Creative's photo-enabled Zen Sleek Photo

Creative's been superaggressive this year with the launch of a number of products, including the toylike MuVo Micro and the refined Zen Vision PVP. Recently, the Zen Sleek quietly and unofficially became the replacement for the aging Zen Touch, which will still be available for a while. Now, Creative pulls yet another device out of its lab coat: the Zen Sleek Photo, available in November for $299.99. This 20GB color OLED version of the original Zen Sleek includes an FM tuner and support for subscription-based music services such as Rhapsody To Go.

Upside: Two chief complaints about the Zen Touch were its bulky build and its lack of an FM tuner. Creative listened by adding an FM tuner, as well as a voice recorder, and making the Zen Sleek Photo, well, sleek. At 4 by 2.2 by 0.6 inches and 5.4 ounces, it's significantly slimmer and lighter than the Zen Touch--and lighter and narrower than a 20GB iPod. Its striking design is a quarter iPod Mini, a quarter Zen Micro, and a half Dell DJ-20. The Creative Zen Sleek Photo also boasts a bright OLED that makes digital photos look vibrant from any angle, and the glowing interface--with blue buttons and GUI themes such as Jungle and Fire--has a classic retro modern feel. The device plays MP3, WAV, and DRM10-protected WMA files, so users may not only purchase tracks but also join a to-go subscription service--that is, fill the player up with songs for as little as $5 a month. The easy-to-use Sleek retains the touch strip used by many of Creative's hard drive-based players but features big tactile buttons for the other controls, such as play/pause, fast-forward, rewind, and so forth. Sound quality (97dB signal-to-noise ratio) and battery life (rated up to 19 hours) are excellent.

Downside: If Creative had launched this thing a few months earlier, it might have caught the eyes of those who have purchased a Cowon iAudio X5, an iRiver H10, or even an iPod Photo. Like the Zen Micro and other players that utilize a vertical touch strip, the Creative Zen Sleek Photo may not appeal to some users, though the unit's other buttons are thankfully tactile. The glowing screen is quite a statement, but it's only 1.75 inches, compared with the iPod's 2 inches. Additionally, the display is difficult to see outdoors. While Creative manages this better than Apple, the lack of dedicated volume buttons is frustrating, as is being forced to use a proprietary USB cable that includes an input for the power cord. Let's face it: carrying two cables sucks. Images look crisp, even though our production sample's colors seemed washed out; however, you can't listen to music while you enjoy your photos--at least not yet. Plus, there is no way to transfer pictures directly from a digital camera, a feature that is built into players such as the Cowon iAudio X5 and the Archos Gmini 402. Those of you who enjoy viewing album art will be disappointed, as device does not support the feature. Hopefully, Creative will fix these issues.

Outlook: There will always be room for another high-profile, high-capacity MP3 player, especially if it can break the mold and offer not only extra features but also good battery life and ease of use. The Creative Zen Sleek Photo stands out mostly because of its screen, but it's also a good-sounding, feature-heavy device that plays nice with subscriptions (though who doesn't these days, besides Apple?).