Cool Tech Reviews

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May 4, 2007

Creative Zen Stone goes low against the iPod Shuffle

Creative Zen Stone MP3 Player

This week Creative unveiled the Zen Stone MP3 player inaugurating the era of big name commodity players. There have been fairly generic MP3 players from a variety of little known manufacturers, but now Creative has decided to join the party and compete directly on price with the 1GB Zen Stone retailing for $39.99 while the comparable iPod Shuffle goes for $79.00.

So what do you give up with the Zen Stone compared to the iPod Shuffle? Nothing unless you are wedded to iTunes. As far as other formats, the Zen Stone will play MP3, WAV, Audible, and WMA (unprotected or protected), but there is no support for portable subscription WMA files:

On that subject, Creative told us:

Subscription support would have required much more processing power, which would have increased the cost and price of the player. We felt that the vast majority of folks would have 1GB of non-protected content and so it would be best to go with the great price of $39.99 instead of trying to support everything and offer a more expensive player.

And that’s clearly the focus – rip your CDs to MP3 and put the songs on the Zen Stone and you are good to go without any extra expenditure for music stores or subscriptions. Since the bulk of content on iPods is believed to be MP3s, it seems like a good bet by Creative if they can overcome the iPod brand cachet.

Finally, reviews of the Zen Stone are in short supply, but Tom Gideon has one at PC Magazine and it’s exactly what one would expect:

The ZEN Stone is intentionally simple. There are no sound enhancement features, there’s no screen, and no FM tuner. It is almost an exact replica of the Shuffle in terms of functionality, except for minor differences in play modes and the two players’ compatibilities with different software. If you’re not tied to iTunes and all you want is a cheap player to take jogging or even lend to a friend so they can borrow your music, the ZEN Stone is one of the cheapest quality players out there…and its emergence certainly makes it hard for Apple to justify $80 for their nearly identical player.

Bottom Line: Unless you need iTunes or a subscription service, you can’t beat the Zen Stone on value in a Shuffle-like form factor.

Posted at 10:56 am. Filed under Apple, Brands, Companies, Creative, iPod, iTunes, MP3 Player, Portable Audio

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October 17, 2006

Creative disables Zen FM recording

Creative has a new software update for some of its Zen personal media players with an interesting property – it disables an advertised feature of the player. Ed Oswald explains at BetaNews:

Creative has apparently bowed to RIAA pressure, issuing a firmware update for two of its players that removes the FM recording feature. In the past, the music industry has argued that recording from radio broadcasts hurt music sales, and has most recently attempted to stop satellite radio services from implementing similar features.

Specifically, the firmware change affects the company’s Zen MicroPhoto and Zen Vision:M players. In the release notes, Creative gives no reasoning for the change other than saying “this firmware removes your player’s FM recording feature.”

The change overshadows other enhancements, including support for Audible Type 4 tracks, the addition of a volume restriction feature, and enhancements to the user interface and usability. But many customers may be less apt to apply the update in order to save the FM recording functionality.

I’m sure the customers can hardly wait to apply the update. Worse yet is the speculation that:

As far as I know, this is something that many companies will have to remove from their players due to RIAA regulations.

I thought it was settled a long time ago in law (in the USA, at least) that end users were permitted to record broadcast music for personal use, but I guess that doesn’t prevent the recording industry from leaning on the hardware manufacturers. Frankly, nothing the recording industry does can surprise me anymore – if they had their way consumers wouldn’t be able to own any device capable of audio or video recording.

Posted at 8:44 pm. Filed under Companies, Creative, MP3 Player, Portable Audio, Thumbs Down

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January 3, 2006

Skype partners roll out the hardware at CES

The International Consumer Electronics Show starts Thursday, but to get ahead of the cloud of press releases some vendors have “launched” early and Skype is no exception. Their big news isn’t with Skype’s base VoIP service, but with the hardware partners they have signed up – Alliances with Creative, D-Link, IPEVO, Kodak, Netgear, Panasonic, and VTech Illustrate Skype Market Leadership.

The emphasis seems to be mostly on integrating Skype with normal phone equipment:

VTech USB7100 Phone – availability of the previously announced VTech USB phone, expandable with up to four handsets and allows users to view their online contacts. It’s dual line for both Skype and regular telephone service and has cordless handsets.

D-Link Skype USB Phone Adapter (DPH-50U) – a Skype phone adapter that enables the use of Skype on a traditional phone.

The D-Link Skype USB phone adapter (DPH-50U) lets users accept both regular telephone and Skype calls from the same phone for added flexibility. When consumers are talking on a traditional telephone line and receive an incoming Skype call, they can easily switch lines to take the Skype call or vice versa, just like a typical call-waiting feature.

Conference calls can also be connected between ordinary telephone lines and Skype. For added convenience, the D-Link Skype USB phone adapter includes a lighted display to indicate whether an incoming call is from a traditional telephone or from a Skype user.

Panasonic – a cordless telephone product that interfaces directly with Skype, allowing users to make and receive Skype calls and traditional calls using the same device

As its initial offering, Panasonic plans to launch a Skype compatible cordless telephone product that will enable select Panasonic cordless telephones to interface directly with Skype. With the new product, consumers will be able to make and receive Skype and traditional calls using the same Panasonic cordless phone.

There are also the more usual Skype phones:

Creative Skype Internet PhonePLUS – a standalone phone that enables anyone to make free Skype calls over the Internet without a PC connection. (That’s all the details so far.)

IPEVO Fly-1 Cordless Handset and Xing Speakerphone – PC and Mac compatible IPEVO Fly-1 cordless Skype USB handset and an IPEVO Xing Skype USB speakerphone.

FLY.1 is a USB cordless handset with a speakerphone that works exclusively with Skype. It is designed to integrate the Skype experience with the operational familiarity of a telephone. The cordless handset offers portability and enables communication using Skype away from the user’s PC or Macintosh through a wireless USB dock.

The Xing USB speakerphone is the first device from IPEVO designed for business teleconferencing using Skype. The cross-shaped device is designed to sit atop a desk or boardroom table allowing for multi-user participation through four separate speakers. The device is not restricted by a phone jack, allowing for increased mobility and user convenience.

And some items that are hard to categorize:

NETGEAR – a new communications device to be unveiled at CES on Wednesday, January 4th and no details have been revealed.

KODAK Photo Voice – a beta version of the first Skype certified online photo sharing service.

Eastman Kodak Company and Skype™, the global Internet communications company, announce the availability of the latest innovation in digital storytelling ― KODAK Photo Voice ― that combines live voice and online photo sharing. The beta version of KODAK Photo Voice, the first Skype certified online photo sharing experience, is now available as a free download at

“Today’s families and social networks are scattered around the globe. Staying connected through photo sharing remains an important element in maintaining closer personal relationships,” said Sandra Morris, general manager of Consumer Imaging Services at Kodak. “Traditional social gatherings that once took place around the radio, television or telephone are now happening around the computer, mobile phone or camera. KODAK Photo Voice marks the next step in this evolution.”

KODAK Photo Voice is a brand new way to relive memories, empowering two people to simultaneously view a customized slideshow, and to reminisce and react to each picture. Imagine if Grandma could see pictures from her grandson’s first day at school while he narrates every moment of the experience over Skype. Perhaps an old roommate could share detailed photos and recount stories of his new life in London, as his friend back home in California reacts to each picture.

Sorry, but this last one seems like a solution in search of a problem, but it is free.

Update 1/04: They had some trouble with the demo, but Netgear announced a Skype WiFi phone:

The NETGEAR WiFi phone will make mobile Internet telephony a reality for Skype users. Unlike other devices that must connect with a PC, NETGEAR’s Skype WiFi phone will work wherever a consumer is connected to a wireless Internet access point — be that in a home, office, cafe, open public hotspot, or any open municipal wireless access point being deployed worldwide.

The NETGEAR phone is pre-loaded with Skype’s software, ready out-of-the-box to use with a wireless network. All a user needs to do after turning on the phone is enter a Skype username and password. The Skype software pulls up the user’s full contact list, displays the connection status on the phone screen, and allows the consumer to connect to any other Skype user for free. The phone will also allow users to connect to non-Skype users with the SkypeOut™ feature. More information on NETGEAR’s Skype WiFi phone, including pricing and availability, is planned for the first quarter of 2006.

In addition to the Skype Wifi phone, NETGEAR and Skype also announced that the NETGEAR RangeMax Wireless Router (WPN824) with Smart MIMO technology, a 2006 CES Innovations Design and Engineering Award honoree and the industry’s #1 selling MIMO-G product, will be equipped to optimize Skype.

The phone seems similar to the Accton Skype phone and the UTStarcom Vonage phone I’ve mentioned previously.

Posted at 7:44 pm. Filed under Companies, Creative, D-Link, Internet, IPEVO, Kodak, MIMO, Netgear, Panasonic, Skype, VoIP, Vonage, VTech, Wi-Fi

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