I’ve had my Creative Zen Micro for a couple of years now, and it’s still working well. That slightly fiddly control method has become easier to use with experience, and when coupled with a good quality pair of earphones, the sound quality is more than good enough for my purposes. So when Creative told me all about their new teeny tiny 1GB minimalist MP3 player a while ago, I didn’t really take much notice. The Zen Stone is a small lump of plastic containing 1GB of flash memory. It has a standard mini USB port, a headphone socket and very basic controls. No informative display. In short, it’s the Creative equivalent of the iPod Shuffle without actually being an Apple product.
As I said, I wasn’t really interested. But then, a few weeks ago, I was looking for something else in John Lewis, and passed the MP3 players. And saw the Zen Stone. Oh. Good. Grief. It’s tiny, it’s black, and gently curved. It just looks right. One look was all it took. I just had to have one, and bought one later that day.
Inside the quite small box was the tiny Zen Stone, a pair of instantly disposable nasty earphones, a USB cable and a getting started guide. Software is available for download, but you don’t actually need it. Plug it in to a convenient USB port and Windows XP will see it in the same way as any other flash drive. You can then copy MP3 and WMA files across much as you would files of any other kind.
It will play DRM tracks that you’ve bought, but does not support “subscription” type DRM as used by Napster to Go and other such services. It doesn’t do playlists in any shape or form. What it does is play all the tracks you’ve copied, either in alphanumeric order, or randomly if that’s what you prefer. If your files are placed into folders, it will play the folders in alphanumeric order, so you can play whole albums together, and if you name the files with 01, 02, etc at the beginning, it will play them in the right order.
Controls are limited to play/pause, volume, back/forward and a mode switch which selects between sequential and random play and which also allows you to skip the current folder.
Assuming you use a decent pair of earphones (I have a good Sony pair which actually cost more than the Zen Stone), sound quality is more than acceptable. Out of the box, the player doesn’t have a clip or any way of attaching it to anything, but there are various accessories available – I have a silicon “skin” thingy with a clip, which works well for me, and there’s also an optional arm band thingy, which some people might prefer.
Battery life is reasonable – it survives me going to and from work for a week, which is as much as I need, and so long as you can find a computer with a USB port (and you have a standard mini USB cable) recharging is quick and easy.
The list price, and indeed the price in most shops is a quite reasonable £27.99. At the time of writing, Amazon have it at £17.99 with free delivery, which I would call very good value.
It’s a nice bit of kit – not a complete replacement for the Zen Micro due to the lack of support for Napster to Go, but a very handy music player that does exactly what it says on the tin. Well, the box.
There’s also a fancier model with a display, FM radio and other bits and bobs, but I prefer this really basic version. It does one job, and does it well. And it’s cheap enough to keep as an emergency backup music player!
 Normally, this is my favourite gripe about portable music devices. Even some really good and quite expensive models come with dreadful headphones, in what is presumably a cost-cutting exercise. However, given the low price of this toy, I can forgive the earphones being rubbish.