Editors' note: The body of this review has been updated to reflect added memory options and significant price drops.
In a move that surprised many a Creative fan, the company has ushered in a flash-based replacement for its Zen Vision:M, a full-size, hard-drive player that offered up to 60GB of space. Though the news was not well-received by some proponents of carting around a large library of tracks, those who give the new player--dubbed simply the Zen--a chance will find that it's a completely worthy follow-up to its chunky predecessor. This new Zen--which comes in 2GB ($79.99), 4GB ($99.99), 8GB ($129.99), 16GB ($199.99), and 32GB ($299.99) versions--may not hold as much media as the 60GB Vision:M, but it offers the same, lovely screen in a much smaller body, and it packs in a couple of new features for good measure. Plus, it's an incredible value for the price.
It's all about sleek understatement
Creative has gained somewhat of a reputation for putting MP3 players in a vast array of colors, so it comes as a bit of a shock (and maybe a letdown, for some) that the Zen will be offered in just one: black. Still, it must be said that black does make an excellent frame for the awesome 2.5-inch TFT screen, which is capable of displaying 16.7 million colors. Also, while the design might not be as innovative as that of the iPod Touch and iRiver Clix--or as cute or as eye-catching as that of previous family members--the Zen has a certain understated elegance with its shiny face and brushed-metal backside. It's like a smaller, sleeker version of the Vision.
Despite its ample screen, the Zen is pleasantly compact. At just 3.3 inches by 2.1 inches by 0.4 inch, it's about 60 percent smaller than the Vision:M and it's definitely pocket-friendly. We're also pleased to note that Creative didn't skimp on the controls and has migrated completely to the user-friendly tactile variety. Main functions are handled by a four-way control square surrounding a center select button. This is flanked on the top by a back/contextual menu rocker and on the bottom by a shortcut and play/pause toggle. Sadly, there's no dedicated volume control, but the right edge of the Zen houses the ever-handy hold/power switch along with a standard mini-USB port and 3.5mm headphone jack. The reset and mic holes can be found on the bottom and top spines, respectively.
Fun features for all
Exploring the top side of the Zen also reveals one of the new extras we alluded to earlier. In another departure from the norm, Creative has built in an SD card expansion slot--a first for its MP3 players. We're happy to report that the slot can take SDHC cards, which currently go up to 16GB in the full-size SD variety. (Of course, at a price that exceeds the 16GB Zen itself, those are a bit cost-prohibitive at the moment.) Considering the move away from more capacious hard drive memory, we definitely think the addition of memory expansion was a wise--and necessary--move.
Another new feature to be found on this Zen is its support of unprotected AAC files, meaning it will play back iTunesPlus tracks, though you can't use iTunes to transfer them. The player can sync via drag-and-drop in Windows Explorer, or you can use a jukebox such as Windows Media Player or Rhapsody. Like its other family members, this Zen also supports MP3, WAV, Audible, and both protected and unprotected WMA tracks. Unfortunately, it also shares Mac incompatibility with the other players in its line. Photos must be in JPEG format, which Windows Media Player can convert to automatically during syncing. On the video side, the Zen plays WMV and Motion JPEG out of the box and MPEG4, DiVX, and XViD with conversion. Creative includes an app--Zen Media Explorer--which can take care of the conversion painlessly and (somewhat) quickly.
In addition to its media capabilities, the Zen includes Creative's usual impressive array of features, though it's worth noting that there is no line-in recording for audio or video (the latter in particular would have been a nice touch). You do get voice recording and an FM radio with autoscan and 32 preset slots. There's also basic PIM functionality: you can sync contacts, tasks, and calendar info from Outlook to the device. Plus, you get the usual shuffle and repeat playback modes, handy contextual menus, and the ability to search for artists and songs as well as rate songs on the fly and set up to 10 bookmarks. Nine preset EQs, a five-band, user-definable mode, and a bass boost function ensure that you can adjust sound to your liking.
But it's the fun visual display option that set the Zen line apart. Album art can be viewed as a thumbnail or in full-screen mode on the playback display, and Creative includes various themes for interface customization. You can also set any image on the player as wallpaper, and the photo-browsing experience is great: there's a 5x4 thumbnail grid and each one magnifies as you scroll over it. Naturally, you can view photos and slide shows while listening to music. There's even a nifty, semi-split-screen deal on the main menu that cycles through album art, photos, or video image clips, depending on which media type you are browsing.
No two ways about it: the Zen's screen is fabulous. Photos look vibrant and bright, with excellent color saturation and good detail. Videos are similarly impressive--clear and bright with no noticeable pixilation (though we did notice the occasional blurring around some sharp edges)--and the viewing angle from side to side is excellent. Even the interface looks stellar, right down to the transparent icons on the main menu. It's a nice screen to look at for sure.
Frankly, we've come to expect stellar audio quality from Creative's MP3 players, and the Zen did not disappoint--once we swapped in the Shure SE530 headphones. (For their part, the included headphones were passable.) Perhaps the best thing is that all genres of music sound equally great. The bass of Zeb's disco house track "Disco Patel" was tight and enveloping without overshadowing the sparkle of the high hat and minute ting of the triangle. In the Bangles' high-end heavy intro to "Hazy Shade of Winter," the detail of each instrument was crystal clear, and the relatively quiet Spanish guitar was not lost among the frantic chorus of the rest of the track. Overall, music was rich, warm, and detailed...and it just made us happy.
The Creative Zen also boasts plenty of volume to drive a full-size set of 'phones--we only had it up to about a third with some noise-isolating buds. The rated battery life of 25 hours for audio and 5 hours for video is solid, and CNET Labs pretty much matched these estimates at 24.7 hours and 5.6 hours, respectively. It may not be the longest-lasting battery on the market, but the Zen certainly offers a good value with its lovely screen, nice sound, and good combination of features