Creative Zen Vision review: Creative Zen Vision

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MSRP: $399.99

The Good Gorgeous high-resolution screen; beautiful, compact design; excellent interface; plays and records FM radio; supports TiVo To Go and limited movie downloads; syncs with Outlook; removable battery; CompactFlash slot; reasonably priced.

The Bad Limited viewing angle; no line-in audio or video recording; doesn't display album art; can't schedule radio recordings; no kickstand; no easy way to watch DVDs; TiVo To Go requires file conversion and third-party MPEG-2 decoder; incomplete documentation; subpar, audio-only battery life.

The Bottom Line The Creative Zen Vision, a dazzling but occasionally frustrating personal media player, handles video and music with aplomb, all for a tantalizingly low price.

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7.7 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6

Creative Zen Vision

The Zen Vision, Creative's latest effort to craft the ultimate portable video player (PVP), improves on its predecessor, the Zen Portable Media Center, in almost every way. Though it's smaller and more elegant, it packs a larger 30GB hard drive and a longer list of features, all for a lower price ($400). True, it can't compete with the kitchen-sink feature set of PVPs such as the Archos PMA430, but that device costs almost twice as much. Plus, the Creative Zen Vision has two enviable features the Archos lacks: a VGA screen and support for content recorded on TiVo DVRs. Unfortunately, it can't record video or audio directly, and copying and converting files can be a time-consuming hassle, especially for novices, as Creative really skimps on the instructions. But the payoff is worth it because the Creative Zen Vision's screen dazzles like no other. It's no slouch when it comes to music, photos, and FM radio, either. If Apple ever decides to produce a video iPod, it may look something like the Creative Zen Vision. We tested the pearl-white version, which to our eyes seems classier and cleaner than the magnesium-black alternative. It's a sleek, sexy device that, at 4.9 by 2.9 by 0.8 inches, measures only a hair longer and thicker than a Dell Axim X50v PDA, and it's considerably less bulky than Creative's last PVP, the Zen Portable Media Center. Likewise, at 8.4 ounces, it's only a bit heavier than a PDA. We had no qualms about stowing it in a front pants pocket.

OK, we have one qualm: We'd be heartbroken if a piece of pocket flotsam scratched the Zen's 3.7-inch, 262,000-color screen. It's by far the most eye-pleasing LCD we've ever seen on a PVP, thanks in no small part to its VGA (640x480-pixel) resolution. Everything looks stellar, from photos to video to the interface itself. Thankfully, Creative supplies a soft drawstring case to help keep the screen pristine. The only downside is viewing angle; unless you face the screen head-on or a bit to the right, you'll see almost nothing.

Most of the Zen's simple, straightforward, and tactile controls are grouped to the right of the screen. Even novices should have no trouble making sense of its Back, Menu, and Shuttle buttons, which reside above and below a five-way control pad. The latter is a bit small, particularly the OK button in the center; on a few occasions, we accidentally hit the pad instead of the button. Zooming in and out of menus on the Zen Vision's sweet interface is a joy, though more than once, we instinctively pressed the right nav button to select an option rather than the Select key itself.

The Zen's dedicated volume controls and power/hold switch reside along the top edge. A spring-loaded door protects the CompactFlash slot on the left side of the unit, while a rubberized tab hides the power and A/V-out ports on the right side. At the rear, a sizable battery comprises most of the Zen's backside. It's removable and stylish, with a pond-ripple accent surrounding a circular Zen logo. All that's missing is a kickstand, so you'll have to hold the Zen upright or find something to lean it against while watching a movie. Alternatively, you can purchase the optional dock for $40, which props the device at a reasonable viewing angle.

The built-in CompactFlash Type I slot is a nice touch.

The aforementioned CompactFlash Type I/II slot permits viewing and downloading digital photos, though, admittedly, only higher-end cameras such as the Canon Digital Rebel rely on CompactFlash media these days. If your camera takes a different kind of card, you can purchase an adapter that supplies SD, MMC, Memory Stick, and xD slots. Other available options include a wireless remote ($30) and the docking station mentioned above.

Navigating the Zen is a snap, thanks to its nine-item main menu and straightforward submenus. Interestingly, you can customize the main menu to your liking, hiding items you don't necessarily want and adding others you do. By adding the submenu All Tracks option, for instance, you can go straight to your track listing without first having to delve into the Music Library menu. The only downside is that these additions appear at the bottom of the main menu instead of immediately below their respective top menus. There's no way to manually organize the list.

The Creative Zen Vision doesn't have every bell and whistle in the book, but it comes with the ones that count. It plays MP3, DRM WMA, and WAV audio files; JPEG photos; and AVI, DivX, MPEG, Motion-JPEG, and WMV video files. It also plays and records FM radio; records voice notes via a built-in microphone; and supports PlaysForSure audio and video. Unfortunately, there's very little video to choose from at the moment: a tiny selection of D-grade movies at CinemaNow and a smattering of content at MSN Videos. We're eagerly awaiting a PVP that can play the complete CinemaNow and Movielink libraries. In the meantime, if you want to watch movies on the Zen, you'll have to rip and convert your DVDs, which requires both time and know-how.

As for other videos, some will play natively on the Zen, while others will require a pass through Creative's Video Converter utility. Thankfully, the program will tell you if a video file is already compatible and doesn't need conversion. (It's difficult to determine compatibility without using the utility.) In our tests, some files played fine; others required conversion. We discovered by accident that certain files that were listed under "conversion required" would play on the Zen without conversion but that certain features on the player (such as fast-forward) wouldn't work for those files. That said, you may want to forgo the conversion in some cases, as the utility can output to only a maximum resolution of 320x240 pixels--an inexplicable waste of the Zen's potential.

The real problem is that Creative provides almost no instruction on moving video content to the Zen Vision. The electronic user guide mentions the video converter and online movie stores only in passing; nowhere does it explain how to work with either of them. Likewise, if you want to view TV shows recorded on your TiVo, you're on your own--and may end up frustrated and disappointed.

The process isn't difficult; just install TiVo Desktop 2.2 on your PC and copy a few shows to it from your TiVo Series2 DVR. Then, fire up Windows Media Player 10 and sync the shows to the Zen. Unfortunately, we couldn't get this to work on either of two computers, both of which ran Windows XP Media Center Edition. On a third machine, this one with Windows XP Home, the sync process worked fine.

Before you even attempt TiVo conversions, you'll need a compatible MPEG-2 decoder (visit TiVo's Web site for a list), which your system may or may not have. We think it's a bit disingenuous for Creative to tout TiVo To Go compatibility without mentioning that it requires third-party software not included with the Zen.

There is another option: the bundled Video Vault PVP utility. It can convert not only TiVo files but also unprotected DVDs. Unfortunately, Creative supplies only a 14-day trial--and it's the wrong version! We had to download a newer build that included TiVo support. Once that was done, we had no problem converting our shows and copying them directly to the Zen--until the trial period expired.

It's worth noting that WMP can easily, albeit slowly, convert TV shows recorded with Windows XP Media Center Edition. It's also worth noting that the Zen can output video to a TV or audio to a stereo using an included RCA patch cable. What it can't do is record from external sources, a definite letdown, given the ease with which the latest Archos PMPs record both video and audio. The only recording option is the built-in microphone, which lets you record up to 10 hours' worth of voice notes as 16kHz, 128Kbps WAV files.