If you liked what you saw of Creative's Zen Stone Plus, you now have a choice on your hands: buy the original 2GB model now for about £35, or buy a version with a mini-speaker built into the back for pretty much the same price. Is this a decision you even need to make?
The speaker-loving Zen Stone Plus looks just like its younger sibling -- the Zen Stone with Speaker. It now features an attractive matte finish, contrary to the gloss of the original, but making up in professionalism what it loses in glint.
Main controls are on the front of the player, but unlike the original Stone, the play/pause button is now stuck on the top. We're sad to see the physical 'shuffle mode' switch has been removed, as play modes now have to be slowly selected using the system's sluggish menus.
Still, to make up for it, there's a cute little 64x64-pixel OLED screen sitting on the left. It's a simple blue-on-black display and does everything a display of this size should do. This is the perfect way to implement a graphic display into something this small, and the icons are just large enough to be useful.
As before, the new Stone Plus supports MP3, AAC and WMA files, and claims to play Audible downloads and copy-protected content, though we couldn't get any of Audible's formats to work; neither audiobooks nor subscription downloads would play.
There's also no support for subscription services such as Napster, but any music you buy-to-own from such stores will play fine. You can also choose to have your library shuffled, and you being able to visually navigate albums is a huge bonus, despite there being no way to select individual tracks.
We were pleased to see voice recording. You can record up to 10 hours of voice on a single recording and each are saved with their own file names as a recording finishes. Recorded files can be browsed through using the built-in navigation, or they can be dragged on to a PC.
In addition to a voice recorder, an FM radio with 32 presets has been thrown into the mix. And of course there's the little speaker in the back that'll pump audio fairly loudly, though if this gets into the hands of teenagers on a packed bus, we're all destined to never enjoy bus journeys again.
It comes as no surprise that the £37 Zen Stone Plus sounds terrific, providing you use some decent headphones. Music files can be dragged and dropped into the Stone's memory through Windows, or managed with Windows Media Player -- excellent, as we love simplicity.
This minuscule musical gadget even has a five-band equaliser with four presets. A button on the top of the player has a customisable function so you're free to assign it to any part of the player's menus that you most frequently use, including the switching on and off of the loudspeaker. Menus, on the other hand, are less friendly. They're sluggish and can be irritating to use.
The loudspeaker is reasonably loud and very bright, so it's ideal for listening to podcasts in the car. Music, on the other hand, sounds like you'd expect: no bass, but fairly clear. It's hard to think of a massive list of potential applications for it, but it'd have a use in a tent or perhaps when relaxing on a beach if you just couldn't fit those battery-powered speakers into your backpack.
An expected 20-hour battery life is terrific when compared to the iPod shuffle's 12 hours, and as this is primarily geared towards sporty types, you're likely to be exhausted long before it is. We'll have battery life test results for you soon, both with and without the speaker switched on.
The Zen Stone Plus with Speaker does everything it should do, plus loads of extra stuff you might not expect. It has up to 4GB of capacity for around the same price as Apple's 2GB iPod shuffle, plus better sound quality, a cute if rudimentary screen, an FM radio, a little speaker and true drag-and-drop management of files. It will be a wonder why anyone would choose a shuffle, other than for looks.
If you don't care about features, check out the Zen Stone with Speaker -- for just around £30 for a 2GB version, it looks the same and also has a speaker. Or you can still try both versions without speakers here and here.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday