There is no doubt that the iPod has a strangle-hold on the digital music player industry. In fact, iPods have become so popular that some people call all music players iPods. Yet, there are many other brands and other types of players. So we set out to see if we could find an iPod competitor that was feature-rich, capable, and had good sound quality. We found that player in the Zen by Creative. In fact, the Zen had all of these traits plus one more. It is also affordable.
As shown in Figure 1, The Zen comes in a nice compact box. The contents of the box, shown in Figure 2, include an installation CD, quick start guide, USB cable, and earphones. Although the ear buds have a thin cloth covering, they are the typical hard round ear buds that are included with iPods and most other MP3 players. We find these quite uncomfortable, so we immediately got out the soft Griffin ear buds that we use for everyday listening. Fortunately, the Zen has a standard headphone port, so you can attach the headphones of your choice.
Although minor, we found the first drawback to the Zen in the included USB cable. It is only 5” long. This is of little consequence when hooked up to a laptop where the Zen can rest on a desk, but with most desktop computers, the shortness of the cable will leave the Zen hanging awkwardly in the air.
Figure 2: The contents of the box.
[nextpage title=”The Hardware”]
As seen in Figure 3, the Creative Zen at 3.26" x 2.16" (82.8 x 54.86 mm) is almost exactly the same dimensions as a credit card. Yet, at 0.44” (11.17 mm), it is thick enough to feel good in the hand and has enough heft to keep it from getting totally lost in a stack of paper.
Figure 3: The Zen has the same height and width as a credit card.
As shown in Figure 4, the Zen has a clear and crisp 2.5" color TFT display, which handles 320 x 240 pixels and 16.7 million colors. This player does not rotate the screen like some others. The screen is always viewable in the horizontal position.
Figure 4: The front of the Zen.
Although we have seen a bubble-gum pink version of the Zen, the black version that we reviewed is more sophisticated–looking and more widely available. The back of the Zen has a nice matt finish to thwart fingerprints, while the front is shiny black.
As seen in Figure 5, there are three small, but quite useable controls on the Zen. At the top is a two-way rocker. When you press the left side of this control, you go back to the previous screen. Pressing the right of this button is somewhat like right-clicking on a computer. It brings up a contextual menu of functions that you can perform from your current screen.
Under the first rocker control button is a square four-way control surrounding a center select button. This is used to scroll through and choose selections as well as to perform functions like increasing and/or decreasing the volume.
Underneath this is another two-way rocker. The left side of this rocker acts as a shortcut button. The functionality of this button can be customized by the user. It can be programmed to start/stop a recording, to random play, to play the album of the day, or to switch to the album view. It can also be set to bring up the volume controls, but we didn’t see much use for this as the volume can always be controlled by pressing the up or down areas of the square control when playing music or videos.
The only other controls on the Zen are found on the right side of the device. As shown in Figure 6, this side has a mini-USB port for connecting it to the computer, an on/off switch which has a nice blue light when in the on position, and a standard microphone port. We found the on/off switch to be very useful, especially after having had difficulty turning some iPods off.
Figure 6: The side of the Zen.
The top of the Zen has a small reset hole as well as a SD card slot, as shown in Figure 7. The Zen comes in 2 GB, 4 GB, 8 GB, 16 GB and 32 GB capacities. The support for an SD expansion card, however, give the user added room for expansion. The slot supports both regular and HD SD cards up to 16 GB, giving the unit plenty of room for expansion.
Although the assessment of sound quality varies with each individual, we felt that the Zen provided sharp, clear and rich sounds equal to, if not slightly better than, our various iPods. As with most players of this type, you can adjust the EQ, bass and other audio settings to your liking. The Zen has 8 EQ settings: acoustic, classical, disco, jazz, new age, pop, rock and vocal. The Zen will play MP3, WMA, non-protected AAC, WAV and Audible formats 2, 3 and 4.
If you are a fan of audio books, you will find it very easy to set up and play Audible books on the Zen. The Zen also has a special Zencast website where you can find a wealth of podcasts and videos to play on your Zen.
Although not as sleek as the iPod controls, the Zen’s controls are easy to use. We would have liked to see a dedicated “main menu” button or the ability to make the shortcut button go to the main menu. Instead it often required several clicks of the back button to get back to the main menu. The main menu choices include Microphone, Photos, Music, Videos, FM Radio, Extras (Date & Time, Calendar, Tasks, and Contacts), Memory Card, and System Settings.
The microphone is useful for making short voice notes. Although the FM radio is only powerful enough to pull in major or nearby radio stations, it will be useful for talk radio junkies and will also be valuable for tuning in to the FM station being transmitted at the health club. The FM radio has 32 presets.
The Zen also has the ability to sync with Microsoft Outlook for calend
ar, tasks, and contacts. Yet with no dedicated key or quick way to get to that functionality, we found we didn’t use it much.
Like many other MP3 players, the Zen can also display photos and photo slide shows. It only supports JPEG photos but has transcoding for GIF, TIFF, PNG, and BMP. Photos are vibrant on the Zen screen. And the Zen also gives you the ability to zoom into the pictures and/or rotate them right in the player.
The video support is also impressive. The Zen supports MJPEG and WMV9 with transcoding for MPEG1 and 2, MPEG4-SP, DivX 4 Divx 5 and XviD. Transcoding and moving the videos to the device is easy with the included software. Even though the screen is fairly small, the videos looked great.
Although the SD card support is a wonderful feature, the SD card data is not integrated with the data on the player. So when you want to access music or videos on the card, you have to go back to the main menu and choose the Memory Card option to access that content. It would be much better if that content were integrated, but we still found ways to use it quite easily. We kept one memory card with videos and one with playlists of certain types of music. As long as you are willing to organize your content collection to this idiosyncrasy, it is not a huge inconvenience.
Creative rates the battery life at up to 30 hours of continuous audio or five hours of continuous video playback. Unfortunately like all iPods, the battery is only factory replaceable.
[nextpage title=”The Software”]
The included Creative Media Explorer software handles all the necessary multimedia tasks. Once installed, when you connect the Zen to your computer, it gives you the option to automatically sync the data. As shown in Figure8, the Media Explorer software’s main screen lets you create and manage playlists, rip audio CDs, convert video, and manage data. You will also find that you can easily import any, or all, of your iTunes music into the Media Explorer.
Although the software has a help menu, we found the “how to” area of the Creative website more useful. It has explanations of music formats, video codecs, and other useful related information as well as information on using the Zen player.
Figure 8: The Media Explorer software main screen.
Although Creative does not have its own music store like Apple, there is no lack content for the Zen. The Creative website suggests Audible, Napster, Vogo, eMusic, Amazon, and several others. In fact, they have created special offers for Zen users with many of these services.
The ZEN is compatible with Windows XP SP2 and Vista computers. Although you can drag and drop content from your computer to the player, if you have a Mac, you will probably want to look elsewhere. Windows users will also be able to manage the creative data with Windows Media Player, Winamp, and other media players, but the included Media Explorer software worked well enough for all of our needs.
[nextpage title=”Main Specifications”]
Creative Zen MP3 player main specifications include:
- Size: 3.26" x 2.16" x 0.44" (82.3 x 54.86 x 11.17 mm)
- Weight: 2.1 oz (60 g)
- Display: 2.5" High resolution color TFT display (320 x 240 pixels, 16.7 million color support)
- Capacities: 2 GB, 4 GB, 8 GB, 16 GB and 32 GB
- Expansion: SD card slot (compatible with microSD, miniSD, SD, and SDHC)
- Supported audio: MP3, WMA, WMA-DRM, WAV, AAC, Audible
- Supported video: MPEG4-SP, WMV9, DivX, XviD, MJPEG
- Extras: Album art, photo viewer, FM radio, voice recorder, organizer (contacts, calendar, tasks), clock and alarm
- More information: https://www.creative.com
- Suggested Retail Price: Between USD 80 (2 GB version) and USD 299 (32 GB version)
With great sound, a crisp and clear screen, and great video playback, and a good price, the Zen is a serious iPod competitor. Although the interface is not quite as sleek as the iPod, it is user-friendly and quite full-featured.
- Good design
- Brilliant color screen
- Excellent sound quality
- Excellent photo and video display
- Great extras like FM radio and voice recorder
- Slim and pocket-friendly
- SD card slot for instant expansion
- User-friendly interface
- Reasonably priced, especially the 2 GB and 4 GB versions
- No one-click access to main menu
- No integration of content on SD card
- Short USB cable
- Battery not easily replaceable
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