Creative Zen Stone Plus (2GB) Portable Audio Player - Review

Creative Zen Stone Plus (2GB) Portable Audio Player - Review

Creative has a penchant for offering a wide array of choices for the MP3 player consumer, so it comes as little surprise that the company decided to add a screen and some extra features to the ultra-basic Zen Stone. The new Plus version, which comes with 2GB of storage and a palatable S$99 (US$65.13) price tag, isn't exactly an improvement over its predecessor. Instead, it's just a different option that will appeal to active users that need a little more than a screenless MP3 player can offer--and that's not a bad thing.

At first glance, it appears that the tiny (19mm) round screen is the only thing distinguishing the Zen Stone Plus from its Plus-less sibling. Indeed, the players are the same size (53.3 x 33 x 10.2mm) and nearly the same weight (at 21g, the Plus has 2.6g on the Stone), and they come in the same six colors: Black, blue, green, pink, red, and white. They both have a lanyard loop built into the left edge, a standard miniUSB port and reset hole on the bottom side, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top. To the right of the screen, the Zen Stone Plus has a five-way control pad which consists of volume and track shuttle keys surrounding a center button. However, unlike with the Stone, this center button is a select/menu key. The play/pause function can be found on the top edge of the device, making up one-half of a rocker (the other half is a shortcut key). On the Stone, there was a shuffle/repeat switch rather than this rocker.

Overall, it's a basic design that is not unattractive and certainly falls into the cute and pocket-friendly category. However, the simplicity in the design paired with the tiny screen make for navigation that is not the most intuitive--most users will not get by without reading parts of the included quick guide. For example, rather than stepping you out or forward in the navigation tree, the track shuttle keys do the same thing as the volume keys within the menus: Move the selector up or down. Music organization also suffers in that there isn't much to it. You can't browse folders without actually skipping through them--that is, the first song from each folder will start playing as you browse. The gist is that you're getting the same exact music navigation as with the Stone, just now you have a display. Essentially, the screen just serves to allow for several other features.

Still, those other features are redeeming, and users looking for a gym companion will be quite pleased. The Zen Stone Plus includes a clock and stopwatch, as well as a superb FM tuner with an autoscan feature and 32 preset slots. Plus, Creative will be offering several fitness-friendly extras for the player including a silicone case with a built-in belt-clip (S$29 (US$19.98) for a three-pack), an armband (S$29 (US$19.98)), and--my favorite--a wristband (also S$29 (US$19.98)) that "doubles as a watchband for the clock and stopwatch". There's also a unique keychain accessory (S$25 (US$16.45)), which is quite fitting for a player of this size.

Other onboard features include several playback settings, such as the ability to shuffle and repeat, either taking the folders into account or not. There are also five preset EQs (rock, jazz, classical, pop, and normal), a five-band custom EQ, and a bass boost function. The Zen Stone Plus even offers a built-in mic for voice recording, and it supports MP3, WMA (including purchased but not subscription tracks), M3U (playlists), and Audible files. You can transfer music either via drag-and-drop in Windows Explorer (the player works with Windows XP and Vista only) or through a Windows Media jukebox, such as Rhapsody or Windows Media Player.

Unsurprisingly, the Zen Stone Plus performs very well in the sound quality department. The included headphones sound passable but don't do the player much justice. I used our standard test 'buds (the Shure SE310), and results were much better. (For a cheaper sound-isolating option, try the V-Moda Bass Freq). Bass response is tight and the mids are rich and warm, yet the high-end is not overshadowed. The player offers nice, even sound overall, so all genres come off well.

Unfortunately, the Zen Stone Plus didn't perform quite so well with processor speed. The time between clicking the control pad and the next item in the menu being highlighted is painfully lagging--this can be a major annoyance. Luckily, this problem doesn't translate to skipping tracks or transferring tracks--both happen speedily. The rated battery life of 9.5 hours isn't impressive by any stretch but considering the ultracompact size of the player, the short battery life is not much of a shock. It's a tradeoff.