As a music player, the Zen offers the usual amenities and then some: on-device playlist creation; shuffle and repeat modes; support for up to 10 bookmarks; eight equalizer presets and a five-band custom setting; and a bass-boost feature. Its cool DJ feature can serve up Album of the Day, Random Play All, Most Popular (based on your ratings), and Rarely Heard. We particularly like the Smart Volume option, which keeps volume levels consistent across all your tracks. However, the Zen doesn't display album art, a disappointing waste of its jaw-dropping screen. It shows each song's genre and year alongside the usual track name, artist name, album info, and so on, but it's not uncommon for ID3 tags to lack these designations, so don't be surprised to see Other or Unknown listed for genre and 0000 for year. It would be nice if the Zen let you choose what ID3-tag info to display.
On the plus side, the Zen lets you listen to your tunes while viewing a slide show of your photos. Obviously, you can also browse and view photos individually, even marking favorites for a custom slide show. However, when selecting the My Slideshows option, the Zen 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, nor does the help file include any reference to slide shows. It's another instance of incomplete documentation.
The Zen provides solid FM radio features, including a lightning-fast autoscan that fills as many of the 32 available preset slots as possible. You can also manually add presets; assign names to the stations; and record any broadcast just by pressing and holding the play/pause button. Alas, the Zen lacks a timer for scheduled recordings, a feature we really wish it had.
Creative's Sync Manager makes simple work of copying your Outlook data such as contacts, appointments, and tasks to the Zen, though sync is something of a misnomer: It's a one-way transfer, and it doesn't happen automatically; you have to sync every time you want to copy the latest data from Outlook. On the Zen itself, you can view your data, but there's no option to edit or sort it.
The Zen Vision Media Explorer program handles most PC-to-Zen connectivity chores, including creating and managing playlists, converting video files, ripping audio CDs, and Outlook/media synchronization. For most music-related tasks, however, you'll want Creative's MediaSource Organizer, a basic but handy music manager. Interestingly, if you want to use the Zen as a portable hard drive, you have to allocate a chunk of space--anywhere from 512MB to 16GB--for that purpose. Then Windows Explorer can drag and drop files to and from the Zen, no drivers required.The Creative Zen Vision leverages its VGA screen to deliver incredibly crisp, colorful video. We've never seen an episode of The Simpsons look so vibrant on a portable device. Likewise, the added resolution (four times what you get from a typical 320x240-pixel PVP screen) vastly improves content that might otherwise be poorly suited to a small screen. We loaded up Robin Williams on Broadway, which includes a number of pull-back shots of the stage, but still managed to see the comic legend in all his frenetic glory. Even a movie such as Lord of the Rings, with its innumerable wide-angle action sequences, looks dramatically better on the Creative Zen Vision than on players with lower-resolution screens.
However, after all the hassles we experienced copying TiVo recordings to the Zen via Windows Media Player, we were aggravated to discover that playback was extremely choppy. Thankfully, files converted by Video Vault PVP played just fine, as did various AVI and MPEG files converted by Creative Media Explorer.
Keep in mind that the process can be painfully slow for videos that require conversion. For example, it took us about two hours to convert a one-hour DivX file. At least music transfers are relatively speedy: using Media Explorer, we copied our 10GB song library to the Zen in about 35 minutes. For the record, Windows Media Player took 10 minutes more to do the job.
Once we started listening to music on the Zen, we didn't want to stop. It cranks out full, resonant audio at an unusually high 97dB signal-to-noise ratio. We were particularly impressed by Creative's stellar-sounding foam-padded earbuds. For once we didn't immediately reach for our favorite headphones instead. And the built-in speaker sounds better than you'd expect.
FM radio reception was good but not great; even outdoors, we had a hard time pulling in stations that came through loud and clear on a car stereo. In our tests of the voice recorder, we had to hold the Creative Zen Vision close to our mouth to achieve good recording volume. You'll have to forget about using it to record, say, a lecture; the mic just isn't sensitive enough. We also felt that occasionally, the processor had a hard time keeping up with our navigation commands, whether we skipped through tracks or surfed from menu to menu. These delays usually last for only a second but are definitely noticeable.
Creative promises up to 4.5 hours of movie playback time and 13 hours of music from the Zen's removable lithium-ion battery. CNET Lab tests confirmed the rated battery life for video, which came in at 4.4 hours. Not bad, but in our audio drain tests, we consistently got around 8.2 hours, far short of Creative's claims and much too low for our ears. An optional extended-life battery ($70), available in white or black, promises to double playback time.