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At one time Creative's Vision M digital media player was the envy of all, and the rest of its range of music players was impressive enough to rival even the most prolific of competitors. In recent times, however, things have gone quiet. Only the low-end Zen Stone and Zen Stone Plus have broken the eerie silence in recent months and in the meantime, the Vision M has been quietly taken out of circulation. With Creative now having no mid-range hard disk player to compete with the iPod Classic, and a range that's badly in need of an update, can the new flash-based Zen begin to claw back lost ground?
When Riyad first had a play with one back at the beginning of September at IFA, he was pretty impressed and I have to say first impressions at this end are favourable too. The design is unassuming yet smart - completely the opposite to the rather cheap-feeling Stone and hulking great Vision W - with a polished black plastic front and a nicely finished matt black back. It's not as thin as the iPod nano at a relatively podgy 12mm, or quite as colourful - it only comes in black, but in a funny sort of way that's not a handicap. It actually feels slightly more comfortable to hold - and less soap-bar-like in the hand.
Yet despite its small dimensions, upon closer inspection, the Zen appears to be extremely well-equipped. Its screen, at 2.5in, is not only larger than the nano's 2in effort, but it's as big as the larger, hard disk-based iPod Classic. And it's a very nice screen too. At a full 16.7 million colours - which, as Riyad pointed out in his preview, is impressive for a PC LCD panel let alone one in a tiny media player like this; video looks crisp, clean and vibrant, and the 30fps playback capability means that fast action is smooth and watchable.
The Zen seems to have pretty good video format support too: it will play DivX 4 and 5, and XviD formats natively, plus WMV9, MJPEG and MPEG4-SP formats. But before you go and get too excited, however, this isn't as good as it sounds. The Zen isn't DivX certified, and it won't downscale videos of higher resolution than its screen, which means you can't just drop any old file onto it - you'll still have to re-encode most downloaded videos down to 320 x 240 first. This is made a relatively simple task thanks to the Zen's excellent management and browser software, which integrates itself into the Windows Explorer tree and lets you convert, sync data, and transfer music and video without having to fire up a separate application, but it's still an unnecessary hassle. That said, it's no different to the nano in this respect.