What we have here is an attractive 8GB flash-based MP3 player with a plethora of features -- it shows even well-established players such as the iPod nano how things could be done with a little extra thought.
At around £160, the 8GB Zen V Plus is in the mainstream category and is ideally suited to someone who wants plenty of music in their pocket, but doesn't want battery life to limit how much music they can enjoy between charges.
The curvy plastic casing gives the V Plus a somewhat cheap feel, which is a shame because there's nothing cheap about what's been packed inside. All the navigational buttons are on the front of the player. The quad-directional micro-joystick in the centre works well but is a tad fiddly, and is so smooth that getting a grip on the thing is tricky. This is only a very minor criticism, however -- it's easy to get used to.
Volume control is nicely placed on the right-hand side of the device and is very comfortable to operate with the thumb (left-handed folk will find it just as comfortable to use the index finger). A dedicated recording button is also found on the right-hand side. Hold this for one second and recording begins through the built-in microphone.
On the top of the player we can find a centralised headphone socket, a line-in socket for direct recording from a CD player or -- perhaps most useful of all -- from a turntable, and a standard USB 2.0 port for all that syncing you're going to want to do.
The bright 38mm (1.5-inch) OLED screen is more than large enough to comfortably navigate through the colourful menus. Though not as sharp as the iPod nano's, the V Plus's screen will acceptably display album artwork, but don't expect to pick out all the faces on the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Supported audio formats are pretty standard: MP3, WMA and WMA DRM (Plays For Sure), and somewhat less than standard, the Audible format. (Audible is the leader in online audiobook downloads.)
Sadly there's no lossless format support, but with 8GB of total storage space it's no surprise. That's not to say the audio performance is subpar. On the contrary, the V Plus boasts excellent quality playback on all bit rates, especially when you plug in a pair of good headphones (the standard-issue earbuds of almost all portable audio players are never up to much).
Bear in mind that if you're currently an iPod user, an iTunes Store fan or simply like to use the AAC encoding format, you're going to need to convert all your music -- the V Plus, like almost all music players, doesn't support Apple's compression technology. If, like many, you're trapped in the iPod/iTunes ecosystem, you'll need to do some thinking about whether to switch manufacturers.
This player is a prime target to be compared to the iPod nano: its small size, large storage capacity, small screen and long battery life are just a few of the similarities between the devices.
However, the V Plus has a couple of aces stashed up its sleeve, the most notable of which is its support for video files. Unfortunately, the player supports only AVI files and requires all video clips to be transcoded using the supplied software, and sadly a 23-minute video file comes out of the transcoder at a horrific 500MB when set to the standard (and only) transcoding setting. The other problem is that watching a 128x96-pixel resolution video for longer than a minute is not an enjoyable experience.
There's a line-in socket on the top of the player and a built-in microphone, although sadly you're limited to a 10-minute recording per track. Voice-recording quality through the microphone is acceptable, but only a couple of steps up from telephone quality. Recording through the line-in socket, however, boasts a quality of up to 160kbps in WMA format.
Photo support is well implemented. Photo albums can be organised using folders on your computer, and are displayed as such on the player. Once you're in an album, photos are displayed as cute little thumbnails.
Additionally, there's a built-in FM radio tuner, support for your Outlook contacts, a simple calendar and even a basic to-do list organiser. These latter three are all managed using more bundled software. You can also set the player to act as a mass storage device to store data files through Windows.
Podcasts can be subscribed to, and aggregated, with the supplied Zencast software. Zencast will keep your podcasts up to date and will even transfer them to the V Plus. Once on the player, however, podcasts are simply sorted by the ID3 tags, so be sure to encourage your favourite podcasters to be consistent with their tagging, or you could be searching for a few minutes for each individual episode.
Finally, the inclusion of an audio equaliser complete with presets gets a very enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Creative says you can expect 15 hours of continuous audio playback, though our test unit pumped out just over 16 on a mid-volume setting. As you would expect, video playback demands much more from the battery. We got an acceptable 3 hours and 10 minutes of continuous video from a full charge.
The unusually large stock earphones are barely average, but this is to be expected -- standard issue headphones are never high-performing. When pumped through a set of high-end Sennheiser earbuds, both lows and highs are clearly reproduced, though with the equaliser switched to 'Rock', the lows are even more beautifully defined.
Video playback is glitch-free and videos start instantly.
The Zen V Plus is a flash player that the younger branch of music lovers will fall for immediately. It's cute, easy to use, fairly feature-rich and easy for little hands to wrap around with ease. If you're in charge of a child's musical devices, or if you're a child with parent's money at your disposal, you'll want to give the Zen V Plus a good considering before making any decisions.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide