It has a bigger screen for watching videos. It has expandable memory. And it offers little perks that the new iPod nano doesn't have, like an FM radio and voice recorder. It even supports iTunes' unprotected AAC format. Add it all up and what do you have? More than just another nano also-ran, especially since it's $20 less than Apple's latest player. The controls and interface could be better, but if you're into watching video on the go, the Zen is worth a look.
The credit card-sized Creative Zen is an attractive but somewhat cheap-feeling PMP with a glossy black face that quickly collects fingerprints. At 3.2 x 2.1 x 0.4 inches and 2.1 ounces, it's noticeably larger and heavier than Apple's latest iPod nano (2.8 x 2.1 x 0.3 inches and 1.7 ounces), but with the extra girth comes a larger screen (2.5 inches vs. 2 inches) that can display 16.7 million colors. Plus, you get an SD Card slot for loading additional content even after you've maxed out the onboard memory. We tested a 4GB model ($129), but the Zen is available in 8GB ($199) and 16GB ($249) versions.
Unfortunately, the Zen takes almost 30 seconds to boot up. In today's need-it-now digital world, that half a minute felt like an eternity. Once we arrived at the main menu, we loaded our 4GB unit with several homemade AVI and MPEG-4 movie files, as well as Best of Comedy Central Stand-Up: Dane Cook, which we purchased from Amazon Unbox. (Note that Unbox will soon be the exclusive home for new episodes of hit NBC TV shows like Heroes and The Office thanks to a falling out between Apple and NBC Universal.) Our video looked pretty good on the Zen; colors were sharp, and the footage played back smoothly. When we played the same Dane Cook clip on the nano, it looked crisper and a tad brighter but too small.
Initially, navigation was confusing. For instance, the button in the middle of the directional pad doesn't pause a song like you might expect; instead, it launches a screen that lets you enjoy a bigger album art image. Yippee! There's a separate Play/Pause key beneath the D-pad. The D-pad lets you adjust the volume and gives you the option to rate tracks on a five-star scale. You also won't find a dedicated home button. To get back to the main menu you have to press and hold the Back button above the D-pad. It took us about ten minutes to get acclimated to the controls. On the plus side, we like that you can program a shortcut button to do everything from start and stop voice recordings to activate a Random Play All.
The Zen is compatible with content from AOL MusicNow, AOL Video, Napster, and Walmart.com, but because this is Creative's first digital audio player to support unprotected AAC files, we decided to test its compatibility by downloading The Beastie Boys' "So What'cha Want" from iTunes Plus. After transferring the $1.29 song to the player, we were soon grooving along to the DRM-free track. The Zen's sound quality was quite good, and we liked that the included earbuds were able to drown out the din of Midtown Manhattan; however, they're made of hard plastic and are just as uncomfortable as Apple's.
The built-in FM radio offers 32 presets, but the static-filled reception kept us returning to our audio files. Creative also tosses in a voice recorder. The included ZENcast Organizer software makes for easy downloads of free podcasts and videocasts from Make Magazine, Reuters Business News, NBC 15 Sports, and other content providers with just the click of a button, although some videos needed to be converted into compatible formats.
The Zen comes bundled with the Creative Media Explorer software package, which lets users manage playlists, rip CDs, transcode video, sync with Outlook, add iTunes files, and more. Unfortunately, this software is also required to create slideshows since you can't make them on the player. You can, however, listen to music while viewing photos, rating tracks, and navigating menus. According to Creative, users should expect 25 hours of audio playback on a charge and 5 hours for video; we'll update this review once we've had an opportunity to test those claims.
Creative missed the mark in terms of ease of use, and we hate the long bootup time. Plus, the nano offers a much sleeker and more elegant design. Nevertheless, mobile video mavens may prefer this device because it offers a bigger screen and expandable storage for a lower price.
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