The early 2004 arrival of Apple's iPod Mini has spawned a rash of competing micro hard drive players. It was only a matter of time before Creative improved upon its existing 4GB and 5GB MuVo2 line by releasing the $250 Zen Micro, which is available in 10 different colors--twice as many as the iPod Mini's metallic rainbow. As with the Rio Carbon and other market newbies, the Creative Zen Micro boasts 5GB of storage for the same price as the 4GB iPod Mini. In addition, the curvaceous Zen Micro has a fat set of features, including an FM tuner/recorder, a removable battery, a voice recorder, and even synchronization capability with Microsoft Outlook. Although the Micro's touch pad isn't as effortless to use as the Mini's click-wheel and its battery life trails the Carbon's, Creative's player should be high on your list, particularly if you use Windows Media-based download services and you value extra features.Editor's note: We updated the rating of the Zen Micro to take into account new players and feature sets introduced recently to the market. Following in the Technicolor tradition initiated by the original iMac, the Creative Zen Micro's range of 10 color choices includes bright and sassy hues such as purple, red, pink, and orange, and more subtle colors such as silver, black, and dark blue. These colors apply to the face of the Micro; the rest of the body is encased in a white, polished plastic. Creative has started shipping basic colors such as silver and black; other colors are due to launch shortly after press time. In case that's not enough pizzazz for you, a glowing, blue backlight gives the display, the buttons, and a strip that wraps around the perimeter of the front panel a uniquely warm, minimalist vibe, especially in the dark.
Roughly the size of a small Altoids tin at 2.0 by 3.3 by 0.7 inches and weighing 3.8 ounces, the Zen Micro is a tad thicker and heavier than the iPod Mini. It's shorter, though, and actually conforms better to your hand, thanks to its curved, glossy backside. The sturdy, plastic casing withstood a couple of short, accidental drops during testing. A headphone jack, a USB 2.0 port, a tiny microphone (for recording voice notes), and an on/off toggle switch grace the top of the unit. Pushing the toggle switch all the way to the right locks the unit during playback. Unfortunately, as with the Mini, the Micro lacks a dedicated volume control--you must use the touch pad while the unit is displaying the Now Playing screen.
In addition to the blue-backlit display, the front of player features a touch-sensitive interface. There are no buttons in the traditional sense. Rather, the interface has been partitioned into six touch-pad areas: rewind, play, forward, back, options, and a central, vertical touch pad. The center touch pad, like the one found on the Micro's big brother, the Zen Touch, handles the scrolling through the player's menu system: The farther you stray from the center of the pad, the faster you scroll. Simply tap the interface to select a function or a menu item. Unfortunately, while the pad is effective at quickly scrolling up and down, we had trouble getting it to nudge up or down one selection at a time when set to its default sensitivity. You'll need to dig into the player's settings and change the touch pad's sensitivity to High to remedy this. The other touch-sensitive areas also tend not to respond well to light finger taps. In short, while the Zen Micro handles navigation fairly well, particularly after you get accustomed to the interface, it still can't quite match the Mini's ease of use. We predict that some users will love it while others will hate it. We recommend that you definitely give it a test-drive.
The display is easy to read with its blue backlight, and the Micro also ships with a removable lithium-ion battery--a design decision probably influenced by the problems users have had with the iPod's built-in batteries. According to Creative, the "first 35,000 units (worldwide) will ship with an extra battery." If you don't get one of these limited-edition models, an additional power cell will cost you $40.
In addition to the Micro itself, your package will include some nice earbuds, a polished, white wall-wart power adapter, a USB 2.0 cable, a stylized belt clip and stand, a pouch, and an installation CD. For an extra $20, you can add a wired remote control. We recommend this option as it's both well designed and useful, and it includes dedicated volume buttons.
We must emphasize that the overall design of the Zen Micro deserves kudos. Its various zesty colors, its rounded corners, its touch-screen interface, and some uncommon features make the player a breath of fresh air.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.
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.
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.