Creative Labs has a history of turning out great MP3 players, and the Zen V and the Zen V Plus--available in July and August, respectively--are no exception. These cute and pocketable flash devices are packed with features and offer impressive performance, making them an excellent option for anyone looking for a lower-capacity, solid-state MP3 player. Of course, since the Creative Zen V Plus adds two desirable extras to the package (an FM radio and video playback), yet costs only about $25 more than the Zen V, we think that the Plus is the way to go--more bang for your buck. You can pick up the 2GB for $79.99, the 4GB for $109.99, the 8GB for $169.99, or the 16GB for $249.99. Comparatively, the Zen V lists at $59.99 for the 1GB, $74.99 for the 2GB, and $99.99 for the 4GB (Creative discontinued other capacities for this model). In either case, it's a better deal than the iPod Nano.
The curvaceous design of the Creative Zen V Plus echoes that of its larger sibling, the Zen Vision:M, though its small size makes the style a bit more toylike (in a good way), almost reminiscent of a Tamagotchi. Also, The Zen V Plus isn't available in the same color palette as the Vision:M. Instead, you choose from white or black versions, and you get different color accents shown around the joystick, on the volume rocker, and through the seams of the player: orange for 1GB, green for 2GB, and blue for 4GB and 8GB (black only). Creative is also set to release a blood red-accented version of the 8GB, though that model was not yet available at press time. It's a nice look, complemented even further by the vivid 1.5-inch OLED display. Unfortunately, while the screen is viewable from any angle, it's tough to read in bright sunlight.
The Creative Zen V Plus's controls leave just a little to be desired. We like the dedicated volume rocker and the combined power/hold switch, but the joystick is tiny and seems prone to collecting dirt or sand around it. Also, we're not sure why Creative didn't include all the buttons found on the Zen Vision:M, as there's plenty of room to the left of the joystick. Gone are the contextual menu and shortcut buttons; however, you can hold the Back button to get to the contextual menus. That said, the player's compact body (2.6 by 1.5 by 0.5 inches), light weight (1.6 ounces), and smooth, rounded edges make it a pleasure to hold. Also, the Zen V Plus can fit easily into any pocket, and because it's not long and thin like the iPod Nano, it has a much sturdier feel. Also, owners of the V Plus get an extra option for selecting the orientation of their screen; the aspect ratio remains the same, but you can orient the controls as you see fit.
There's a lot to like about the Creative Zen V Plus, including its ease of use. If you're already running Windows Media Player (we recommend version 11), you don't even need to install any software to start syncing content to the player. However, the included Creative software is a worthwhile install, as it includes several useful apps, particularly the ToolBox, which can convert and transfer video files to the player, and ZenCast, a program that offers a one-stop spot for subscribing to, organizing, and transferring podcasts. Unfortunately, the device uses MTP, so you won't be able to sync it with any machines that aren't running Windows XP.
Once you get some content on to the Creative Zen V Plus--supported formats comprise MP3, WAV, WMA (including subscription), and Audible audio; AVI video (natively; other formats such as WMV and MPEG-4 can be transcoded with the included software); and JPEG photos--it's a breeze to navigate through the options. All menus are straightforward. Music is sorted by playlist, album, artist, and so on, while photos are conveniently sorted into folders. Open these folders, and you're greeted with an attractive three-by-three thumbnail grid of your pictures.
There's a lot to like about the Creative Zen V Plus, but it really shines in the features department. There's photo and video playback; an FM tuner with 32 autoscannable presets; FM, voice, and line-in recording; an alarm clock and calendar; and even PIM functionality, with the ability to sync tasks and contacts from Outlook. Plus, you can set any of your photos as wallpaper and choose from several color themes for the interface. The only things missing are USB host capability and built-in Wi-Fi, but since these extras are more of a luxury, we don't count their absence against the player.
The Creative Zen V Plus is a splendid little performer too. Music played through the included earbuds sounds decent, but if you really want to experience the player's high-quality audio, swap in a pair of premium 'phones, such as the Shure E4c. And we're happy to report that this Zen--unlike previous versions--gets plenty loud. Battery life was also impressive in our CNET Labs' tests, lasting more than 20 hours (and much longer than the rated 15 hours). Transfer times over USB 2.0 were a subpar 1.25MB per second. Photos and videos looked good, though small, on the bright color screen; there was a noticeable screen-door effect, but it wasn't too big a deal, since you likely won't want to stare at such a small display for very long.