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.