Creative has long played second fiddle to Apple in the MP3 player market, but competition in portable video is not quite so fierce. Archos is the only player of note -- even efforts from a major manufacturer like Samsung have largely gone unnoticed. Despite Archos' popularity, the company produces media centres that are pretty difficult to use and, AV500 excepted, pretty darn ugly.
Creative's Zen Vision is much better looking in both physical design and interface -- this sleek black model won't look out of place next to your iPod, while the menu is reminiscent of Windows Media Center. Affirming our belief that there's no such thing as a perfect media centre however, the Zen Vision cannot record from an AV source, the screen is too reflective and the hard disk is too small. But if you want movies on the go, it comes a close second to the Archos AV500.
Hold the Zen Vision in your hands on the bus and we guarantee that you'll attract glances, although if you're the sort of person that likes to show off you'll probably be driving a Ferrari to work.The black body matches the colour of the moment (PSP, Razr V3, iPod) and it's small enough to put in your pocket without too much discomfort. Its size hasn't limited the screen size either, which at 94mm (3.7 inches) is big enough to offer a decent movie experience. The only real problem is that it's not a widescreen format, which results in large black horizontal borders on most TV and film sources.
The Creative interface is uncannily similar to Windows Media Centre, although the endorsement isn't official. It does mean that anyone used to Microsoft's frontend, or indeed anyone used to a computer, will be able to get around Creative player with ease. It's made a lot easier thanks to the labelled buttons -- something which seems to be beyond Archos. Compared to using the Creative Zen Vision, using an Archos device is like trying to play a first person shooting game without a mouse.
Pick the Zen up and you won't notice an abundance of connections around the sides, which contributes to its sleek appearance. The power and AV outputs are hidden by a rubber panel, which stop any dust getting in there. There's only one headphone output, so you'll need to buy a splitter if you tend to travel with a friend. If you're linking up to a PC, you can either use the standard USB 2.0 option, or an iPod-like Creative standard that's also used on the company's MP3 players.
The player will also output video to a TV thanks to an included cable, although this wasn't included by Creative with our test model. That said, as it's a composite video lead, we wouldn't expect the video quality to be very high, especially if you have a flat screen. The side panel also houses a CompactFlash socket, which is useful for people who use digital SLR cameras.
The major omission on the feature front is the lack of TV recording. The Windows Media Player integration is seamless, and it has support for both DivX and XviD video, but until people can record video directly from their TV or digibox, these devices just won't become mainstream. Archos' players have done this for some time, and at high quality with infrared senders too.
The 4:3 screen means that most films and TV series have heavy borders top and bottom. Also, it has been made from the same highly reflective screen material as afflicted the Toshiba Qosmio. It's not so bad outside or on the train, but in the glare of office lighting it's horrible. Blacks don't actually appear black -- instead they have this very off-putting reflective quality. We're surprised this wasn't raised at the development stage.
So, you can read photos from a CompactFlash card -- useful for SLR camera owners, but it's not a well-supported format in other areas. To be honest, we'd have rather seen a USB host feature that would let you transfer photos from any camera. Thankfully though, the Zen Vision does have a couple of plus points over its Archos rival. First of all, it has an FM radio, which is a real necessity thanks to the limited 30GB storage. Secondly, there's an Organiser, with Calendar, Tasks and Contacts. As you'd imagine from a device with no keyboard, you're better off creating these on your computer and then updating the portable device with the Creative Zen Sync Manager. There's also a microphone for making voice memos -- an overlooked but useful feature, particularly for business users.
In operation, the Zen Vision feels like a really sleek player to use, from the automated transferring of files in Windows Media Player to zipping around in the menus. We did manage to crash the device once though, when we were playing music and watching photos simultaneously. The player offers full support for DivX and Xvid video formats, which are the two most popular encoders online. Unfortunately though, Creative doesn't include an encoder in its software package, so you'll need to read up online about free packages, or invest in the DivX Encoder at cost from the Web site. Even then, be prepared for some technical headaches when ripping your DVD movies, thanks to the copyright issues involved.
Archos had to up its game in response to the Creative Zen Vision, creating a far better screen on the AV500 than we'd seen on its previous players. Creative's player is very detailed, colourful and features virtually no blurring on movement. But the glass itself has been given a coating that gives the image a strange, off-putting reflectivity, which consequently makes black areas of the screen look completely unnatural.
The system's one speaker is tinny and lacks power, but we suspect you'll use the included headphones. Stereo performance is good, technology that has undoubtedly been carried over from Creative's excellent sounding MP3 players. For music, we'd say that the bass level on the new iPod is slightly better, but if you're watching a movie on the train, this is certainly as good as the Archos AV500.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield