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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 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.
As a music player, the Zen offers the usual amenities and then some: on-device playlist creation; shuffle and repeat modes; support for up to 10 bookmarks; eight equalizer presets and a five-band custom setting; and a bass-boost feature. Its cool DJ feature can serve up Album of the Day, Random Play All, Most Popular (based on your ratings), and Rarely Heard. We particularly like the Smart Volume option, which keeps volume levels consistent across all your tracks. However, the Zen doesn't display album art, a disappointing waste of its jaw-dropping screen. It shows each song's genre and year alongside the usual track name, artist name, album info, and so on, but it's not uncommon for ID3 tags to lack these designations, so don't be surprised to see Other or Unknown listed for genre and 0000 for year. It would be nice if the Zen let you choose what ID3-tag info to display.
On the plus side, the Zen lets you listen to your tunes while viewing a slide show of your photos. Obviously, you can also browse and view photos individually, even marking favorites for a custom slide show. However, when selecting the My Slideshows option, the Zen 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, nor does the help file include any reference to slide shows. It's another instance of incomplete documentation.
The Zen provides solid FM radio features, including a lightning-fast autoscan that fills as many of the 32 available preset slots as possible. You can also manually add presets; assign names to the stations; and record any broadcast just by pressing and holding the play/pause button. Alas, the Zen lacks a timer for scheduled recordings, a feature we really wish it had.
Creative's Sync Manager makes simple work of copying your Outlook data such as contacts, appointments, and tasks to the Zen, though sync is something of a misnomer: It's a one-way transfer, and it doesn't happen automatically; you have to sync every time you want to copy the latest data from Outlook. On the Zen itself, you can view your data, but there's no option to edit or sort it.
The Zen Vision Media Explorer program handles most PC-to-Zen connectivity chores, including creating and managing playlists, converting video files, ripping audio CDs, and Outlook/media synchronization. For most music-related tasks, however, you'll want Creative's MediaSource Organizer, a basic but handy music manager. Interestingly, if you want to use the Zen as a portable hard drive, you have to allocate a chunk of space--anywhere from 512MB to 16GB--for that purpose. Then Windows Explorer can drag and drop files to and from the Zen, no drivers required.The Creative Zen Vision leverages its VGA screen to deliver incredibly crisp, colorful video. We've never seen an episode of The Simpsons look so vibrant on a portable device. Likewise, the added resolution (four times what you get from a typical 320x240-pixel PVP screen) vastly improves content that might otherwise be poorly suited to a small screen. We loaded up Robin Williams on Broadway, which includes a number of pull-back shots of the stage, but still managed to see the comic legend in all his frenetic glory. Even a movie such as Lord of the Rings, with its innumerable wide-angle action sequences, looks dramatically better on the Creative Zen Vision than on players with lower-resolution screens.
However, after all the hassles we experienced copying TiVo recordings to the Zen via Windows Media Player, we were aggravated to discover that playback was extremely choppy. Thankfully, files converted by Video Vault PVP played just fine, as did various AVI and MPEG files converted by Creative Media Explorer.
Keep in mind that the process can be painfully slow for videos that require conversion. For example, it took us about two hours to convert a one-hour DivX file. At least music transfers are relatively speedy: using Media Explorer, we copied our 10GB song library to the Zen in about 35 minutes. For the record, Windows Media Player took 10 minutes more to do the job.
Once we started listening to music on the Zen, we didn't want to stop. It cranks out full, resonant audio at an unusually high 97dB signal-to-noise ratio. We were particularly impressed by Creative's stellar-sounding foam-padded earbuds. For once we didn't immediately reach for our favorite headphones instead. And the built-in speaker sounds better than you'd expect.
FM radio reception was good but not great; even outdoors, we had a hard time pulling in stations that came through loud and clear on a car stereo. In our tests of the voice recorder, we had to hold the Creative Zen Vision close to our mouth to achieve good recording volume. You'll have to forget about using it to record, say, a lecture; the mic just isn't sensitive enough. We also felt that occasionally, the processor had a hard time keeping up with our navigation commands, whether we skipped through tracks or surfed from menu to menu. These delays usually last for only a second but are definitely noticeable.
Creative promises up to 4.5 hours of movie playback time and 13 hours of music from the Zen's removable lithium-ion battery. CNET Lab tests confirmed the rated battery life for video, which came in at 4.4 hours. Not bad, but in our audio drain tests, we consistently got around 8.2 hours, far short of Creative's claims and much too low for our ears. An optional extended-life battery ($70), available in white or black, promises to double playback time.