We've been patiently waiting (and waiting) for the official debut of the Creative Zen Micro Photo ever since Creative originally announced the colour-screen version of the Zen Micro back in January at CES 2005. Well, it has finally arrived, and we're happy we waited. The retail version of the Zen Micro Photo is an improvement over the prototype in key areas, notably hard-drive capacity. The microdrive MP3 player is a hair smaller than its predecessor, yet it offers 8GB of storage for a reasonable £200 (you can find it cheaper if you shop around online).
As a portable audio player, the Creative Zen Micro Photo is top-notch, and it makes a decent photo viewer. Unfortunately, it doesn't integrate the two as well as we'd expect at this point in the photo MP3 player game.
Surprisingly, the Creative Zen Micro Photo is a fraction smaller (51 by 84 by 18mm) than its monochrome-screen sibling, yet it manages to pack in 2GB to 3GB more storage, offering an 8GB microdrive, or about 2,000 songs. It doesn't pack on any extra weight either, keeping its lightweight status at 116g. And you still get the easily removable and replaceable battery, a standard mini USB connection, and a hold switch. There's also a choice of ten colours -- black, dark blue, grey, green, light blue, orange, pink, purple, red and white -- though some shades are slightly different than those of the Zen Micro. But the main difference, of course, is the Zen Micro Photo's small-but-pretty, full-colour OLED screen. It measures 41mm (1.6 inches) diagonally, can display 262,144 colours, and is viewable from any angle.
The innovative touch pad that made its debut on the Creative Zen Micro carries over to the Photo, though it has been slightly improved. Foremost, Creative has decreased the sensitivity of the Low setting so that the pad doesn't seem nearly as touchy as the original Micro's. Also, the face of the player has a textured feel to it, lending a more tactile sensation to the controls. Still, those used to pressing real buttons might need some time to adjust. The layout of the touch pad remains the same, with a vertical scroll strip flanked by back, rewind, play/pause, fast-forward and menu keys. This, combined with a great user interface, makes for highly intuitive navigation.
Creative recently patented the interface found on the Zen Micro Photo. In fact, the Creative interface is used on many popular MP3 players, including the Apple iPod. The interface is hierarchy-based, which means you navigate to a genre, then an artist, then an album, and finally a track. Of course, you can also go directly to any of the last three, as well as straight to a playlist that you've created on the PC, then transferred over. In addition, the Zen Micro Photo includes a DJ that will decide for you. This MP3 player's interface is very easy to use.
The Creative Zen Micro Photo ships with a soft pouch, a USB cable (used for both transferring and charging), a pair of decent earbuds, a user manual and an install disc. The last includes Creative's MediaSource software, a music-management app that we largely ignored, as well as Windows Media Player 10 and Adobe Acrobat Reader. The most important thing on the disc, though, is the Creative Zen Micro Photo app, which establishes the connection between player and computer. It also encompasses a digital user guide and two useful programs called Zen Micro Photo Media Explorer and Creative Media Tool Box. The first is a Windows Explorer-like program that lets you easily access and organise files on the player, while the second includes convenient tools such as an automatic tag cleaner (operating via Gracenote's Music ID service) and an automatic organiser (based on ID3 tag info).
The Creative Zen Micro Photo certainly doesn't lack features. It's an MP3 player that also accepts WAV and WMA files, including those downloaded as part of Napster To Go and other on-the-go music subscription services. Additionally, it's a photo viewer with a nine-by-nine thumbnail grid for previewing and the ability to support separate albums, represented as folders on the device.
Unfortunately, Creative does not successfully marry these two concepts. You can't listen to music and browse photos simultaneously -- a bummer since having something to look at while you jam to your favourite tunes significantly adds to the experience. Also, album art isn't supported, but we can forgive this more easily since we'd rather see track info and time elapsed anyway. Remember, the screen is fairly small in the first place.
Fortunately, your eyes won't get too bored because you can tinker with the eight 'themes' while your music plays. The themes are a variety of interface colour schemes, and if they don't interest you, you can set your favourite photo as wallpaper. The Creative Zen Micro Photo also offers shuffle, repeat and resume playback settings as well as eight preset equalisers (Acoustic, Classical, Disco, Jazz, New Age, Pop, Rock and Vocal) and a five-band user-defined mode. There's also a Bass Boost option and a Smart Volume setting that levels the volume across all tracks.
If you get tired of your digital music, you can tune in to the Creative Zen Micro Photo's FM radio, which picks up even the weakest broadcast signals. The radio includes a handy autoscan function and offers 32 preset slots. If you feel so inclined, you can record FM transmissions, and there's a built-in mic for voice recordings. All recordings are saved as good-quality WAV files, though with noticeable white noise. Audiobook lovers will appreciate that the Creative Zen Micro lets you set up to ten bookmarks. We're still waiting on confirmation as to whether the player supports Audible.com content.
The Zen Micro Photo isn't compatible with Macs, but it's one of the very few MP3 players that can sync your calendar, contacts and tasks from Microsoft Outlook -- a handy feature indeed for people who don't need the full functionality of a handheld organiser. The player also works as a rudimentary alarm clock if it's hooked up to external speakers. There's a wake timer onboard that can be set to the FM radio or the music library.
We've come to expect top-quality audio performance from Creative's MP3 players, and the Creative Zen Micro Photo doesn't disappoint. With a signal-to-noise ratio of 'up to 98dB', the player delivers truly impressive detail and vocal clarity with almost imperceptible background hiss -- we could detect it through only the best of headphones. Bass response is more than respectable, and the mid-to-high ends come through nicely with no muddling, even at the loudest volume. And all this through the included earbuds -- swap in a high-end pair of headphones and sound remains excellent, perhaps slightly improved (we used the Shure E4c). Happily, the Zen Micro Photo is certainly loud enough, which can't be said of its monochrome-screen sibling. This is truly an audiophile's MP3 player.
The Zen Micro Photo's processor also does well overall. Photo thumbnails take just a few seconds to load, and the lag between standard MP3 files played on random is barely noticeable. Out of the box, the player annoyingly lagged between Janus tracks, but this was reduced when we updated the firmware -- we still think this needs more work, though.
Performance in our formal testing was also pretty good. Files transferred at a rate of 3.6MB per second, which is a hair above average. We also came close to matching Creative's rated battery life of 15 hours, squeezing out 14.8 hours of playback. It's not an amazing amount of juice, but it's definitely sufficient, especially considering that you can buy another battery and swap it in on the go.
Edited by James Kim
Additional editing by Nick Hide