As video becomes more sought-after in portable media players, two distinct types of device have emerged: music players that can play video and video players that can handle music.
The Creative Zen, with its landscape form-factor and space-hogging screen, is a perfectly executed portable video player. But its small size suggests its 'killer app' is supposed to be its music function. This automatic self-contradiction leaves us wondering -- what is the Creative Zen? Can it offer the best of both worlds?
We have reviewed the 8GB version, which is available for £129, but Creative also
has a 4GB version, available for £99 and it will release a 16GB
version in late January.
Its 64mm (2.5-inch), 320x240-pixel screen consumes two-thirds of the Zen's surface, and its landscape orientation suggested we should be using the player for video. Navigation controls are mounted far-right -- bad news for lefties. The dedicated back and play/pause buttons could easily have been combined on to the four-way directional pad, negating the need for unnecessary buttons. Beware: operation with the left hand is damn near impossible without obscuring the screen -- using your right hand is crucial.
The right-hand side of the Zen features a standard mini USB socket, a power/hold switch and a headphone socket, while an SD card slot sits in the top. A fake SD card comes as standard to fill the hole -- don't worry, the colours match.
Overall it's a decent build: reasonably lightweight, well-sealed seams and nicely integrated connections. The display's glossy finish extends across the Zen's entire face, resulting, we feel, in the navigational buttons bordering on having a look of sub-standard quality. The rest of the casing has an attractive matte finish, which we loved.
An MP3 player is at the heart of the Zen -- MP3, WMA, AAC, WAV and Audible files will all play, though only unprotected AAC files -- such as iTunes Plus downloads -- are supported.
Both DivX and Xvid movie files are compatible, too, as well as WMV files, so long as their resolutions are no greater than 320x240-pixels.
Should your vast library eat up your memory, SD and SDHC cards can be inserted into a slot to expand capacity. However, the contents of SD cards are not included in the player's main library. To view these items you need to navigate to the SD card and browse the alphabetically sorted lists. ID3 tags are not read from files stored on SD cards. For shame.
There're a bunch of playback options, most notably some dynamic playlists that chooses music you've rarely heard or rated highly, for example. It's also possible to view meta-data stored within your music.
There's an integrated voice recorder, FM radio with 32 presets, photo slideshows and a calendar with contacts and notes support. This personal data can be synced to the Zen using supplied Creative software, though the Zen's media library can be managed with Windows Media Player or by dragging and dropping within Windows.
Creative has implemented an attractive and colourful animated navigation system into the Zen, though browsing a large library of artists is a little sluggish. A dedicated button brings up context menus within each of the player's function screens, allowing menu customisation and quick access to useful options. While this only takes a day or so to get used to, technophobes or MP3 player newbies might be a little uncomfortable.
After the 11-second boot up sequence, we got to some music. New Skin, an Incubus classic from the era when they were a decent band, was the first track to prove the Zen's superiority as an audio player. The song's driven guitars, slap bass, china crash cymbals, turntables and a steel Djembe, each were reproduced perfectly and were separated in the way the album's producer intended.
Next up was Windowlicker by Aphex Twin, a complex and surreal mix of electronica and dance. Each carefully constructed layer of this audible representation of drug-induced psychosis was clearly delivered, with no unfair weight to either bass nor treble. The Zen produces a clean and powerful sound regardless of genre and should please even hardened critics.
Video playback is similarly impressive -- pictures are smooth, with vivid colours and excellent blacks. The terrific LCD screen helps, of course. Sadly, not that it was a surprise, the bundled earphones are rubbish. Get yourself some posh ones to do justice to the excellent sound quality the Zen is capable of.
Creative's Zen is a terrific portable media player. Music, videos and photos sound and look superb. The inclusion of an SD card slot adds limitless storage potential, too. Features are well-implemented, though a small navigational learning curve will take a day or so to master. Overall, it's a solid offering and at a decent enough price to fairly compete with Apple's dominant iPod nano. We're just sad there's no hard disk version available.
An alternative player would have to be the new nano. Its unrivalled simplicity and seamless integration with iTunes will please newbies and MP3 veterans alike. If expandability and extra functionality is more your thing, check out Cowon's iAudio D2 -- its SD card slot and superb sound and picture quality could be just what you're after.
Available from AdvancedMP3Players.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday