The shameful truth, whispered between electrical engineers in hermetically sealed corridors, is that MP3 players are measured not only by their own worth, but how they compare to the market leader. It's impossible for a consumer to ignore the comparison, so we won't pretend the Creative Zen Vision:M exists in a vacuum.
The Zen Vision:M has received an extremely warm reception from critics. Though it's not as small as the new iPod, and its interface doesn't trump the Clickwheel, the 30GB Zen Vision:M is a real video player -- while on the iPod, video remains a novelty. The difficulty iPod users face in transferring full-length video, and the limited video-playback battery life of the iPod, make the Zen Vision:M a much more viable choice for video on the move.
If you're disappointed by the new iPod's limited video functionality, and want an almost iPod-sized portable video player, this is it. Many of the features on the Zen Vision:M match those you'd find on a dedicated portable PVR like those from Archos. The iPod may be slightly cheaper at £219 (for the 30GB version) to the Zen Vision:M's £250, but Apple only dips its toes in the video shallows, whereas Creative has taken a determined cliff-dive into the waters. So, could this be the video MP3 player we've been waiting for?
The Zen Vision:M has exactly the same footprint as the iPod, but is thicker than its rival by 7mm -- making it easy to slip into your pocket, but not quite as svelte as Apple's player. It's also a barely-perceptible 3g heavier. The screens on both players are identically sized, but a big difference reveals itself when the Zen Vision:M is switched on: it has a 262k colour screen, where the iPod can only display a paltry 64k.
This is the first clue about the Zen Vision:M's more serious AV intentions; the second is the video cable Creative sent us. This allows you to stream video from the Zen Vision:M onto a full-sized television screen. Apple's AV cable is an extra £15, and the resolution of iPod-formatted video is so low you wouldn't want to watch it on TV anyway. The Zen Vision:M's cable attaches to the slim port in the base of the player.
At the base of the player there's an ominous reset button, and on the top edge there's a power on/hold button and a standard headphone socket. The coating on the Zen Vision:M is no more scratch resistant than the iPod's. Although neither player is as volatile as the notorious iPod nano, you'd be advised to carry it in a pouch. After two weeks of fairly casual treatment, the Zen Vision:M was covered in fine scratches, but this is true of every glossy consumer electronic device, from the PSP to mobile phones.
The Zen Vision:M uses mechanical buttons and a central thumb pad to navigate tracks. This leaves the front panel looking less integrated than the iPod's. Apple's patent on the Clickwheel system means the challenge is still on for another manufacturer to design a more intuitive system. Creative's thumb-pad is good, but not perfect -- more on that later.
The menus on the Zen Vision:M will be familiar to anyone who's used a Creative media player before, or indeed an iPod. They're easy to navigate, using a simple hierarchical structure where clicking on an item opens up a series of further items -- pictures, songs or videos.
There's also the option to instantly jump forward to files, based on the first letter of their title. As your library expands to an unwieldy maximum of around 15,000 tracks (WMA), or 120 hours of video, this becomes increasingly useful.
Transferring files to the player is done either via Windows Media Player 10 or through Creative's proprietary software, Zen Vision:M Media Explorer. The majority of users will opt for Windows Media Player, since this is well integrated with the Windows OS. This will, however, restrict you to using the WMA format, which is debatably inferior to high-bit-rate MP3.
Photographers will find the Zen Vision:M offers several advantages over the photographic capabilities of the iPod, including support for 8-megapixel images and a zoom function.
The overwhelming reason to consider the Zen Vision:M over the iPod is its superior video-playing capabilities. Creative's player can playback MPEG2, MPEG4, Xvid and WMV among others. Those formats that the player cannot natively support are usually easy to re-encode to a compatible format using the bundled software.
The BBC, Napster and 7 digital are three media organisations offering clips and shows to UK users that will play on the Zen Vision:M. Currently, the BBC's interactive media player is still on trial, but will launch properly this year, providing a wealth of new material for all those happy new Zen Vision:M owners.
Those who want to play video on a bigger screen can use Creative's AV lead to connect the Zen Vision:M to a full-sized television set, as we mentioned. Output is 640x480 pixels, which is more than enough for traditional televisions, and certainly a huge improvement over the 320x240-pixel resolution of the iPod.
Audio playback on the Zen Vision:M is clean and uncoloured -- this is the kind of performance we like from an MP3 player. The Zen Vision:M left Jack Johnson sounding much like he does through headphones on our NAD reference system. Upgrading the headphones on the Zen Vision:M from Creative's stock-issue 'phones pushes the audio quality into iPod territory.
Casual listening reveals little difference between the iPod and the Zen Vision:M on the majority of tracks. Preference is more a matter of taste than any specific deficiencies in either player -- essentially they are equally capable at music playback without distortion or unwanted emphasis.
If you like cranking your MP3 player into realms that guarantee later-life tinnitus, you'll be pleased to learn that the Zen Vision:M is capable of the same dangerous volumes that the iPod can generate when driven hard. The Vision:M certainly left us slightly shaken at full volume -- we could tolerate the sound level for a few seconds before it became physically punishing.
Where the Vision:M trumps the iPod is video playback. In every sense this is a fully fledged portable video player. Admittedly Apple held back on proclaiming the video iPod to be a true portable video player, but given its comparative size, the Zen Vision:M embarrasses the iPod because it does portable video properly, whereas the iPod dabbles in it.
The Zen Vision:M's 4 hour battery life makes full-length movie watching a feasible enterprise. The iPod can scrape 2.5 hours. There is, however, one caveat with the Zen Vision:M, and that's the navigation controls on the unit. Despite its far superior feature set, the Zen Vision:M's thumbwheel is initially frustrating to use, and later just irritating on occasion. We often found ourselves accidentally selecting items when we intended to continue scrolling.
The absence of an infinite-scroll capability -- which the iPod's circular Clickwheel offers -- is a sore point with the Zen Vision:M. To Creative's credit, we've never before got to the point where the control interface is a player's only major shortfall, and many users will become used to the minor quirks of the scrolling functions on the Zen Vision:M.
If you're looking for an extremely compact video player that's serious about full-length movie playback, there's no question: buy the Zen Vision:M. If you're not committed to video, and love MP3s, we would recommend that you test drive the interface on both the Zen Vision:M and the iPod and make your choice based on that. Sonically, there's not much in it.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide