Creative has a long history of delivering decent, hard drive-based MP3 players. Its latest flagship model, the Zen Touch, takes the Creative name to new heights. Redesigned from the ground up, the Zen Touch includes modern delights such as an innovative touch-sensitive scroll pad (dubbed the Touch Pad), an aesthetically pleasing and durable form factor, and rock-solid battery life. Factor in its great sound quality, its compatibility with most online music stores and a competitive price, and you have a bona fide contender. Experienced Zen users might be disappointed with some tweaks to menu functionality, while others might wear out their thumbs getting used to the Touch Pad. Nevertheless, after a lengthy wait, the Zen Touch has finally made its curtain call.
Make no mistake: the Creative Zen Touch isn't your dad's tired old Nomad Jukebox. Encased in a tight metallic alloy and glossy white body, the device is smooth to the touch and easy on the eye. At 104 by 69 by 25mm and 221g, it's definitely larger and heavier than the latest Apple iPod. Yet its overall look and feel is balanced, ergonomic and durable. And the Zen Touch doesn't scratch as easily as the iPod does.
The primary feature that ushers the Zen franchise into the 21st century is the touch-sensitive Touch Pad, which drastically improves scrolling and navigating through songs and menu options when compared to previous Zen models. Sliding your thumb upward or downward on the slick pad (the manual suggests that you gently rub it) moves the onscreen cursor accordingly. As with any good touchpad, the farther your finger wanders from the centre, the faster you scroll. Pressing the physical OK button at the top of the pad makes a selection. Furthermore, the pad can be set up for tap selection, meaning you don't have to use the OK button at all.
Although it takes a few minutes to get used to the feeling -- the pad's sensitivity can be adjusted in three steps -- it beats seven bells out of using the annoying little jog dial on previous Zen editions. We do wish Creative had placed the selector button above the Touch Pad rather than within the pad area or, better yet, recessed to the level of the pad. As it stands, the button gets in the way of the natural scrolling motion. We would also appreciate a tap-to-page-up and -down feature, as thumbing through thousands of songs can get tiring -- at least you're going in circles with the iPod.
The combination of the Touch Pad and the larger display make navigating the Zen Touch interface terribly easy when compared to earlier Zen models. The 160x104-pixel display is easy to read, but because of low contrast between the black text and the blue backlight (and lower resolution overall), the menus don't pop off the screen as the iPod's do. Alas, tweaking the contrast level in Settings doesn't help. Still, plenty of data, such as the track title, artist and album info, the equaliser setting, the play mode and an elapsed time bar, is elegantly displayed.
The majority of control buttons lie either side of the Touch Pad. These include player controls and Menu, Back and Random buttons. Creative has dedicated a button to Random, which immediately shuffles and plays all songs in the library. This oft-used instant-shuffle feature reminds us of the iPod's top-menu Shuffle Songs. We did note that one-handed operation of the Zen Touch can be a strain on the hand, as primary buttons are located close to the edge, requiring some thumb acrobatics.
The left side of the Zen Touch includes the power button and convenient, dedicated volume controls. The top of the device includes a headphone jack with integrated remote-control support, a USB 2.0 jack (the Zen Touch can be recharged via USB), and a Hold switch. The only thing located on the unit's right side is a power-adaptor connector, which further emphasises this player's minimalist nature.
Creative also throws in a USB cable, some decent earbud headphones and a fake leather carrying case. Two minor design miscues: the lithium-ion battery can't be swapped by the user and the power adaptor (consisting of two cables and a brick) is bulky and inconvenient.
Despite the fact it isn't loaded with extra features such as a recording function or an FM radio, the Creative Zen Touch is a top-notch digital audio player compatible with MP3, protected WMA and WAV files. You can get an optional wired remote with a built-in FM tuner and FM/voice recorder.
Much like Marmite, some despise the Creative interface, while others swear by it. It's now much cleaner and the Touch Pad actually makes it usable. The Main Menu options, accessed by hitting the Menu key, include Music Library, Now Playing, Play Mode, Settings and Information. Music Library allows you to select tracks by playlists, album, artist, genre or recordings, as well as all tracks. Creative players were among the first to use a playlist-centric interface, in which selected or played tracks are automatically added to the current playlist (called Selected Music). For example, if you select All Tracks, all tracks are added to your playlist, which then can be saved or deleted on the player itself. Unlike on the iPod, these playlists can be named.
As always, Creative employs a Windows-esque, right-click style of selecting and deleting songs and for building playlists. In other words, when you select a song (or an album or artist), a pull-down menu displays a wealth of options. These include Play, Add to Selected, View Details, Delete Track (or Album or Artist), with each set of options slightly different for songs, albums, playlists, and so on. The new Touch Pad helps this two-click process immeasurably, though you can simply click the Play button once to start a track. Searching for specific tracks, artists or albums is easy, thanks to the Zen Touch's alphabetical Find feature. One more useful tidbit: touching the pad in the Now Playing mode will display Selected Music, so it's easy to find another song.
All these options can be useful to those who really like to manage their playlists, but these choices can be confusing to some users as well. To simplify, Creative has removed some old options, including reordering songs in a playlist and bookmarking a track.
Those who download music can be assured that the Zen Touch will be compatible with virtually all WMA-based online music stores and services. Sometime in October, Creative plans to release a firmware upgrade that will make the Zen Touch both MTP and Janus-compatible. Among other things, the former will permit autosyncing with Windows Media Player 10, while the latter will allow for subscription-based downloads that expire when the user is no longer a paying subscriber.
Unfortunately, the Zen Touch will not show up as a drive in Windows, so you'll have to use the included Nomad Explorer software to transfer personal data files. Next month, Creative hopes to release a firmware upgrade that will bring up the Zen Touch as a drive letter. While Creative's bundled MediaSource software will allow you to encode and organise music, burn tracks and transfer tracks to the player, most users will find Windows Media Player more convenient for this function.
The sound quality of the Creative Zen Touch impressed us, thanks in part to its signal-to-noise ratio of less than 97dB. We hooked it up to a quality home stereo and enjoyed rich, powerful sound. We recommend a good pair of headphones to take advantage of the warm sound, as the included earbuds don't do the Zen Touch justice. If you wish, you can employ a four-band custom parametric equaliser with eight presets to fine-tune your audio. To little fanfare or concern, Creative has done away with EAX environmental effects presets in this version of the Zen.
Creative boasts that the Zen Touch has "the longest battery life ever for a digital audio jukebox". Managing 24 hours would double the rated battery life for a new iPod, an amazing and highly useful performance spec. We managed to squeeze an ear-popping 26 hours out of the Zen Touch. Unlike the Zen Xtra before it, the Zen Touch doesn't have a handy removable battery. Nevertheless, on an extended trip away from civilisation, the Zen Touch, with its remarkable battery life, would be our first choice. It does take about 4 hours for a complete recharge using the power adaptor. Transfer of files took a modest 2.7MB per second over USB 2.0.
Edited by John Morris
Additional editing by Nick Hide