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Usability, which comes top of the list with Apple's Shuffle, isn't great either. The d-pad is small and difficult to operate accurately and the button in its centre is fiddly and requires a delicate technique if you don't want to depress any part of the ring around it. It's not a patch on the Shuffle's effort.
And neither are the looks. Some may like the plastic pebble look, but it just doesn't do it for me, and after a week of use it was already picking up scratches and smudges like crazy. The finish isn't particularly smooth and though build quality seems solid enough, the whole thing just feels, well, a bit cheap. Battery life is down on the Shuffle as well. At 9.5 hours it's 2.5 hours short, though that should be enough to run two marathons or ride a stage of the Tour de France, if you're that way inclined.
Fortunately, in terms of sound quality, it's pretty good. It's not the best in class, but it keeps up with the Joneses. As with the Shuffle, there's plenty of detail with not much oomph in the bass department. Simple pop and acoustic sounds good – the piano on KT Tunstall's Heal Over are rendered nicely, while Damien Rice's tortured vocals on O sound sharp and clear.
But the gut wrenchingly deep bass on Nitin Sawhney's Beyond skin just isn't, well, gut-wrenching enough, and the bass guitars on Pat Metheney's Here To Stay are a bit on the thin side. You can tweak the EQ settings to boost the bass – one good use of the screen – but the sound still lacks a little presence at the low end. Furthermore, the supplied earbuds don't exactly help matters, making it sound like you're listening to music in a cardboard box. You'd be well-advised upgrading them at the first opportunity.
If anything the sound quality is slightly better than the Shuffle, but if good sound quality's your main priority for around £50, you'd be better off with the Sony NW-E015.
Apple probably won't lose any sleep over the Zen Stone Plus. It may have more capacity, features and slightly better sound quality than the Shuffle, but it's fiddly to use and the screen is more of an adornment than a truly useful addition. It doesn't look as good, doesn't have that really handy built-in clip, and battery life isn't great.
In the end, I can't help being disappointed in what has widely been touted as a Shuffle killer. Those who desperately want more capacity will probably choose the Plus over the Shuffle. Anyone with an Apple axe to grind or a library of WMA tracks will too, but I really can't say it's the better player for all that.
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