Creative Zen Review

Creative Zen
Creative’s Zen line of media players hasn’t stolen much thunder from the iPod, but it has been more successful than many. The latest, dubbed simply the Creative Zen, is a flash-based player that does video on a 2.5-inch screen and rocks a full-size SD card slot. It’s not bad-looking, and it resembles the Zen Vision in many of the right ways. But its boatload of features and attractive interface — not to mention reasonable price — are offset by a few flaws. Then again, it comes in a 16GB version (in addition to 4GB and 8GB), so that may be reason enough to buy for many.

The Zen measures 3.26 x 2.16 x 0.44 inches, but weighs a scant 2.1 ounces. It feels slightly bulky, but what do you expect from a player with a full-size SD card slot and roomy 2.5-inch screen, which rivals that of the 5G iPod in size but supports more colors? The glossy black plastic front gets schmutzed up with fingerprints faster than a subway pole, but it’s complemented nicely by the matte black finish on the back.

The buttons to the right of the screen are laid out very similar to those of the 30GB Zen Vision. But they aren’t backlit, so it can be difficult to know what you’re doing in broad daylight or total darkness (even with the screen glow) unless you’ve memorized the button layout. There’s a pinhole mic on top next to the card slot for making voice recordings, and the sync connector on the right next to the headphone jack and power/hold switch is a standard USB 2.0 mini-plug — no proprietary cables!

Startup time isn’t excruciatingly slow like with the SanDisk Sansa e200 series, but it’s not particularly speedy like the iPod’s instant-on capability. I love that the main menu is easily customizable, as is the wallpaper, and the icons are very clear and attractive. You can assign a function to the Shortcut button, which is one of the Zen’s handiest features.

My biggest complaint is that the buttons aren’t very responsive; it often took me a few taps on the same button to get something to happen, particularly with the Back button. Also, there’s a noticeable lag with most functions, except for browsing content, which is speedy enough and helped by the ability to jump to a specific initial letter. Then again many times I get early units for review, so hopefully Creative will tighten that up as production goes on.

Audio performance is excellent, with no audible flaws on any of the test tracks I listened to. I selections by Stevie Wonder, Interpol, Stravinsky, McCoy Tyner, Led Zeppelin, and John Coltrane. Interestingly, the player supports AAC files as well as WMA, protected WMA, MP3, WAV, and Audible; it’ll work with tracks from the iTunes Plus music store, but not Apple’s DRM-laden offerings.

Despite supporting 16.7 million colors, photos and videos look a bit washed out on the Zen’s 320 x 240-pixel screen. I transferred photos via WMP 11 with no problems, but videos require conversion to WMV format, which WMP handles automatically. The resulting video was passable, though there’s a lot of blotchiness in large dark areas, and the screen doesn’t give you “true” blacks. If you stop a video and go to some other mode, you can jump right back into your movie where you left off.

You can transfer videos in Windows Explorer via drag and drop, but they’ve got to conform to the Zen’s fairly stringent size requirements, unlike its more flexible big brother the Zen Vision:M. Videos can’t be bigger than 320 x 240, and they’ve got to be in MPEG-4 (SP), DivX, or XviD formats. All of the videos I had lying around (mostly in 640 x 480 resolution) needed to be transcoded.

Creative rates the non-removable battery’s life at around 25 hours of audio and 5 hours of video per charge. Those are respectable numbers, giving it roughly the same playback times as the “fat” iPod nano. Expect about 15-18 hours with normal use, unless you watch lots of video.

Voice recordings are in WAV format and sound very clear despite their low bit rate. The on-screen mic levels are handy, though you can’t adjust sensitivity. The FM tuner works very well and had little or no trouble picking up even weaker stations around New York City. You can also sync the Zen with Microsoft Outlook so you can read your calendar and task list, and it has a built-in alarm clock.

Creative’s DJ feature is great if you have a tough time deciding for yourself what to listen to; it picks out things like Album of the Day and Rarely Heard, and you can set it to one-touch access via the shortcut button. Of course, the player works fine with online music subscription services (Rhapsody et al) too, in case FM radio or a virtual DJ aren’t enough for you.

Creative has been coming on strong with aggressive pricing — $249.99 for 16GB, $199.99 for 8GB, and $129.99 for 4GB are damn fine deals. Having a sexy player in my pocket with twice the storage of an iPod nano plus FM radio, voice recording, an SD slot, and AAC support is pretty bitchin’. There are even a handful of accessories for it from Creative, including an armband and a few cases.

It’s a shame they didn’t make the Zen Mac-compatible or give it sweet earbuds like Sony did with the Walkman A818, but the screen size makes for almost-comfortable video watching and it’s…well… shiny. But if you don’t care so much about video, expandable storage, or AAC, you might as well go for the Zen V Plus, which is just as shiny but smaller.