Creative Zen Sleek: solid but uninspiring
Not to sound like a broken record, but there's a reason why Apple's iPod dominates the MP3 landscape like King Kong dominates Skull Island--its intuitive design and seamless relationship with iTunes make it accessible to the majority of consumers. Competitors such as the Creative Zen Sleek ($270) strive to make themselves different by adding appealing extras, which include an FM tuner, voice recording, and compatibility with subscription services. Despite the fact that the 20GB replacement for the aging Zen Touch has these features, along with crystal-clear sound quality, the overall package is uninspiring; however, it's the right fit for those seeking a high-capacity audio-only WMA player on the cheap. Those looking for a polished high-capacity player that plays video should check out Creative's Zen Vision:M. The is now a discontinued product. At 4 by 2.3 by 0.7 inches and 5.8 ounces, the metallic silver (with white accents) Creative Zen Sleek is iPod-size but much thicker. It's durable, solid, and sleek to the touch, and its 2-inch blue-backlit monochrome display is bright and large enough so that song and menu information is not squeezed--though the overall design does have a retro look about it. The vertical touch pad made famous on Creative's own Zen Touch and Zen Micro, as well as iRiver's H10, is slightly easier to handle than pads of past, and thankfully, the other controller buttons are tactile. These controller buttons fit the standard Zen mode: rewind and forward buttons up top flanking the play/pause buttons. Down below are the Back button and the contextual menu button, which is where you go to create on-the-fly playlists. The top of the Zen Sleek includes the microphone, the headphone jack, the hold switch, and the power button. Unlike the Zen Touch, the Sleek has no dedicated volume controls.
We must point out that the proprietary dock-connector system can be a royal pain, since the USB cable also integrates the power input. Although you can power the Creative Zen Sleek via USB, you'll need to carry two cables to get fast charging on the go. In some cases, you'll be charging up the Sleek with the attached USB cable inelegantly hanging off your player.
The Creative Zen Sleek ships with decent white earbuds, a power adapter, a USB cable-to-dock connection cable, a software CD, and a protective soft pouch. You can opt for the optional wired remote ($20) or the docking station ($40).Functionally, the Creative Zen Sleek interface is standard enough to be intuitive the first try, though the player features a submenu button that gives users choices depending on what mode they're in. The Zen Sleek will play back MP3, WMA, WAV, and Audible files, and it's compatible with music store purchases and subscription files. You should update your Sleek to the latest firmware (2.01.03) if you haven't already.
Conveniently, the Creative Zen Sleek offers an FM radio with 32 presets and the ability to record radio content. The voice recorder gives the Zen Sleek an additional edge over the iPod(the iPod can't record without extra accessories), but most other WMA competitors have included features such as recording and an FM tuner. Those looking for extras such as photo viewing or video playback should try elsewhere. Needless to say, you won't get album art on this model.
Like most Creative offerings, the Creative Zen Sleek lets you sync with Outlook calendar, tasks, and contact information. The device ships with Creative MediaSource Player/Organizer and Zen Media Explorer, but its works best with Windows Media Player 10 for most tasks. You can also customize your menu by bringing oft-used options to the top menu.The Zen Sleek has excellent data transfer speeds. Our test MP3s traveled to our Sleek via USB 2.0 at a charged 5.9MB per second. Overall, system performance is nice and smooth, though the touch pad might be a bit too sensitive for some folks, no matter how much time they've spent with it.
We did notice the Creative Zen Sleek's proclivity to slip into shut-down mode of its own accord, then freezing up before completing the shutdown. We weren't curious about the inclusion of a reset pinhole next to the docking port on the bottom of the player for very long.
On a positive note, the Creative Zen Sleek supplies big and crystal-clean 97dB signal-to-noise sound, plenty of volume, a "smart" volume setting to compensate for uneven digital modulation, and a variety of music-specific EQs to personalize your sound. The FM radio provides good separation between stations, a must in Manhattan and other frequency-filled metro areas, and a bit of tinkering led us to the correct method of setting the copious 32 presets. Battery life is rated for 18 hours, which is decent but is nothing compared with that of the Cowon iAudio X5, the Cowon X5L, the Sony HD5, and a few other high-capacity competitors.