This year promises to bring any number of Vision:M-compatible services, so it probably won't be long before a few simple clicks stock the player with TV, music videos, and even feature-length movies. A good example is Starz Vongo, a new flat-rate movie-download service that's compatible with Portable Media Center devices. The Vision:M isn't one of them, but we suspect the service will soon broaden its device support to include PlaysForSure devices. In addition, you can currently visit MSN Video Downloads to get free news and entertainment clips for your Vision:M, and you can find content on Google Video as well. The video-content universe for WMV devices is indeed growing.
In the meantime, the Vision:M supports a much wider variety of video formats than the iPod: DivX, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, WMV, and XviD among them. Users who already have a library of videos will find it relatively easy to copy them to the player: Creative's software automatically converts the files that require it. What's more, the Vision:M isn't entirely without downloadable-content options. In beta at the time of this writing, Creative's new ZenCast service provides easy access to podcasts (here dubbed ZenCasts, natch) of both the audio and video variety. Armed with a free download of ZenCast Manager, you can stock your player with popular 'casts such as Rocketboom, 60 Minutes, and Tiki Bar TV. If you want a podcast that's not already in the large ZenCast directory, just click Subscribe and paste in its address.
However, ZenCast Manager is symptomatic of a typical Creative problem: scattershot software. Instead of integrating everything under one roof, as Apple has done with iTunes, Creative forces you to use four separate programs: ZenCast Manager, Media Explorer, MediaSource Organizer, and Sync Manager. They're all simple, capable applications, but we wish Creative would unify them into a single program. We also wish the company would provide more documentation. The included 30-page manual covers only the basics, and there's no expanded, supplemental PDF to view on your PC--only a text-heavy help file for Media Explorer. There's no documentation at all for ZenCast, online or elsewhere, though that's likely because of the newness of the service.
Software and documentation notwithstanding, you're sure to enjoy the Vision:M's various secondary features. Its lightning-fast FM tuner, for instance, fills as many of the 32 available preset slots as possible. You can also manually add presets, assign names to the stations (though navigating the onscreen keyboard is no fun), and record any broadcast just by pressing and holding the play/pause button. Alas, the Vision:M lacks a timer for scheduled recordings--a feature we really wish it had. What's more, you have no control over recording quality: all FM recordings are saved as four-bit, 22KHz WAV files. Voice recordings, meanwhile, become four-bit, 16KHz WAV files. The Vision:M has no provision for recording from line-in sources.
The Vision:M does, however, let you listen to your tunes while viewing a slide show of your photos. You can also browse and view photos individually, even marking favorites for a custom slide show. However, when selecting the My Slideshows option, the Vision:M refers you to Creative's Media Explorer utility for creating slide shows on your PC. Problem is, there's no such option in that software. You have to delve into the help file to find out how to create custom slide shows (which, thankfully, is drag-and-drop easy).
Creative's Sync Manager makes simple work of copying your Outlook contacts, appointments, and tasks to the Vision:M, though Sync is something of a misnomer: it's really a one-way transfer, and it doesn't happen automatically--you have to sync each time you want to copy the latest data from Outlook. A newer, system tray-resident version of Sync Manager promises to remedy that issue, but currently, Creative was still shaking out the bugs. You can view your data on the Vision:M itself, but there's no option to edit or sort it. Also, there's no way to password-protect it--something to keep in mind if you're carrying sensitive info.
Lest we forget, the Vision:M is first and foremost a music player, and it's no slouch in that department. It features on-device playlist creation; support for up to 10 bookmarks; eight equalizer presets and a five-band custom setting; and a bass-boost feature. The Vision:M's "DJ" can spin Album of the Day and Random Play All, as well as Most Popular and Rarely Heard tracks. We particularly like the Smart Volume option, which keeps volume levels consistent across all your tracks. As a bonus, the Vision:M displays album art--something its big-screen predecessor, the Zen Vision, didn't do. Also new to the mix is a Lookup Artist option, which takes you to the artist listing for whatever track is playing, and Purchase This, which queues the current track for possible purchase (if you're listening to it on a subscriber basis) the next time you sync with Windows Media Player 10.
In addition to the usual accessories--earbuds, a software CD, and a USB cable--Creative supplies a goofy soft-sided drawstring carrying pouch. We think most users would prefer an armband or a belt-clip case. Missing from the package is an A/V-out cable for connecting the Vision:M to your TV. It's available separately for $18.99.Using the Creative Zen Vision:M is a treat. It takes only a few seconds to start up (though sometimes it takes a bit longer, which we don't understand)--a nice change from its slowpoke predecessor, the Zen Vision. Likewise, its menus are snappy and its controls responsive, even when you're shuffling through subscription tracks--a notoriously processor-intensive process. As with most hard drive-based players, songs and videos don't start the moment you press Play; there's usually a delay of a couple of seconds, but we found it negligible. Even when queuing up 2,500 tracks for random play, the Vision:M keeps you waiting only four to five seconds.
Video playback was buttery smooth, without so much as a dropped frame. Your mileage may vary depending on the source material, but we found that even action scenes in various movies and TV shows played smoothly while maintaining a sharp picture. Many PVPs tend to blur the action.
As we've come to expect from Creative players, the Vision:M sounds outstanding, thanks in no small part to its 97dB signal-to-noise ratio. That translates to audio that can get plenty loud without introducing any noise, and our earsplitting experiences bear out the numbers. Creative's foam-padded earbuds allowed us to listen in relative comfort, though we enjoyed better sound quality when we switched to our reference Shure E3c 'buds.
FM radio came through loud and clear, with better reception than we expected in indoor environments. Even in a basement, we were able to pull in several local stations. And when the signal was good, our FM recordings sounded splendid. In voice recordings, on the other hand, background noise often manifested itself as a faint hum or whine. It's livable, but a bit distracting, especially if you're listening to a long recording.
When we used Sync Manager to copy over our library of 2,500 MP3s, the process took more than an hour--quite a bit longer than we thought it would, given the Vision:M's USB 2.0 connection. Similarly, the newer beta version of Sync Manager seemed sluggish in copying a handful of video podcasts, though this was most likely because it was converting them to the proper format. Raw transfer time of MP3s to the Zen Vision:M was a brisk 5.95MB per second over USB 2.0.
Battery life is rated at 14 hours for audio--a decent but not spectacular number--and 4 hours for video, which is nearly twice the iPod's current video battery life. If you're really into video, that extra battery life makes a world of difference, as we have consistently run out of juice prematurely when multitasking with an iPod. CNET Labs was able to coax 15.9 hours per charge out of the Zen Vision:M when playing back MP3s and with the LCD turning off after 10 seconds (you must activate the hold switch in order to make the screen go dark; otherwise, the screen will simply dim and eat up more battery life). Video playback lasted about 5 hours, another reason that the Zen Vision:M is a prime-time video player. Finally, playing back subscription-based WMA files, the Zen Vision:M's battery life notably came in at 12 hours, about 3 hours less than standard MP3 playback. Subscription battery life is a figure that should become more prominent as the associated services become more popular.