Given the recent launch of Apple's iPod nano, the Creative Zen Nano Plus -- which came out first -- has been pushed into the shadows. This is unfair, because they're aimed at different markets: the Zen Nano Plus is half the price, has only 1GB of memory and a small black-and-white screen. While the iPod nano is the more glamorous of the two, the Zen Nano Plus is usable, compact, relatively functional and good value for money. Though Creative doesn't come close to matching the interface offered by Apple, the Zen Nano Plus does have one unique advantage: it can record through a tiny internal microphone. For this reason it will particularly appeal to journalists or other professionals who use voice recorders.
We're hesitant to recommend the Zen Nano Plus to audiophiles, though -- the output stage falls short of what we've heard from some other players. Nirvana's Drain You lost a perceptible degree of clout -- the high end felt slightly cramped and the bass sloppy. But these are very picky criticisms and casual listeners will find the Zen produces a pretty fair sound for listening during a commute or jog.
The Nano is small, not much bigger than a cigarette lighter (34 by 66 by 13mm and just 22g). Our review model came in a relaxing shade of aquamarine (ten colours are available). The LCD on this player, while extremely small, isn't difficult to read and is covered by a very sturdy layer of protective plastic -- it should be safe from keys when carried loose in your pocket. The front panel only has one control: a play/pause button. All the other navigation controls are located on the side of the player. These include a simple two-button volume control and a rocker wheel that lets you scroll through menus and, by pressing it, select an option.
The Nano has a slightly cheap feel to it, not exactly like it fell out of a Christmas cracker, but not a million miles away. Our initial impression was confirmed when the battery cover snapped off, never to return. This cover is held in place by a small plastic tag that's liable to break off the very first time you drop the player. For the rest of the player's life you will have to either do without the cover and leave the battery exposed (our choice) or use a small piece of Sellotape to hold the battery cover on. It's astounding, given the millions of television remote controls with battery covers held on with Sellotape, that manufacturers haven't grasped this very basic concept: don't use little slivers of plastic to attach big panels.
A single AAA alkaline battery powers the Nano and is easily replaced (especially after the battery cover has snapped off). Headphones insert into the top of the player and a line-out and USB port are located at the opposite end.
Available in 512MB or 1GB versions, the Nano will accommodate enough songs for a few days' worth of commuting. Although recording through the built-in microphone is restricted to 32Kbps WAVs, the line-in port will record a source at 96 to 160Kbps. None of these bit rates are much of a joy to listen to, but for voice recordings they're more than sufficient -- certainly better than most tape-based voice recorders are capable of. In addition to playing MP3s, the Nano has a built-in FM radio that uses the headphone cable as an aerial. Reception on this is understandably erratic at times, but for the most part you'll get decent reception.
Songs are transferred to the player via a USB cable. The Nano's most endearing feature is that it mounts on any operating system as a standard USB drive. It lets you drag and drop MP3s straight onto its drive icon. This is the kind of functionality we've been begging for and it's remarkable that so few manufacturers allow this simple and intuitive method of transferring songs. Companies like Sony demand that you use proprietary software (Sonic Stage, we're looking at you) when it would be much simpler to let you drag and drop.
One exception is Apple's iTunes software, which manages to make transferring songs a simple process. Surprisingly, the Zen Nano integrates directly with iTunes on the Mac. As soon as we'd plugged it into our OS X machine it was available, like an iPod, in the list at the left of our iTunes window. Unfortunately this functionality is not extended to iTunes on the PC, and Windows users will have to do with the bland-but-effective drag-and-drop method.
The Nano's other features include a five-band equaliser. We're not great fans of EQ options in an MP3 player. If you're ripping your CDs using a good encoder and buying songs from reputable sources you shouldn't need to tweak the EQ on your player -- tonal balance was already taken care of by the engineers who mastered the recordings. If you alter the EQ manually you're making some very rash changes to the character of the music and, as we found with the Nano, some presets will cause harmonic distortion and other audio nasties. Our advice is to steer clear.
We used the Nano to audition tracks from Nirvana's Nevermind. Butch Vig famously mixed this album back in the early 90s and in many ways the sound he produced has been the benchmark for pop ever since. The recording is very detailed, with great separation between the instruments. For this reason, it usually sounds fantastic even on lesser stereo systems. Listening to Smells Like Teen Spirit revealed a decent mid-range to the Nano, but snare hits lost detail and tended to sound shrill. The low-end is assisted massively by Vig's tight production, but the Nano fell short of the punchy, controlled kick-drum sound the album is capable of.
We also auditioned Drain You. The track begins with a spacious raw guitar and vocals intro and then bursts into a heavily compressed drum and distorted guitar part. The Nano coped well with the first few seconds of the track -- everything sounded clean and bright. When the kick drum dropped in, the Nano delivered a fairly good low-end and the caustic growl of Kurt Cobain's lyrics carried well. None the less, auditioning the track again on the iPod Shuffle and then on a standard audio-out from a computer revealed some detail to the track that the Nano wasn't producing.
These are subtle criticisms of the audio quality on the Nano, but real audio nuts may want to look elsewhere for their player. For casual listening, and particularly for voice recordings, the Nano does a decent job. If you can live with the flimsy battery cover snapping off at some point, this is a compact and capable entry-level player.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide