zen Stone lives up to the Creative audio legacy. It sounds great, though I recommend swapping out the included earbuds to really take advantage of the player's audio capability. Still, the included 'buds don't sound half bad. Overall, the Stone offers impressive richness, clarity, and warmth. Swapping in a set of Shure SE310 earphones brought out the bass and gave music the depth it lacked with the packaged headphones. The rated 10-hour battery life rather diminishes some of the luster of the performance, and sadly, CNET Labs tests proved that the Stone isn't even up to matching that number: we got just 8.6 hours of juice.
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