We understand that a simple MP3 player with no extra features or even an LCD appeals to some people, but we prefer a device that gives us a little more bang for our buck. That's why we'd choose Creative's Zen Nano Plus N200 over Apple's iPod Shuffle any day. At $129.99, the 512MB Zen Nano Plus costs just $30 more than the Apple flash player and includes an LCD as well as advanced features such as FM tuning and line-in recording. Even better, the N200's overall user experience is a pleasant one. We just wish the screen was a bit bigger. Unlike its predecessor, the MuVo TX FM, the Creative Zen Nano Plus features a seamless construction without a built-in USB interface. The benefit of this design is that it affords the N200 the luxury of being smaller (2.6 by 1.3 by 0.5 inches) and a touch lighter (1.3 ounces) than its older sibling. Of course, you give up the convenience of having a built-in USB key. The player does come with the requisite USB cable, but we wish Creative had thrown in a USB adapter key for added portability. That said, we highly appreciate the inclusion of a belt clip, a case, and an armband in the box--the Zen Nano Plus is certainly a gym-worthy player.
You might assume that the Zen Nano Plus's tiny size is its most distinguishing feature, but actually it's the selection of bright colors in which the player is encased. You can choose from a palette of 10 hues, including black, white, orange, red, dark blue, light blue, pink, purple, gray, and lime green. Our nail-polish-pink test unit definitely pops, but better yet, it seems quite resistant to scratches.
The controls on the Zen Nano Plus are minimal, which actually make the player a breeze to use. Rather than fumbling with a bunch of buttons, you access all features through the one menu toggle, located along the bottom edge of the player, that you press in to view your choices. This same switch scans through tracks when not in Menu mode. To the left of this switch are the two dedicated volume keys. The only other control is a button that controls play/pause/power. A small LCD, a USB port, and jacks for headphones and line-in audio round out the physical characteristics of the device. Creative is nice enough to include a line-in cable in the package. There's no Hold switch per se, but this function is easily accessible in the first layer of the menu. About that small LCD: Thanks to the high-res display, the text is easy enough to read, if you have perfect vision, anyway. The main screen shows only the song name, the time elapsed, and minuscule icons for battery life and play mode. It would be nice if the screen was large enough to display album and artist info as well.
Initial setup and use of the Zen Nano Plus is a snap, thanks to its Microsoft PlaysForSure designation: just plug it in and start using Windows Media Player 10 or Windows Explorer drag-and-drop to transfer files. Note that Creative's quick-start guide instructs you not to plug in the player until you've installed the driver and software from the included CD, but this isn't necessary if you're running Windows XP. Users of other Windows platforms, however, should follow Creative's directions. Creative also includes its own MediaSource music management software, but we prefer not to use it since it's not as convenient as Windows Media Player.The Creative Zen Nano Plus really shines in the features department, especially when you consider its relatively low price. As is becoming the standard nowadays, the player supports DRM-protected WMAs, so you can transfer songs that you've purchased from stores such as Wal-Mart Music Downloads. So far, there's no compatibility with Windows Media DRM 10.0 (for subscription-based tunes), but hopefully we'll start seeing this in flash players soon. The player also supports AA files purchased from Audible.com and, of course, MP3s.
Along with standard playback features such as shuffle, A/B loop, and repeat, to name a few, the Zen Nano Plus features a five-band custom EQ as well as five presets: Normal, Rock, Pop, Classical, and Jazz. The player also offers several settings options, the coolest of which is LCD orientation; this lets you flip the screen to optimize it for either right- or left-handed use. Screen settings for contrast, backlighting, and language are also available.
Now for the fun stuff: The Zen Nano Plus includes an FM tuner with autoscan and 32 preset slots. The tuner is blissfully easy to use: simply select autoscan from within the menu when you're in FM mode; the player will scan all frequencies and save all the ones that come in as presets for future use (you can also scan manually if desired). You can record from the radio, and the player has a built-in mic for voice recordings as well; these recordings are saved as WAV files. The icing on the cake, however, is the line-in recording option, which encodes tracks directly to MP3. You can choose between three bit rates (96Kbps, 128Kbps, or 160Kbps) and even enable a function called Sync Track that automatically splits tracks. Do note that the Zen Nano Plus's line-in port is smaller than the norm, so you'll always want to have the included cable on hand for such recordings.
The Zen Nano Plus isn't without its flaws, though. There's no option to sort songs by artist, album, or genre, and there's no playlist support. Songs are listed in alphabetical--or numerical, if you name your files with track numbers preceding the song title--order. As such, the most logical way to transfer music, if you want some organization, is to use Windows Explorer and drag and drop album or artist folders (with no subfolders) directly from the My Music window; you can then browse through separate folders on the player.As we've come to expect from Creative players, the Zen Nano Plus sounded good in our tests, even through the included earbuds. The signal-to-noise ratio is listed as simply "up to 90dB," which is average, but we noticed no background hiss at normal volume levels, and audio sounded rich and clean. We did note the same issue that several users have complained about: the backlight produces some feedback, though it's mostly perceptible when your music is paused and thus doesn't hamper overall sound quality.
Although the Creative Zen Nano Plus's maximum bit rate for line-in encoding is 160Kbps, recordings sounded quite good, and the track-splitting (Sync Track) function worked accurately. Voice recordings also came out clearly, although you have to hold the player fairly close to the sound source to avoid a muffled quality. The FM tuner worked a treat too, with the autoscanner picking up all local stations.
What we were most pleased with, however, was the battery life recorded by CNET Labs, which tested the Zen Nano Plus's sister product, the MuVo Micro. The MuVo Micro lasted more than 19 hours, beating Creative's own estimate by 4 hours. Its average transfer time of 1.76MB per second was decent for USB 2.0.