"What ever Apple can do, we can do better" seems to be the thinking out of Creative Labs' Singapore headquarters. To that end Creative Labs has just released its first rival for tiny iPod Shuffle, the 1GB Zen Stone.
Overseas the Stone undercuts the Shuffle's price by half. Here it's price advantage is much narrower -- AU$89.95 versus the Shuffle's AU$109. Our review Stone was black but it's also available in pink, blue and white. Oddly the red and green Stones won't be making the trip to the antipodes.
The Stone -- looking much like those dark, lustrous pebbles found in Japanese gardens -- drew many positive glances in the office. It's a shame then that it doesn't have the tactile quality that its design suggests, made as it is from plastic. This, though, guarantees that it is exceptionally light -- try 25g! -- even though it is larger than the Shuffle.
On the front there's a very familiar looking five-way, donut-shaped controller. Left and right skips between tracks, up and down adjusts the volume, while the central button not only plays and pauses songs but also doubles as the on/off switch. The play button's additional role proved to be problematic on a few occasions when, not looking, we attempted to switch the Stone off but only succeeded in pausing it. To the left is a LED which flashes in various colours and frequencies depending on the Stone's status, like low battery, playing, transferring and charging.
Along the top edge is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, a reset pin and a slider switch which lets you toggle between continuous and random play. The slider also lets you skip between folders. On the bottom is an exposed mini-USB connection which we found preferable to the second-generation Shuffle's dock arrangement. Lose the Shuffle's dock and you'll pay almost half the price of a new Shuffle (AU$48) for a replacement. Lose the Stone's supplied 10cm USB cable and replacements are a dime-a-dozen or, alternatively, just crib the cable from another mini-USB device. Creative should have fitted a cover for the connector, though, because it rather ruins the player's aesthetics.
MP3 players without displays are, by design, limited in the features that they offer. You can play compressed music on it (MP3, WMA and Audible are the supported formats), treat it like a USB drive and, umm, that's about it. The Stone's package is similarly bare, consisting of the player itself, a set of black ear buds, a 10cm USB cable and a fold-out four page instruction sheet. No software is included.
When you connect the Stone to a PC or Mac, it will start charging and a new USB drive will appear on your desktop. There's no need to download or install any software to load the Stone with music, simply drag-and-drop files and folders over. So although there's really no need to download Creative Media Lite, it does allows you to rip audio CDs, limit the Stone's maximum volume and view it's battery status, in addition to providing a basic file copying interface.
Listening to the Stone using the supplied headphones yields a predictably tinny and hollow sound, with bass noticeably absent, and singer solos muted and muffled. Attach a better set of headphones and the sound quality improves markedly. Indeed, the Stone is a near match for many larger, more expensive players. When we tested it back-to-back with a second-generation Shuffle, it was quickly apparent that the Stone offered a fuller and richer sound.
There's no gapless playback, which is to be expected at this price point, but we were disappointed when, on a few occasions, the Stone forgot which track and folder we were in when we switched it back on. This bug aside, we found the Zen Stone to be a good looking MP3 player which punches above its class aurally. Whether its superior sound and slight price advantage is enough to tempt punters away from the metallic allure of the Shuffle remains to be seen.