Rumors had been rife in the online community of a new digital audio player (DAP) from Creative and that this mysterious product will be locking horns with Apple’s iPod shuffle. True enough, what you are looking at now is Creative's response to Apple's effort and what a tiny player it is.
The feather light (18.5g) and compact ZEN Stone is clearly inspired by small smooth pebbles often found in ZEN gardens (how poetic), but despite its name, the ZEN Stone is not built as what its name suggests. Because of its glossy exterior, there is always a concern of scratching the ZEN Stone with sharp items such as keys and coins in your pocket and what not. However, as we found, its glossy surface is tough enough to take on the rigors of everyday use. Size wise, the ZEN Stone is delightfully small and light, so much so it's easy to forget that it's sitting in your pocket – not to forget it can also be quite easily misplaced.
The ZEN Stone has a simple interface: forward, rewind, play/pause and volume controls are all clustered together right smack in the middle of the player. Along its side profile is a handy switch that scrolls through folders alphabetically, randomizes your songs and sets the player to repeat every music file it supports. Since folders are supported, songs can be sorted in a pseudo genre/playlist fashion, giving you some form of control over the songs you want.
Loading the ZEN Stone up is a simple Plug and Play process (through a Mini USB port), exactly in the same way as you would with a flash drive. In fact, there is not a single trace of driver or software in the box. The only software that Creative thought you might need is the Creative Media Lite CD ripping software, and guess what, it's available as a free download on Creative's website - sweet.
True to its simple styling and interface, the ZEN Stone is a joy to use. If you know how to copy files into a flash drive, you'll know how to operate the ZEN Stone. There is however, a short but noticeable playback lag from the time the player is unplugged till it starts playing, but that's just us nitpicking, really. The ZEN Stone supports MP3 and WMA formats.
Being a Creative product, the ZEN Stone sure did not disappoint where its bread and butter (audio quality) was concerned. Some of you might find the audio output to carry a bit too much bass, although that being said, we could find no distortions or hissing whatsoever. When it came down to battery life, the ZEN Stone easily clocked 10hrs of playback time.
Creative has always furnished their new DAPs with accompanying accessories at launch and it isn't any different this time around. To that end, Creative offers no less than three kinds of protective skins, each serving its own purpose. Upon closer inspection of these protective silicon skins (and armbands), we were impressed that they were all very well made with no excess silicon or rough edges in sight.
Although nothing revolutionary, the ZEN Stone pretty much satisfies users in ways the iPod shuffle would. Compared to the latter however, it does carry a slight edge by having a universally compatible mini-USB port, unlike the iPod shuffle which requires an external dock running via a propriety jack. Looks and performance aside, the one big point that really allows the ZEN Stone to take the cake is its incredible retail price of just US$45 (~S$69). You could skip a ZEN Stone on water and still afford a replacement all for the price of one Apple iPod shuffle - not bad for a reply wouldn't you say?