Creative Zen Micro (5GB) review:

Creative Zen Micro (5GB)

While the iPod Mini may top the Creative Zen Micro in terms of overall design, Creative trumps Apple in feature-set quality. Similar to the Rio Carbon, the Micro packs 5GB compared to the Mini's 4GB, which works out to a couple hundred more songs that can squeeze onto the Micro's Seagate drive. The Micro supports MP3, WMA (including protected WMAs from download services such as Musicmatch or Napster), and WAV files. Janus compatible, the Zen Micro also works with subscription-based music services such as Napster To Go.

Unlike the Mini and the Carbon, the Micro features a built-in FM tuner and recorder that supports as many as 32 presets. Reception is typical for a digital FM tuner, which is to say mediocre, but it saves you from schlepping around another device if you're a devotee of Howard Stern or NPR. Keeping pace with the Carbon, the Micro also has a built-in microphone for capturing voice recordings. Note that the player records both FM and voice recordings as WAV files--as opposed to the smaller, compressed MP3 files--which can eat up big chunks of the hard drive. Creative claims the Micro will hold 10 hours of voice recordings.

The Micro matches the Mini's ability to store personal data. Using the included Zen Explorer software, Micro users can sync with Outlook and have access to contacts, to-do lists, and a calendar while on the road. Once the reliable, easy syncing process is finished, you access your records by selecting Extras in the player's main menu.

Use Zen Media Explorer to configure and sync your Zen Micro with Microsoft Outlook.

In its default state, the Micro's main menu includes the typical Creative-brand choices: Music Library, Now Playing, Play Mode, FM Radio, Extras, and System. However, you can easily customize the top menu with useful and specific links such as All Tracks, Microphone, Artists, and DJ features (such as Album of the Day, Most Popular, and Rarely Heard). Tapping the Options button brings up additional choices such as Remove Song, Add To Playlist, Save Playlist, and even Volume--this is especially useful since it lets you toggle the volume without having to return to the Now Playing screen. Options such as on-the-go playlists (something that the Carbon lacks) and bookmarking (you can set as many as 10 precise bookmarks) are recognizable Creative traits.

Creative bundles its Creative MediaSource software with the Micro to handle the usual CD-ripping, audio-file-organizing, and file-transferring duties, but the MTP-enabled Micro can also make use of Windows Media Player 10.0's Autosync feature. However, in our testing, WMP deleted what was already on our player after it had added new files from the WMP library; you'll need to manually configure WMP to prevent this from happening. Creative says it is working to provide Zen support within Musicmatch Jukebox software as well.

Creative MediaSource is your typical do-it-all music jukebox. The Zen Micro also works seamlessly with Windows Media Player 10.0.

You can also transfer music and data files via the Zen Media Explorer or by using Windows Explorer itself, since the Micro is recognized under My Computer as an audio device. In fact, the player allows you to set aside a user-defined percentage of its hard drive for data storage.

Creative claims 12-hour battery life for the Zen Micro, which is better than the iPod Mini's 8 hours, but still trails the Rio Carbon's 20 hours of life between charges. CNET Labs was able to get 11 hours of playback time in its initial drain test. As with these other players, the Micro's lithium-ion battery can be recharged using either the included AC adapter or via its USB connection to a PC. The beauty of the Micro is that you can just swap out your dead battery with another one ($40).

As we've seen in most hard drive players, the Micro's processor can occasionally stall for a second or two. This is normal and shouldn't be a concern. It will take more than a few seconds for the Micro to save voice or FM recordings, though. As for the performance of the touch interface, all we can say is that we like it better than the one on the Zen Touch, and although its sensitivity can be adjusted, not everyone will love it.

As expected from a Creative player, the Micro delivers excellent sound quality (the signal-to-noise ratio is 98dB), especially if you use a pair of high-quality headphones. The Micro comes bundled with a pair of quality earbuds. While we recommend a bigger set of 'phones to take advantage of the Micro's clean and powerful sound, the earbuds are actually pretty decent. There are eight preconfigured equalizer settings that you can use to tailor your sound, and you can create a custom EQ setting as well. The voice recorder works well if you speak into the device, but it's not a great performer when it comes to recording sound in a classroom, for example. The Micro yielded an average transfer time of 2.3MB per second over USB 2.0.

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