Another competitor enters the ring
Zen 4GB Manufacturer: Creative (product site)
System requirements: Windows XP (Service Pack 2) or Windows Vista, USB 1.1 or 2.0, 130MB hard drive space
Supported file formats: Audio: MP3, WMA, AAC (.m4A), WAV (ADPCM), Audible 2,3,4 Video: MJPEG, WMV9, MPEG4-SP, DivX 4/5 and XviD
Price: $129.99 (4GB), $199 (8GB) $249.99 (16GB) — Shop.Ars
Why does it seem like these days there is a constant stream of personal media players (PMPs)? Since Jacqui Cheng isn't reviewing this, we know it's not an Apple product, and since that's the case, we know it's going to have an uphill battle against the newest line of iPods. The new Creative Zens are something of a budget line of media players; the 4GB model comes with a 2.5-inch screen and will only cost you $129.99, so it's not a wallet-bruiser by any means. It also features an SD card slot so you can expand its capacity, and the list of file types supported is rather extensive… this thing may have some promise after all.
That's the thing with reviewing PMPs though: they all look good on paper. They all have beautiful screens, a lot of impressive features, and of course they have 3D product demos on Flash-heavy web sites. You can tell almost nothing about a PMP until you've spent a significant amount of time actually living with it. You have to fight with the blister pack for an hour or so, get your media player out, and leave the house. It's only when you come back a few days later that you know if you have something that's worth the money.
So is the Zen worth the $130? Should you just buy one of the new iPod nanos and call it a day? This is what we're here to find out.
What does a budget personal media player feel like these days?
Lookit all the BUTTONS! Shiny
Taking the Zen out of its package—and again, blister packs all need to die—the first striking thing is that unlike the iPod's paradigm of vertically-oriented media players, the Zen is held horizontally, with the buttons on the right side of the device. The Zen has the directional buttons with the select button in the middle, as does every good media player in the Apple era, but it also features four other buttons, two below the square and two above it. These days any button seems like an anachronism, so the face of the Zen can feel a little intimidating with the high number of buttons. Another annoyance is that the buttons aren't backlit; if you're in the dark, you had better hope you know what you’re doing.
The Zen uses a single mini USB port to both charge the unit and import content; no proprietary cables needed. On the right side of the unit you have a slider that locks the unit or shuts it down as well as the headphone jack. The SD card slot and the pinhole microphone are on the top of the device.
The face is made out of that shiny plastic that attracts fingerprints at an alarming rate, but the back is a smooth, matte plastic that I found very attractive; I wish that were the material they used for the entire thing. Being a flash-based player, it feels very light in your hand. With a flick of the slider, let’s turn the unit on and see how it plays.
Pigs in Zen
The first sign isn't a good one. It took a little longer than what I found comfortable to boot up, about ten seconds from button press to menu appearance. That might not sound like a long time in print, but when you're on the go, the wait for a menu and then choosing a song or a video can be annoying.
The top menu itself is pretty simple; you choose Music, Photos, Microphone, Video, FM Radio, Extras, Memory Card, or Settings. You can choose from a selection of backgrounds for the player, or you can use one of your own pictures; a nice touch. Using the up and down buttons to navigate the menus, you'll notice that things feel a little slushy; the system is not as responsive as I would like. You get used to it after a while, but if you like your portable devices snappy and responsive, this could be a sore spot. An icon in the upper right-hand corner lets you know how much battery life you have left.
I decided to start with audio: if a player can do audio and video well, the rest is gravy. I've said it before, and I'll repeat it here—the first thing you should do with any portable music player is to destroy the pack-in earphones (the "icky-icky noes" as I refer to them). We'll be using the Shure E2cs to see how things sound. While there are many good, low-cost MP3 players that can output good sound, skimping on headphones is never a good idea. In fact, the first thing I noticed was that the bass response for the songs seemed to be a little on the weak side, so I went all the way out to the main menu, went to the system settings, and turned on bass boost and fiddled with the EQ settings. The EQ has a few preset options, your basic "Rock" and "Pop" options and the like, or you can adjust things manually.
The interface works, but you may have to wrestle with it in the beginning (custom background. I am not Sam)
After a few minutes of leaving the controls alone, the player snapped back to the audio section of the menu. So far, so good. The option key allows you to create playlists, look up other songs by the performer in your library, change the play mode to album only or shuffle, and a few more options. The menus are all relatively easy to use, but they do take a few more button presses and searching than similar players; while the Zen is very usable, I don't think anyone is going to call it elegant.
Still, with a little practice, setting up a playlist and then setting the player to locked mode so you can put in your pocket is pretty easy. Of course, these button presses can get a little complicated while you're learning the ins and outs of the system and you're not in a well-lit place; again, those buttons aren't backlit. What an odd place to cut costs.
A slight learning curve isn't enough to sour me on the player when it comes to audio. Songs sound great; you have a lot of options for playback and many EQ settings to play with. Not bad for $130, and even more impressive is the array of file formats you can play. MP3s are a go, as are WMA files, WAV files, the Audible format, and even DRM-free AAC tracks from iTunes Plus will play. You can also listen to your music while looking at your pictures in slideshow mode, which Creative proudly touts as being a "dual-task delight" on its web site. Does this appeal to anyone outside of sad sacks who have been recently dumped and want to look at pictures of their exes while listening to R.E.M.'s Lifes Rich Pageant over and over?
Maybe not, but you can do it, and damn it, it's worth pointing out.