- Review Price: £249.00
You’ve got to hand it to Creative. Or at least feel sorry for it. No sooner had it helped create the portable digital media player market with its Zen Jukebox, when Apple swept in relatively late in the game to sweep up all the plaudits with its iPod, the latest version of which I’ll be looking at tomorrow. To add insult to injury, it turns out that Creative even owns the patent on the interface that Apple used to such good effect – only Apple slapped a nifty wheel on the front of its device and the rest, as they say, is history. The sales figures speak for themselves. In the last quater of the year alone Apple sold over ten million iPods and according to some figures has a 65 per cent share on the hard drive based market. Creative, on the other hand, has around 2-4 per cent of the market. Wow, Apple must be shaking in its boots.
So shouldn’t Creative just hang up its own boots and give up? Well, one could argue that Apple’s success over the past few years has been as much down to its competitors being so poor almost as much as the quality of its own product. The Zen Vision: M though, is the best media player that Creative has yet released, so for the sake of keeping things interesting the market should be glad it hasn’t thrown in the towel yet.
Of course, there’s no questioning that the Vision: M is a ‘me-too’ product, but Creative has done it well enough not to dismiss it out of hand, beating the iPod in several notable areas. Whether it’s good enough to sway the pure Mac faithful is moot as it only works on Windows XP – no other OS is supported but for Windows users it’s something to think about.
The device is a similar shape to the iPod; a portrait style device with the display at the top and controls at the bottom. It’s the same height as the iPod, but thicker at 1.8cm, compared to 1.4cm for the 60GB iPod. It’s also slightly heavier at 160g vs. 157g. This wouldn’t be a problem except that the Vision M has only 30GB capacity, with no 60GB option. By contrast, the 30GB iPod is a relatively waif-life 1.1cm thick. The Zen is a chunky ‘ol fella then, but with the rear tapering slightly it feels quite comfortable in the hand and at no time do you feel that you’re going to drop it. Ok, you won’t be personalising you’re Zen with a engraving or checking your make-up in it, but you won’t have to worry about spoiling the rear with finger prints and scratches and the circular thing going on round the Zen logo is cool.
As with its Micro, Creative offers the Vision: M in multiple colours: white, black, green, blue and pink. As you can see, we were sent the black one and it looks impressive. When I first saw the Zen in pictures I admit that I dismissed it as an iPod that had been hit with an ugly stick. However, in the flesh it’s not bad at all. The biggest design flaw from an aesthetic perspective is that the screen and the controls are clearly two separate pieces of plastic, whereas the one piece iPod has a much sleeker look it.
However, the Zen closes the gap on the iPod aesthetically as soon as you turn it on. The screen is the same size at 2.5in diagonally, and the same resolution at 320 x 240. But the screen on the Zen can resolve 262,144 colours and for once, numbers used in marketing seem to really mean something. Side by side, the difference is palpable. On the Zen, colours look noticeably richer and more intense and the contrast ratio seems higher. When comparing exactly the same content side by side the iPod looked slightly washed out. If you are planning on watching a lot of video on your device, it’s definitely one point for the Creative.
Another feature of these portable video players is that you can connect them up to TVs and watch your content anywhere, say in a hotel room if you’re on holiday or on a business trip. On the iPod, it only outputs at native resolution, which is 320 x 240, which won’t look great when blown up. On the Creative, the AV cable, available as an accessory, will output up to 640 x 480, so your content will look a lot better. You can incidentally, password protect your video files. That’s a feature I can’t think of any reason you’d need, but then again, I am whiter than white.
At the top of the player, is a sliding switch. Slide and hold it to the left and it turns the player on – slide it to the right and it activates the hold button. In the centre is Creative’s Slide Touch controller. When a track is playing you slide up and down to adjust the volume and when in menus you use it to move through menus. You tap in the centre to make a selection. There are also arrows to the left and right. Skipping tracks and winding within them is achieved by pressing and/or holding on the arrows running along the edges of the slider. It not quite as intuitive as the Apple click wheel but it still works well.
Around the slider are four buttons, which light up blue when pressed, a little like the red buttons on the third generation iPod. The play/pause button on the top right is self-explanatory. Below this is a button that acts as a context menu, like right clicking on the mouse in windows. The bottom left button takes you back one level in menus but the killer button, is the top left one. This is a programmable shortcut button that can be assigned to a menu option or function of your choice. This is a great feature as it meant that I could have the EQ adjustments only two clicks away, something that’s a lot more inconvenient to access on the iPod. Incidentally, ‘EQ’ is displayed on the screen when a preset is applied so you know, information that the iPod doesn’t give you. Another great use for the shortcut is quick access to the Record button for the built-in microphone – perfect for journalists. Recording quality on this wasn’t outstanding but it was perfectly usable.
As well as the built-in Microphone there’s a built-in FM radio too. This sounded reasonable when tested outside our offices in Ascot, but the reception was patchy at best with plenty of hiss and fade. Personally, I would only be interested in integrated radio if it was DAB, but given the state of DAB in terms of chip size and power requirements; it may never be practical to integrate it into a player such as this.
In terms of usability though, the Zen scores highly. There are some nice touches such as the DJ feature. This has a Shuffle mode but you can choose to the Album of the Day, Most Popular or Rarely Heard tracks.
As well as videos, photos can also be viewed on the Zen, and the screen makes them look great. You can choose to copy them over at full size or have them resized for the screen, an option that I preferred as it makes browsing quicker. They are arranged into folders and there’s a slideshow mode but I did miss the funky transitions present on the iPod. However, I did love the fact that you can use a photo as wallpaper for the Zen, just like you can on your PC desktop.
One feature I found odd was that even though you can use the Zen as a removable disk you have to first set up a section of the drive as such, and only up to 16GB, configurable via a menu option. It then formats part of the drive and if you disable this you then will lose any data on that partition.
At the bottom of the player is a slot for connecting up to the PC. However, instead of plugging a proprietary cable straight into the player, Creative has gone with a dongle into which you plug a standard USB to mini-USB cable. This does mean that you don’t necessarily have to lug a cable round with you to connect to multiple PCs but you do have to have the dongle, which is just asking to be mislaid.
It’s also been well publicised that when it comes to video playback, Creative wins on battery life compared to the iPod, offering up to four hours, whereas the 30GB iPod pays for its svelteness with a measly two hours battery life and three hours for the 60GB. It seems confusing then that the Zen offers the same 14 hours battery life for audio as the 30GB iPod and six hours less than the 60GB iPod. This would imply that it’s only because Apple has chosen to go with the processor intensive H.264 that it suffers on video battery life. The Zen takes only 2.5 hours to fully charge, half the time of the iPod and also comes with a wall charger in the box, so you don’t need a computer around to keep going. Unfortunately, the battery isn’t user interchangeable, but then again neither is the iPod’s.
Creative’s player doesn’t support H.264 but takes the same video tech used in its video focussed Zen Vision. As such, it supports Divx 4 and 5 files. Xvid, WMV and MPEG in 1, 2 an 4. This means that users don’t have to go convert files to play them on the Zen. However, it’s not a Divx certified product so earlier versions of Divx. This could be a problem as there’s a lot of Divx 3 content out on the Internet. Additionally it only supports ‘Simple Profile’ encodings, which means that not even all files of the correct format will play. However, Creative does supply a converter application on the CD. I can report that it works but it’s not quick by any means. It all means that the drag and drop advantage over the iPod is not as clear cut as it seems.
Even if you can play your file without conversion the one disadvantage is that you don’t get the benefit of smaller video file sizes that’s encoding to native resolution of the screen brings. This is ironic when you consider than Apple, with a 60GB drive has less need of the higher compression that H.264 brings.
As for getting content onto the device you’re not spoiled for choice. You can choose to use Windows Explorer, Windows Media Player, Creative MediaSource or the Zen Vision: M Media Explorer. After much faffing around with each of them I discovered that you can use the latter is best for pretty much everything including adding album art and creating photo slideshows and creating playlists.
One thing that isn’t integrated into any software is an online store, aka iTunes. However, Creative has created the Zencast web site, which aggregates content, such as Podcasts onto the Zen. It requires you download and install some extra software, which is currently still in Beta, but it’s a start. At least it looks as though the iPod is the only way to get this type of content. Of course for convenience iTunes wins for buying music and video online, but the latter is still only available inside the US.
One annoying issue is that on several occasions when playing video the player stopped responding. This meant I had to reset it using the pin size hole at the base of the player, so make sure you have one with you when on the move.
Overall though, I must admit that I was really impressed with the Vision: M. The biggest disappointment is that it’s quite thick, especially for the capacity. But in terms of usability it’s on par with the iPod. It slider and button interface isn’t quite as sleek as the simplicity of the click wheel, but the shortcut button is something that the iPod could really do with.
It’s not as special to hold though, and for many that simple fact that it’s not an iPod will put them off. But there are many genuine reasons to buy the Zen Vision: M over the iPod. The screen is undoubtedly superior, it’s got a longer video battery life, it can play many files without conversion, and you can use it with multiple PCs without restriction, while if you want to Autosync, the iPod locks you in to one machine.
Ultimately, if music is your primary interest then the its advantages aren’t as clear cut, though you can easily use the Zen with WMA based stores such as Napster. And if you want to be able to download episodes of 24 or Lost via a Torrent site and drag it quckly over to your player before you dash off to work, to watch on the train then the Zen is the player for you.
The Zen Vision: M is the best media player Creative has yet released and as such, demands attention. The quality of its display is its biggest assest over the fifth generation iPod, and it offers navigation innovations such as a shortcut button. It’s still not as stylish as Apple’s player or quite as effortless to use, but its the best case yet presented on why you should consider a media player other than an iPod.