First off, we would like to thank the folks over at Creative for providing us the new ZEN for review. We have been messing around with it for a week and we’ve got to say there’s a lot to get excited about, especially the price. The Creative ZEN has quite a few extra features including a microphone, an FM tuner, and a SD card expansion slot, which none of the mainstream Digital Audio Players (DAP) offer. Although there are plenty similar players hitting shelves this season, including the Microsoft Zune, Sony Walkman, and Sanza View, the Creative ZEN stands up to its competitors quite well.
Creative Zen Specs:
- Type: Portable Flash Video Player
- Capacities: 4GB, 8GB, & 16GB
- Screen: 2.5-inch 320 x 240 LCD
- Music Format: MP3, WMA, AAC, & WAV
- Video Format: MJPEG & WMV9
- Special: FM Tuner, SD Expansion, & Microphone
- Connection Type: USB 2.0 (mini)
- Price Range: $129-$250
Initial Impressions: – 4.5/5
As Creative claimed in their advertisements, the Zen is about the size of a credit card, which actually appears to be a decent size for a personal media player. The unit is 3.26-inches tall, 2.16-inches wide, and .44-inches thick, making it larger than the iPod Nano. Despite this, the unit is just the right size for everyday use and will fit into just about any pocket. The front of the unit is home to the 2.5” TFT display on the left and the standard navigation buttons on the right. Although the glossy finish makes the ZEN look quite fancy, it is quite a hassle when it comes to fingerprints. You’ll constantly find yourself having to wipe it down. In addition, since the screen is glossy it will reflect a lot of unwanted light in well lit environments. The back-side of the unit, on the other hand, is made out of a black matte plastic, which is actually surprisingly nice. All the important parts including the power/hold switch, headphone jack, and USB connector can be found on the right-side of the unit. Other than that, the Secure Digital (SD) card slot can be found on the top, while a pinhole reset button is located on the bottom.
Controls – 3/5
The Zen was clearly designed with right-handed users in mind, since all of the operational controls and buttons have been placed on the right side of the unit. Navigation controls and their ease of use represent an important factor in any portable media player. As such, the centerpiece of the Zen’s control scheme is a square directional pad that features an “OK” button at its center. It might not be as innovative or intuitive to use as the click-wheels on iPods or the touch screen of the iPhone, but it has definitely been tested and proven to be a worthy system. The main problem we faced with the controls on our Zen, was that not all of the buttons were equally responsive. This caused some frustration especially while trying to glide through menus quickly. In our particular case, the down button had to be pressed down harder than any of the other directional buttons, which meant that menu navigation was often slowed down by having to repress that particular button. Now in all fairness, this might very well be an isolated incident, but other units may face similar problems. The iPod Nano we reviewed had a click-wheel that froze after every few minutes of use, so the ZEN isn’t alone when it comes to defects.
Not everything can be easily accomplished with only a simple set of navigation buttons, so Creative included four more buttons: “Menu/Back,” “Options,” “Play/Pause/Record,” and a final button labeled in the Quick Start Guide as “My Shortcut.” Overall, there is nothing all too special or noteworthy about any of these buttons, except for maybe the last one: the customizable shortcut button. If you’ve ever found yourself wishing that there was a button on your media player that did X or Y, then Creative might just have the answer. With a trip to the settings menu, you can choose to assign any one of seven different functions to the shortcut button. The most useful of which, I believe, is the function labeled “Jump to:”. With this feature you can literally jump to just about any menu in the player with a single click. One of the things that annoys me the most on almost all portable media players is that there is almost never a button that will take you back to whatever is currently playing. Since the Creative Zen has a dedicated “play” button, you can jump back to whatever is “Now Playing” with a single click. I do wish that the Creative Zen had some dedicated volume controls, but then again the iPod Nano doesn’t either.
Screen & Video Quality: – 3.5/5
One of the Creative Zen’s selling points is it’s ability to playback video. The screen on the Zen is fairly decent and can recreate an impressive 16.7 millions colors as advertised. Unfortunately, though, the screen is only 2.5-inches in diameter with an disappointing 320 by 240 pixels. The screen did a good job of keeping up with the video feed without visibly smearing or ghosting the image. Color accuracy, as with most portable media players (even the iPod Touch), was an issue. The colors were generally a tad too vivid and a slight greenish yellow hue was visible at all times. Another issue that kept me from enjoying the fourth season premiere episode of House was that I kept noticing the refreshing and vertical re-syncing of the horizontal lines, especially when the camera panned. Because of the small screen, I found myself holding the unit fairly close to my face and doing so caused the spacing between the individual lines to become even more apparent. (Same problem on Sony’s S610 Walkman). Although it’s great tool for watching TV shows and Music Videos occasionally, if I had a choice, I wouldn’t want to watch a full length movie on the Zen. And in case you’re wondering, the same goes for the Flash Zune, iPod Nano, or any portable media player with a small screen for that matter.
The Menu System – 4/5
Menu navigation is something that seems like it should be trivial, but, alas, there are actually very few players that can be navigated without deliberate thought. Unfortunately, the Zen is not among this elite. One issue that becomes immediately apparent is the lack of responsiveness between the hardware and the software. When a button is pressed, it takes the device a slight fraction of a second to react to the user input and perform the desired action. The system is by no means unusable, but it may invoke some frustration if your previous player happened to run faster. See the video for a full interface walk through:
Audio Quality – 5/5
Despite a lackluster interface, the audio quality of the Zen is actually surprisingly good; it’s on par with the iPod Nano, if not better. The midrange was articulate and clear, even though there was a notable lack of strength at either ends of the spectrum. Even though the bass was slightly lacking, the treble, on the other hand, had no problem making itself known. Overall, though, the sound was very favorable, and most of my complaints are very nuanced. Fortunately, all of these mild shortcomings can be easily corrected with the built-in equalizer presets. If you still can’t quite hear what you want with those, there’s always the options of manually equalizing the sound yourself.
Syncing Content: – 4/5
Getting your music onto the Creative was quite simple. If you’ve got a Windows XP or Vista with the most recent version of Windows Media Player (WMP), you’re all set. Just plug in the Creative ZEN and your computer will automatically detect it as a mass storage device. WMP is quite easy to use and will allow quick transfers between your library and the ZEN. If you do not wish to use WMP, you do have the option of copying your media onto the mass storage device through the file explorer. When you unplug the device, the ZEN automatically takes a few seconds and indexes any new files. Once complete, your content should automatically appear in the ZEN’s library. Creative did include software to manage the ZEN, but we were a bit frustrated that it took over 20 minutes just to install it. If you do install it, the application will allow you to manage your music, photos, and videos. The software works and it’s got some neat features, however I prefered manually copying the content I needed directly onto the device. We didn’t have a chance to test it with Mac OS X, however if it’s recognized as a mass storage device then there should be no problem manually copying media onto the ZEN.
Media Formats: – 4/5
The ZEN supports a wide range of media formats. For audio, the ZEN can playback MP3, WAV, AAC, and WMA. The only DRM audio format it supports is protected WMA. With that being said, the ZEN is compatible with plenty of online music stores including Yahoo! Music, Audible (audio books), Napster, Amazon MP3, and iTunes Plus Tracks. As for photos, the ZEN can only display JPEG, but Windows Media Player will allow you to transcode GIF, TIFF, PNG and BMP for added compatibility. Finally for video, the ZEN can decode WMV, MJPEG, MPEG4, DiVX, and XViD. Unfortunately the highest supported resolution is only 320 by 240, therefore videos must be converted before they will play. The ZEN is also compatible with Amazon’s Unbox TV and Movie purchases and rentals.
SD Card Expansion: – 4/5
One major advantage that the Creative Zen has over other DAPs is that has an SD expansion slot. If you were to run out of space, which you’re bound to do, you can always pop in an SD Card of any size into the top of the unit. Once complete, you’ll be able to access your media right off the card. The only draw back may be the fact that the ZEN doesn’t integrate the content on your card into the library stored in the on board memory. This means you’ll have to head over to the Memory Card menu to access these files. The Creative ZEN can also turn into a SD Card Reader/Writer when connected to your PC, therefore no extra accessories are required to add or remove content on the card.
Microphone: – 4/5
The Zen also features a pinhole microphone, allowing it to be used as a personal voice recorder. It works just as expected, you’ll be able to record a file and play it back from the Music menu. If you’ve got a extra storage space this will save having to carry another gadget around with you. The recorded files can be copied back to your machine. As for recording quality, the microphone performed quite well. Voices from across the room were crisp and could be heard easily.
If you’re in the market for an affordable portable media player that will allow you to enjoy your music, listen to radio, and watch the occasional video, then we would recommend the Creative Zen. The one thing the Creative Zen does best (without garnering any complaints, whatsoever) is, perhaps, playing music. In addition the ZEN is much more affordable than Apple’s iPod Nano and includes bonus features such as the FM Tuner, SD Expansion, and Microphone. The iPod Nano is only available at a 8GB max, while Creative offers the ZEN a 16GB flash model. SD cards are also quite cheap, making storage a not an issue for most customers. The battery life met what Creative stated: 25 hours of audio and 5 hours of video. Other than that, the only other suggestion we would make if you do purchase this unit is to upgrade your headphones to something along the lines of Shure’s SE110 Earphones and possibly purchasing a case. The Creative ZEN costs $120 for 4GB, $180 for 8GB, and $250 for 16GB and is available online and in stores now. Overall the Creative ZEN will be worth just about every penny spent.
Links: Creative ZEN