It's called the Zen Sleek and, in many ways, sleek it is. The entire chassis of this MP3 player is brushed aluminium, with no harsh edges to scrape against your hands. Unfortunately, our demo unit had already suffered a small dent on the lower corner -- but this is the penalty you pay for uber-chic design. The Zen's general size isn't sleek though -- it's almost exactly the same shape as the standard Apple iPod.
While it may not trounce Apple's offerings, the Sleek is unmistakably a leap in the right direction. We thank the gods that Creative has steered clear of some grotesque proprietary software for its player. Instead, the Sleek functions almost exactly like a simple drag-and-drop USB drive, although you do have to install drivers. At least Creative hasn't followed the example of Sony, which persists in forcing the cursed SonicStage software on its Network Walkman customers. If companies don't have the time or resources to put as much effort into their MP3 transfer software as the device itself, they shouldn't bother.
The most bewildering thing about the Sleek is it doesn't mount as a drive on the Mac, and doesn't integrate with iTunes. Not surprising, you say? Well, considering that the ignoble Creative Zen Nano Plus can manage this, why does its big brother the Sleek have so much trouble? Interestingly, the Nano doesn't need you to install any special software either. This simplicity makes the Nano Plus more rewarding to use.
Borrowing heavily from the established design techniques of Apple, the Sleek is clad in the obligatory white plastic and wire-brushed aluminium. The unit weighs slightly less than the iPod and uses a similar hard disk to store your MP3s.
We were pleased to discover that the Sleek uses a clear and simple monochrome LCD display. There's no attempt to integrate photo capabilities -- this player knows where its priorities lie. The 51mm (2-inch) LCD is clear and not especially prone to reflections. The hard plastic coating will prevent damage to the fragile LCD itself, but it can pick up scratches in your pocket. The LCD is backlit by a neutral light -- there's no multi-coloured excitement to be found here. However, the transport controls on the Sleek illuminate in a cool blue neon, which makes it easy to operate in the dark.
Headphones insert into a jack on the top left-hand corner of the player and are of the earbud type. The headphones themselves are reasonably attractive, though not overwhelmingly comfortable. They are, of course, white (in accordance with the bible of Apple), and therefore increase that important likelihood-of-mugging factor. Both headphones advertise Creative in tiny lettering. The top of the player also includes a small microphone, for basic voice and sound recording, and a lock button to disable the player's other buttons when you're carrying it in your pocket. This is a simple slider switch with fluorescent orange colour underneath to indicate the switch position.
The power button on the Sleek is up on the top edge of the device and pulses when the player is charging. The main transport controls for the player are positioned on the front, below the LCD screen. There are dedicated buttons for play/pause, fast-forward and rewind, menu and back. Nestled between these controls there's a non-mechanical slider similar to the iPod's Click Wheel, but vertical instead of circular.
The hybrid power charger/USB cable fits into the bottom of the Sleek and clicks into place. This connector is especially bulky and trails two cords, one of which terminates in a USB port; the other connects to the charger. Because of the size of this connector, enormous strain is placed on the female port in the Sleek. The connector on our player had surprising amounts of travel on it, because the connector is so big and doesn't fit tightly against the player. Whether this will eventually cause the port to malfunction, we don't know, but it isn't reassuring.
The Zen Sleek will playback MP3s, WAVs and protected WMA files, which you can arrange in the playlist by artist or genre. Tracks are navigated and selected using the touch-sensitive strip on the front of the Sleek. Tracks are skipped using the fast-forward and rewind buttons.
Creative claims the Sleek can hold 10,000 average-length MP3s -- this is extremely optimistic, and the Sleek's actual capacity will vary depending on whether you pack the player with classical music or punk and what bit rate you encode at. Creative's claim assumes you'll be using WMA at 64kbps -- in our opinion, tracks in this format are basically unlistenable to. You should be encoding at an absolute minimum of 128kbps to get anything like the intended frequency of modern pop, and much more for classical music.
You can tweak audio playback on the Sleek using the five-band custom equaliser. This has eight preset settings that cover the major genres. If your MP3s are properly encoded they shouldn't require any EQ alterations, but it's good to know that the option of boosting or reducing certain frequencies is there if you need it.
The Sleek's ability to record live sound is especially useful at live gigs. Before you arrest us, many bands encourage tapings at their live shows, so long as you're not wandering about with a microphone getting in the way. The Sleek's microphone is incredibly discreet. Journalists and other professional interviewers could use the Sleek as a very effective alternative to the Dictaphone.
The Sleek will sync with your Microsoft Outlook Contacts, Calendars and Tasks. This is tricky to set up, and doesn't really warrant the complication. You can use the Sleek as a standard removable storage device -- just like a USB hard disk -- but make sure to include password protection on your files because, as with all portable devices, there's always the risk of loss or theft.
In our informal tests, sound quality on the Sleek came close to the iPod, but the Creative player didn't have quite the same warmth on tracks like Nirvana's Lithium. Running the Sleek through flat-response studio monitors produced a solid and present sound with excellent low end, especially on tracks encoded at a high bit rate. Fiddling with the Creative's EQ settings could sometimes give tracks that extra fidelity the iPod seems to achieve more naturally.
The vertical touch pad control on the Sleek is extremely frustrating and seems overly sensitive and slightly counter-intuitive. We often found pop-up menus appeared unexpectedly and we selected functions accidentally when reducing finger pressure on the pad or brushing it by mistake. It's a world away from the iPod's Click Wheel.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide