The portable video player market is percolating, with some manufacturers already releasing second- and third-generation devices such as Archos's AV420. A major offshoot of this fledgling category is the Portable Media Center (PMC), which was first introduced back in January at CES. The Creative Zen Portable Media Center is the first device of many to employ Microsoft's Windows Mobile-based Portable Media Center operating system; competing devices from Samsung and iRiver aren't far behind.
The 20GB Zen PMC includes a variety of innovative features both on and below the surface, and they make navigating a mountain of music, video and photos painless. The device is designed to work seamlessly with Windows Media Player 10.0 on any Windows XP computer, but those using Windows XP Media Center Edition will get the most out of the Zen PMC, given the device's ability to play recorded television content. In essence, the £300 device is a portable extension of the Windows media experience. While it plays back video, music and photos admirably, the Creative Zen PMC is a first-generation product with room for improvement.
Sporting a durable, glossy, black plastic face and a metallic back, the Zen PMC is designed to be used in the old-school, Game Boy style. It measures 144 by 81 by 27mm and weighs 340g -- significantly bulkier than most audio-only 20GB players. It reminds us of the first hard drive-based audio players, circa 1999. The Creative Zen PMC's most impressive physical trait is its expansive, sharp and colourful 97mm (3.8-inch) TFT LCD, which is ideal for viewing video, photos, album art and the menu.
The screen is vivid indoors, especially with the brightness turned up, but it's not ideal for use outdoors during the day. This is in part due to the display's reflective (and protective) glossy face, which attracts fingerprints galore. In direct sunlight, it's better to turn off the backlight, as the sun's rays will illuminate the screen so that it looks like a nonbacklit Game Boy Advance; it'll also save you some battery life.
The Zen PMC's controls are highlighted by the Windows icon-clad Start button, which instantly takes you to the top menu. Given the feature-laden device's deep menu options, the button is critical for comfortable navigation and will be found on all PMCs and Media Center Edition remotes.
The left half of the Zen PMC includes a circular four-way navigational pad with a nested Select button and an essential Back key. The right half has two dedicated volume buttons and another circular controller for play/pause, forward and rewind commands. You'll experience a tactile pop with each press, along with an accompanying and strangely appealing system chime, which is on by default.
Along with a power button, four numbered keys line the top of the unit and are designated as programmable presets. Pressing one takes you directly to your favourite movie (complete with a bookmark), song, album, artist or photo. We like this thoughtful feature, as we know how difficult it is to fish for content in a 20GB sea. Except for the Start key, which lights up green, and the preset buttons, all keys are backlit in a dim and mystic blue when activated. Expect to use both hands for most operations. Once in a while, you'll catch yourself incorrectly pressing the play button with your right hand instead of the left-handed Select. Aside from this, the controls are extremely intuitive, thanks in large part to the Windows interface (more on this later).
A power port resides on the device's left side, and a hold switch, an A/V-out jack and an 'intelligent' headphone jack line the right side. A dock-style USB 2.0 connector is located on the Zen PMC's bottom side. The silver back features a removable lithium-ion polymer battery. It's important to note that unlike many PVRs on the market, the Zen PMC lacks a built-in kickstand to prop itself up. Instead, the device ships with a carrying case with a flap cover that substitutes as a stand. The case is worth bringing along on your travels, since holding the Zen PMC to watch a movie for an extended period of time can be taxing on your hands, arms and neck.
You'll also find a tiny speaker on the bottom-right corner of the Zen PMC. Surprisingly, it doesn't sound terrible and tinny. And if your headphones accidentally pull out of its jack, the system saves you from potential embarrassment and mutes the audio.
Our chief design complaint is the Zen PMC's sheer bulk. Granted, it has a terrific screen indoors and Swiss Army knife-like functionality, but its thickness just doesn't feel right, especially when used for audio. Creative claims that the device is small enough to fit comfortably in your pocket. Our advice is not to wear tight jeans. The Zen PMC would also be better off with a docking cradle, which will be available as an optional accessory in October.
The Zen PMC ships with an A/V line-out cable, a proprietary USB 2.0 cable, a carrying case with a built-in stand, a pair of earphones, a Quick Start guide, an install CD, and an inconvenient two-line-and-a-brick-style power adaptor.