- Review Price: £164.00
With the introduction of the MicroDrive IBM started a revolution in personal entertainment, but I don’t think that it ever realised the effect that its tiny hard drive was going to have on the world. The MicroDrive concept has been taken onboard by other hard drive manufacturers and 1in hard drives are moving into areas that I doubt even IBM foresaw.
The latest device to feature a 1in hard drive (although manufactured by Seagate instead of IBM), is the Zen Micro MP3 player from Creative Labs. Seagate is the first company to produce a 5GB 1in drive and it seems to be appearing in all kinds of MP3 players from a wide range of manufacturers. Creative however, claims that it has the lion’s share of the drives that Seagate makes.
Although the Zen Micro isn’t the first and undoubtedly not the last music device to feature a hard drive as it storage medium, it is the first pocket friendly unit with touch sensitive controls that hasn’t been manufactured by Apple. It doesn’t have a wheel though, instead it Creative has implemented a far simpler up/down scroll pad, similar to that seen on some laptops. It works pretty much like a laptop touchpad and you tap it just like a touchpad to make selections.
Apart from the scroll part of the controls there are five more sections to the touch pad, a play/pause button, a skip forward/fast forward button and the same for reverse, a button labelled back and one that looks like that button on your Windows keyboard that you hardly ever use. This button brings up a small menu, just like the one on a Windows keyboard, but in this case it is much more useful since it gives you access to a wide range of settings, but more on that latter.
There are a few more features worth pointing out and all of these bar one are located at the top of the Zen Micro – the power button, which acts as a key lock switch if you move it to the right instead of the left, the headphone socket and the mini USB 2.0 port. Also hidden away here, next to the USB port is a mono microphone that you’d completely miss if it wasn’t for the small microphone logo next to it.
Around the back is a removable Li-ion battery, which means that you can have a second battery at hand if the stated 12 hour battery life isn’t enough for you. The first 40,000 Zen Micros to hit the shores in the UK should ship with a second battery as a special Christmas gift from Creative to anyone that buys a Zen Micro.
The screen looks tiny, but with a resolution of 160 x 104 pixels it’s actually a joy to use. The light blue backlight also helps to enhance the screen’s appearance and I’d say that this is one of the best monochrome LCD displays I have seen on an MP3 player. The display is very easy to read and the characters as well defined -something that you don’t tend to get with some of the cheaper players around.
You can’t adjust the size of the text, although making the text larger would result in less information being displayed on the screen. Saying that, with the backlight on, I was still able to read the display at almost arms length without my glasses.
The Zen Micro is about the size of a small mobile phone measuring 51 x 84 x 19mm (WxDxH) and weighing 108g. This makes it slightly heavier and fatter than the iPod Mini, but it is a little shorter.
Oddly enough, the back button brings you into the main menu, whereas as I explained, the menu button brings down a drop down menu with a selection of options. The menu is easy to navigate with the scroll button and entering sub menus is done by tapping it. Creative has added a fair few menu options and some interesting features as well.
I just realised that I forgot to mention one other feature that Creative has thrown in for good measure – an FM radio. The pull down menu allows you to record from the radio and there is an auto scan feature that will find whatever stations are available in your local area and store them to the memory. You can store up to 32 stations and you can even name the stations to make it easier to tell what you’re listening to.
The Zen Micro can play MP3 and WMA files as well as WMA9 with DRM encoded at a maximum 320kbits/sec, which is pretty standard. Personally I’m not a fan of DRM but at least you have the ability to play music that you’ve downloaded from a legal source on the Zen Micro.
DRM implementation should mean that the Zen Micro is not drag and drop and that you would have to use the supplied Creative MediaSource Organizer to transfer music to and from the device. Interestingly though, once the software is installed, you can drag non DRM music to the Zen Micro and it will happily copy across, but it doesn’t work reverse. The MediaSource Organizer is however quite easy to use as it looks like Windows Explorer and works pretty much the same way, except for the fact that you have to press transfer once you’ve select the music you want to copy to or from the Zen Micro.
But if you think this sounds like an awkward way of doing things, then Creative has just the solution for you, the Zen Micro Media Explorer, which allows you to synchronize your music library at the touch of a button. OK, you need to have Windows Media Player 10 for this to work and if you do, you might as well use it, since it does the same thing. Create a play list in Windows Media Player 10, press the sync button and presto, all done.
Creative has managed to couple the Zen Micro with Windows and Media Player 10 very well, but it doesn’t stop here as the Zen Micro Media Explorer has plenty more features on offer. First there is the audio CD ripping utility, which opens the CD tray when launched, connects to CDDB and downloads all the track information automatically. All very easy as long as you’re happy to rip your music as 128kbits/sec MP3, but if you want to change anything you have to do this under the Edit Settings menu which can be confusing if you’re not used to ripping music.
However, you are given the option to rip constant and variable bit rate MP3 or WMA with or without DRM. You can also force it to use a specific language when naming the tracks, but this doesn’t really apply to anyone using a standard alphabet. For those with plenty of music already, the play list creation utility might be of more interest as it allows you to create a play list on the PC, but using the music on the Zen Micro, which makes it very easy to create properly named play lists.
Finally there is a file transfer option that allows you to copy files to the same partition that the music is stored on. You might wonder why I said partition, it’s because you can use the Zen Micro as a removable hard drive, by adding a second partition to it which is done under the extra settings on the Zen Micro. This allows you to dedicate up to 2GB of space for file storage, although you can’t play music stored on this partition.
This means that you get two devices in one, an MP3 player and a removable hard drive, not a bad deal at all. But there are still a few things left that are worth mentioning. In the extras menu you will find a time and date setting – as the name suggests, this displays the time and date, but it also has a built in alarm, but since there is no built in speaker, you can’t really use it as an alarm clock.
Under the extras menu is also where you will find the organizer, which is a fancy name for your synchronised contacts, tasks and calendar. It’s a handy extra since unless your mobile phone syncs addresses, you get them on the Zen Micro and there is also a handy calendar which will show any appointments you have synced with Outlook.
Amazingly the Zen Micro supports 15 different languages, including the main European ones as well as Chinese, Japanese and Korean to mention a few. There is also a custom equalizer with a range of presets that can all be accessed under the player settings menu. This is also where you can adjust the backlight, the contrast of the display and the touchpad sensitivity as well as switching the touchpad’s click noise on and off.
One feature that I have yet to see on another MP3 player is the customisable menu, which means that you can add and remove options in the main menu – quite handy if there are features you use more often that others. There is also a range of play modes available, along with a setting that Creative calls DJ, which allows you to play the album of the day, random tracks, the most popular tracks or the least played tracks.
The pull down menu allows you to do several things when a track is playing, such as move to a certain point of the track, set a bookmark at a specific point if you want to be able to start from there instantly, get the ID3 info up on screen, find other tracks by the same artist and even remove the track or save it to a play list.
Finally, let me mention the file transfer performance, since the Zen Micro is a USB 2.0 device, I expected it to be fairly fast and thankfully I wasn’t disappointed. Using it as a removable hard drive it took one minute and 17 seconds to copy the same 205MB of mixed files that we use when we test USB memory keys and a mere 26 seconds to read it back to the PC. Syncing files was harder to measure, but it’s sufficient to say that unless you’re moving your entire music collection at once, the Zen Micro is fast enough.
Before I forget, I better mention what you get in the box – there’s a set of unusually decent in-ear headphones, although they’ve definitely taken a design cue from the iPod headphones, a charger, a USB 2.0 cable, a carry pouch, a belt clip and a software CD. As the sample we got from Creative was a pre-production unit we didn’t get the carry pouch or the belt clip, so I can’t really comment on their quality.
So, what haven’t I mentioned, ah yes, audio quality. Let me put it this way, if you haven’t listened to the iRiver iFP-799 I reviewed a little while ago, you won’t be disappointed, as the Zen Micro sounds very good. It is however not as loud nor does it have as much bass as the iFP-799, but I guess the type of music you listen to will also determine what audio characteristics you want from a device.
Overall the Zen Micro has impressed me and it really grew on me as I used it. Quite simply, this is the best MP3 player Creative has ever made. If you’re considering getting an iPod mini, then take a close look at the Zen Micro first – it’s cheaper, offers more storage capacity, has more features and even comes in even more colours. Early stock is limited to the black, blue, light blue, silver, orange and pink, but Creative should have all the colour options available shortly.
I said it was cheaper than an iPod mini, but how cheap, well it’s not sub £150 yet, but you can find it for £163.99 online, which I think is a pretty good price for a 5GB player. The Zen Micro isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn close.
Forget the iPod Mini, the Zen Micro is the new “must have” MP3 player. It beats the Apple in terms of features and functionality and even saves you a bit of cash. Here at the TrustedReviews offices, a few of us will definitely be writing to Santa and hoping we find a Zen Micro in our stocking at Christmas.