Review: Creative ZEN Stone Plus MP3 Player

Creative has given its barebones ZEN Stone a radical update.

The new ZEN Stone Plus adds several features the original Stone lacked: an OLED screen, twice the storage (i.e., 2 GB), an FM tuner, voice recording, a stopwatch/clock and equalizer options.

Not surprisingly, this array of modifications also raises the price from $40 for the intentionally simple Stone to $70 for the more complex Stone Plus.

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The ZEN Stone was great because it was as easy to use as an iPod Shuffle, at half the price. The Stone Plus's added features and higher price, however, have placed it in direct competition with some more graceful (and cheaper) solutions, like the Sansa Express, our Editors' Choice for inexpensive flash players.

Both devices have their merits, and the consumer's decision between the two will likely come down to a battle between design and storage capacity.

The design of the Stone Plus is similar to the original Stone's. The most noticeable change: where the ZEN logo was on the last iteration is now a circular, 0.75 inch organic light-emitting diode display.

The right side of the front face houses a similar control wheel to that of the older Stone — volume controls and skipping buttons surround a central Enter button (the central button on the original was for play/pause).

The contour is almost identical, except that the Stone Plus has different buttons up top and is a hair longer than the original Stone. The headphone jack sits on the top panel, on the left side.

The space once occupied by the play-mode and reset buttons is now occupied by a Power/Play/Pause/Assignable function rocker button and a microphone. The underside of the player has a mini USB port and a reset pinhole.

The main physical difference is the one you can't see: The flash memory size has doubled to 2 GB.

As usual, I recommend upgrading from the included earbuds — Shure, Ultimate Ears and Etymotic all make great earphones.

My main gripe with the Stone Plus is that it's not much fun to navigate.

Unlike the truly convoluted player interfaces on the RCA Opal and Cowon's iAUDIO 7, there's nothing tricky about navigating the Stone Plus — it's just slow. There's a lot of one-button navigating back-and forth and button response is sluggish.

That said, you'll rarely get lost, and the assignable function button at the top of the player means you're always a one-click shortcut away from your favorite feature — be it the FM radio or your music folder.

Another thing that's sluggish about the player: the power-up sequence.

You have to hold down the power button for a few seconds before the Creative logo appears on the OLED, and it takes an additional few seconds to actually start playing music.

Once you finally get it going, the last function you were using — say, the FM radio — will be the first thing you see. Also, if you were playing a song, it'll resume right where you left off.

The ZEN Stone's menus can be accessed via the central Select button, and they are, in order: Music, Options, FM Radio, Microphone, Recordings, Stopwatch, Settings, Lock and Cancel. This last also appears at the end of every menu page and basically means "return to main screen."

Oddly, the menu system isn't circular, so once you get to Cancel, your only choice is to go backwards.

Likewise, navigation of music files seems a bit unnatural.

First off, choosing the Music menu provides only ways to skip to the next song or go backwards. To actually pick a song from the entire player's library, you have to go to Options menu and select Browse Music.

Artists and songs are arranged in alphabetical order; for example, all David Bowie songs are listed alphabetically, from "Changes" to "Ziggy Stardust."

The problem is, artists' names aren't displayed anywhere. Bowie songs simply start showing up on the list after Daniel Johnston's songs are finished ("David" comes soon after "Daniel"), without either artist's name being displayed.

The ZEN Stone Plus supports WMA, MP3, and WAV files — no AAC support here, so forget about iTunes Plus on the Stone Plus.

There's no software or manual CD included either — you have to go to Creative's ZEN Stone Plus site to download Creative Media Lite and the manual, which is a bit of an annoyance.

As usual, I had an easy enough time loading the player via Windows Media Player, so you might just forgo the download altogether. That said, it is quick and painless, and loading files using Creative's software is a snap.

The Options menu has the aforementioned Browse Music tab, as well as Play Mode, EQ, Bass Boost, Cancel and Delete.

Delete does exactly what you think: deletes the current song. Why don't more players have this option?

Play Modes are the standard array of Repeats, Shuffles and combinations of the two for individual songs or the entire song list.

I found the EQ adjustments much more subtle than on most players; it was hard to drastically change the sound of the file playing without utilizing ridiculously intense settings.

On most players with EQ options, the "faders" can make some serious changes with only a little tweaking, particularly to the bass. Not here.

Still, if you're familiar with my leave-it-flat EQ policy, this is neither good nor bad. Better earphones-before-EQ adjustment is the preferred approach for audio purists.

The Stone's FM radio works more or less intuitively. It took me a second to figure out how to set my station presets. Then again, this was before I read the manual, and I still got it working.

I was surprised by the lack of an FM recorder — most players that feature a voice recorder also have one for the radio, but that's not the case here.

The voice recorder function, found under the Microphone menu, is easy to use, and your recordings will — surprise! — end up in the Recordings menu.

The Stopwatch is also a snap to use, and it utilizes a display similar to the date-and-time graphic, which is pretty good-looking.

The stopwatch, sadly, does not offer a continuous spew of milliseconds, but instead jumps ahead every few milliseconds. For example, the timer skips from 32.17 to 32.33 seconds. Still useful, but not exactly impressive.

In Settings, you can flip the orientation of the OLED 180 degrees, which I like, and you can make the date and time the default screen saver.

The screen shuts off after 30 seconds of inactivity, but you can set it to shut off sooner than that to save battery life.

You'll need to conserve that battery life, too. The rechargeable battery is rated by Creative as having a life of 9.5 hours, which is already pretty low. Worse still, my test yielded an unimpressive 8 hours and 3 minutes.

The original ZEN Stone was a clear victory for pricing and simplicity. The ZEN Stone Plus tries to do much more, but doesn't win on every front.

The Sansa Express, for $10 less, offers voice and FM radio recording, simpler menu navigation, and better response times.

On the other hand, the Express is 1 GB smaller than the ZEN Stone Plus. In any case. both players offer more bang-for-buck than the iPod Shuffle.

Thus which player to buy is a question of your priorities: storage versus ease of use.

If you need more than 1 GB for your budget player and don't mind the slow navigation of the ZEN Stone Plus, $70 is a fair price for a decent 2 GB player.

If, however, it's ease-of-use (and an FM recorder) you seek, the Sansa Express is the better bet.

For those who just want a dirt-cheap player and don't care about navigation at all, Creative's original ZEN Stone is a fine choice.

BOTTOM LINE: The ZEN Stone Plus, at 2 GB, has twice the storage of the original ZEN Stone, a screen, FM radio and voice recording. This is about as cheap as it gets for a reliable 2 GB player (the screen-less 1 GB iPod Shuffle is $80), but if storage isn't your main priority, the 1 GB Sansa Express is better solution (and costs $10 less).

PROS: Small and lightweight. FM radio. Voice recording. Stopwatch and clock. EQ options. Can delete songs on device itself. Snazzy date/time display.

CONS: Short USB cable. So-so earbuds. Annoyingly long start-up time. No way to monitor voice recorder.

COMPANY: Creative Technology Ltd.


Price: $70.00 List
Player Type: Flash MP3 Player
Radio: Yes
Recording, Voice: Yes
Recording, Line In: No
Video Recording: No
Music Playback Formats: MP3, WAV, WMA
Screen Size: 0.75 inches
Storage Capacity: 2 GB
Dimensions: 2.2 x 1.25 x 0.33 inches

EDITOR RATING: Three out of five stars

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