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Creative player pans for iPod crowd

Creative Technology is launching a new portable music player with a price tag designed to keep Windows users from dancing with Apple Computer's iPod.

Creative Technology launched on Monday a new portable music player in an effort to keep Windows users from dancing with Apple Computer's iPod.

Creative's player, the Nomad Jukebox Zen MP3, will cost $299 after a $50 mail-in rebate--much less than Apple's comparable iPod music player that sells for $499.

In July, Apple introduced a Windows version of its iPod, which at 20GB can hold up to 4,000 songs in 160kbps MP3 files, or 5,200 songs in 128kbps files. The player began selling at retail Sept. 15.

Creative has countered with its player, which looks like a Sony Walkman. The Zen includes a 20GB hard drive, which lets it store up to 5,000 songs using 128kbps MP3 files, or 8,000 songs using Microsoft Windows Media Audio files.

Creative's 20GB machine is the same price as Apple's lowest-end iPod, a 5GB machine that also sells for $299.

The Zen's main selling points are its price and a Firewire connection, which lets it transfer data quickly to PCs that are not equipped with the latest version of Universal Serial Bus, USB 2.0.

However, Creative's use of a standard 2.5-inch hard drive could hamper sales for customers who are not necessarily shopping on price alone. Several manufacturers make 2.5-inch hard drives, which are standard for notebook PCs, while only one company, Toshiba, manufactures the 1.8-inch drive used in the iPod.

Because 2.5-inch drives are more readily available, they cost less. But the 2.5-inch drive makes the Zen bulkier than the iPod.

The Zen weighs 9.5 ounces and measures 4.5 inches by 3 inches and. The 20GB iPod weighs 7.2 ounces and measures 4 inches by 2.4 inches, making it potentially more appealing to people who care more about size and weight than about price.

Creative's player will be available from Amazon.com, Buy.com, Fry's Electronics, J&R Electronics and Cambridge SoundWorks, as well as directly from the company. Apple sells the iPod directly to customers. It is also available at Best Buy.