Editor's note: A new, less bulky version of the Zen Vision:M 60GB will be available soon in the U.S. market. It will reportedly have the same weight and dimensions (4.1 inches by 2.4 inches by .7 inch) and weight (5.7 ounces) as the current 30GB version of the Zen Vision:M player. We will update this review as soon as the new player is released, but in the meantime, consider waiting to purchase a new 60GB Zen Vision:M.
Although we had fond feelings for Creative's Zen Vision, the portable video player (PVP) with the dazzling VGA screen, Apple's video-capable iPod quickly stole our hearts away. Now Creative has wooed us again with the Zen Vision:M, a decidedly iPod-like device with a better screen, more features, and even more choices of colors. Music fans will find it particularly appealing, as it plays nice with most online stores and subscription services. Admittedly, Apple still has the edge in video content; Creative has yet to land any content providers for TV shows or movies, though video podcasts now stand ready, courtesy of Creative's new ZenCast service. But we're willing to bet it won't be long before you can download Battlestar Galactica or Kung Fu Hustle for on-the-go viewing. Also, video subscription is coming, with Starz Vongo leading the way. And you'll be able to watch longer thanks to the Vision:M's four-hour battery life--a major improvement over the iPod's two hours. Watch out, Apple: Creative's latest is no mere pretender to the PVP throne. Physically, the Creative Zen Vision:M can't escape comparison with the 5G iPod. It's exactly the same height and width (4.1 by 2.4 inches), though definitely a bit thicker and heavier at 0.7 inch and 5.7 ounces. Curved and slightly tapered at the rear, the Zen feels good in your hand--not quite so fragile as the iPod, perhaps--and slips comfortably into any pocket.
Creative offers the Vision:M in five colors: black, white, pink, green, and blue. After spending a few days with the black model, we discovered that the entire front face was covered with faint scratches--just like the black iPod and the iPod Nano, though not as extreme. If you want to avoid this problem, choose a lighter color. However, save for white, we couldn't help feeling that the other colors lent the Vision:M a toylike appearance, perhaps because they betray the all-plastic nature of the front face. Ultimately, Creative's latest just isn't as elegant as the iPod, and it will never have the same cachet.
Of course, one could argue that the screen matters more than the container, and here the Vision:M definitely has the iPod beat. Although both devices have 2.5-inch, 320x240-pixel LCDs, the Vision:M's displays a whopping 262,000 colors to the iPod's 65,000. Video and photos positively pop off the screen, which exhibits excellent viewing angles and much better brightness and color than the iPod's--and we thought that screen was good. Now Creative just needs to line up some content to take advantage of it (see the Features section for details).
In the meantime, Creative deserves kudos for making the Vision:M reasonably simple to operate. It has just four function buttons: Play/Pause, Menu, Back, and Shortcut, all flush with the front of the case, not raised. Thus, you actually press the case itself, which feels weird at first (and makes fingerprints inescapable). The buttons are stiff but provide audible, tactile feedback. Some may complain about the buttons' stiffness, but we think they will wear well with use. Plus, they light up blue--a cool touch.
Anyone familiar with Creative's past players, such as the Zen Micro and the Zen Touch, will recognize the Vision:M's touch pad, which improves on the previous models' design but still can't hold a candle to Apple's Click Wheel. It works much like a notebook's touch pad except that it's exclusively vertical: You run your finger up and down to scroll and tap to select an option. You can also press and hold the top or bottom edge to engage rapid scrolling. It's an intuitive control but not always precise. We often found it hard to land on exactly the selection we wanted, though with practice we got better at it. We're actually most impressed with this version of the touch pad, as it does the best job so far in addressing sensitivity. Furthermore, we love the narrow and tactile left and right buttons that flank the touch pad; they serve as the Vision:M's shuttle controls and represent an excellent use of minimal space.
Apple may have an edge in the controls department, but the Vision:M's interface is just as fast and easy to use as the iPod's. Plus, you can customize it in various ways, adding or removing menu options and choosing one of six colorful themes. You can also set any photo as your wallpaper. Creative's best innovation is the Shortcut button, which you can configure to perform a commonly used function: for example, randomly playing all your tracks, starting and stopping recording, adding a track to an on-the-fly playlist, and so on. We preferred using ours for volume, since the Vision:M lacks dedicated volume controls. All portable players should have a Shortcut button, though we would love to see EQ added to the list of possible shortcuts.
Most MP3 players should also have removable batteries, which the Vision:M doesn't. Luckily, battery life isn't quite as problematic as it is on the 5G iPod, as explained in the Performance section. A removable battery would have been a clincher for many prospective buyers.
Connection to your PC comes courtesy of a Sync Adapter: a small dongle that plugs into the bottom of the Vision:M and supplies power, USB, and A/V-out ports. It's too bad Creative couldn't have engineered these ports into the player itself, as the dongle is just one more thing to bring along--and potentially lose. Still, the player charges over USB, so you wouldn't always need to haul an extra cable, but we like how Apple handles this situation with the USB power adapter, though it bugs us to no end that Apple doesn't include it in the iPod package. Creative at least includes the adapter, which might partly explain the Vision:M's higher price.
iPod users can, however, grab some first-rate TV shows from iTunes Music Store--a prospect Zen owners will have to envy for the moment. Creative has no video store to offer its customers, no episodes of Lost or Battlestar Galactica available for quick and easy download. Nor can it record video from external sources--though the iPod can't either. For that, you need a PVP such as the Archos AV500. Of course, you can pretty easily copy TV and movies from a Media Center PC, and TiVo Series 2 owners can also take advantage of free TiVo To Go software to copy recordings. However, the latter option is a complex and time-consuming process: you have to copy shows from your TiVo to your PC, then convert them with Windows Media Player 10. To make matters worse, Creative doesn't mention this capability anywhere in the Vision:M manual or on the product's Web site; you have to delve into Creative's online knowledge base to find instructions. While the TiVo To Go support is admirable, it's far too cumbersome for most users. Still, it's a capability iPod users don't get (yet), and it's likely just the tip of the video-to-go iceberg.
This year promises to bring any number of Vision:M-compatible services, so it probably won't be long before a few simple clicks stock the player with TV, music videos, and even feature-length movies. A good example is Starz Vongo, a new flat-rate movie-download service that's compatible with Portable Media Center devices. The Vision:M isn't one of them, but we suspect the service will soon broaden its device support to include PlaysForSure devices. In addition, you can currently visit MSN Video Downloads to get free news and entertainment clips for your Vision:M, and you can find content on Google Video as well. The video-content universe for WMV devices is indeed growing.
In the meantime, the Vision:M supports a much wider variety of video formats than the iPod: DivX, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, WMV, and XviD among them. Users who already have a library of videos will find it relatively easy to copy them to the player: Creative's software automatically converts the files that require it. What's more, the Vision:M isn't entirely without downloadable-content options. In beta at the time of this writing, Creative's new ZenCast service provides easy access to podcasts (here dubbed ZenCasts, natch) of both the audio and video variety. Armed with a free download of ZenCast Manager, you can stock your player with popular 'casts such as Rocketboom, 60 Minutes, and Tiki Bar TV. If you want a podcast that's not already in the large ZenCast directory, just click Subscribe and paste in its address.
However, ZenCast Manager is symptomatic of a typical Creative problem: scattershot software. Instead of integrating everything under one roof, as Apple has done with iTunes, Creative forces you to use four separate programs: ZenCast Manager, Media Explorer, MediaSource Organizer, and Sync Manager. They're all simple, capable applications, but we wish Creative would unify them into a single program. We also wish the company would provide more documentation. The included 30-page manual covers only the basics, and there's no expanded, supplemental PDF to view on your PC--only a text-heavy help file for Media Explorer. There's no documentation at all for ZenCast, online or elsewhere, though that's likely because of the newness of the service.
Software and documentation notwithstanding, you're sure to enjoy the Vision:M's various secondary features. Its lightning-fast FM tuner, for instance, fills as many of the 32 available preset slots as possible. You can also manually add presets, assign names to the stations (though navigating the onscreen keyboard is no fun), and record any broadcast just by pressing and holding the play/pause button. Alas, the Vision:M lacks a timer for scheduled recordings--a feature we really wish it had. What's more, you have no control over recording quality: all FM recordings are saved as four-bit, 22KHz WAV files. Voice recordings, meanwhile, become four-bit, 16KHz WAV files. The Vision:M has no provision for recording from line-in sources.
The Vision:M does, however, let you listen to your tunes while viewing a slide show of your photos. You can also browse and view photos individually, even marking favorites for a custom slide show. However, when selecting the My Slideshows option, the Vision:M refers you to Creative's Media Explorer utility for creating slide shows on your PC. Problem is, there's no such option in that software. You have to delve into the help file to find out how to create custom slide shows (which, thankfully, is drag-and-drop easy).
Creative's Sync Manager makes simple work of copying your Outlook contacts, appointments, and tasks to the Vision:M, though Sync is something of a misnomer: it's really a one-way transfer, and it doesn't happen automatically--you have to sync each time you want to copy the latest data from Outlook. A newer, system tray-resident version of Sync Manager promises to remedy that issue, but currently, Creative was still shaking out the bugs. You can view your data on the Vision:M itself, but there's no option to edit or sort it. Also, there's no way to password-protect it--something to keep in mind if you're carrying sensitive info.
Lest we forget, the Vision:M is first and foremost a music player, and it's no slouch in that department. It features on-device playlist creation; support for up to 10 bookmarks; eight equalizer presets and a five-band custom setting; and a bass-boost feature. The Vision:M's "DJ" can spin Album of the Day and Random Play All, as well as Most Popular and Rarely Heard tracks. We particularly like the Smart Volume option, which keeps volume levels consistent across all your tracks. As a bonus, the Vision:M displays album art--something its big-screen predecessor, the Zen Vision, didn't do. Also new to the mix is a Lookup Artist option, which takes you to the artist listing for whatever track is playing, and Purchase This, which queues the current track for possible purchase (if you're listening to it on a subscriber basis) the next time you sync with Windows Media Player 10.
In addition to the usual accessories--earbuds, a software CD, and a USB cable--Creative supplies a goofy soft-sided drawstring carrying pouch. We think most users would prefer an armband or a belt-clip case. Missing from the package is an A/V-out cable for connecting the Vision:M to your TV. It's available separately for $18.99.Using the Creative Zen Vision:M is a treat. It takes only a few seconds to start up (though sometimes it takes a bit longer, which we don't understand)--a nice change from its slowpoke predecessor, the Zen Vision. Likewise, its menus are snappy and its controls responsive, even when you're shuffling through subscription tracks--a notoriously processor-intensive process. As with most hard drive-based players, songs and videos don't start the moment you press Play; there's usually a delay of a couple of seconds, but we found it negligible. Even when queuing up 2,500 tracks for random play, the Vision:M keeps you waiting only four to five seconds.
Video playback was buttery smooth, without so much as a dropped frame. Your mileage may vary depending on the source material, but we found that even action scenes in various movies and TV shows played smoothly while maintaining a sharp picture. Many PVPs tend to blur the action.
As we've come to expect from Creative players, the Vision:M sounds outstanding, thanks in no small part to its 97dB signal-to-noise ratio. That translates to audio that can get plenty loud without introducing any noise, and our earsplitting experiences bear out the numbers. Creative's foam-padded earbuds allowed us to listen in relative comfort, though we enjoyed better sound quality when we switched to our reference Shure E3c 'buds.
FM radio came through loud and clear, with better reception than we expected in indoor environments. Even in a basement, we were able to pull in several local stations. And when the signal was good, our FM recordings sounded splendid. In voice recordings, on the other hand, background noise often manifested itself as a faint hum or whine. It's livable, but a bit distracting, especially if you're listening to a long recording.
When we used Sync Manager to copy over our library of 2,500 MP3s, the process took more than an hour--quite a bit longer than we thought it would, given the Vision:M's USB 2.0 connection. Similarly, the newer beta version of Sync Manager seemed sluggish in copying a handful of video podcasts, though this was most likely because it was converting them to the proper format. Raw transfer time of MP3s to the Zen Vision:M was a brisk 5.95MB per second over USB 2.0.
Battery life is rated at 14 hours for audio--a decent but not spectacular number--and 4 hours for video, which is nearly twice the iPod's current video battery life. If you're really into video, that extra battery life makes a world of difference, as we have consistently run out of juice prematurely when multitasking with an iPod. CNET Labs was able to coax 15.9 hours per charge out of the Zen Vision:M when playing back MP3s and with the LCD turning off after 10 seconds (you must activate the hold switch in order to make the screen go dark; otherwise, the screen will simply dim and eat up more battery life). Video playback lasted about 5 hours, another reason that the Zen Vision:M is a prime-time video player. Finally, playing back subscription-based WMA files, the Zen Vision:M's battery life notably came in at 12 hours, about 3 hours less than standard MP3 playback. Subscription battery life is a figure that should become more prominent as the associated services become more popular.