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MP3 Players

Hands-on with the Creative Zen

The brand new Creative Zen is the company's second player to offer 16GB of memory, and is sure to please even critical ears with its superb sound quality

Creative has made some of the best sounding MP3 players in history. The Creative Zen Vision:M has rivalled Apple's dominant iPod for a considerable time. However, now in the days of video-playing iPod nanos and the 16GB iPod touch, audio expert Creative needs to keep its neck high above the water if it wants to avoid the cut-throat competitiveness of today's portable music player industry.

Today, we're looking at the brand new Creative Zen -- an SD-card-sporting, DivX-playing, all-flash-using MP3 player from the company that also brought you the Sound Blaster sound cards.

The well-constructed Zen is actually the second player from Creative to boast up to 16GB of memory -- the updated Zen V Plus already holds the capacious 16GB capacity badge. But what the new Zen offers is an SD card slot with SDHC compatibility. When those hefty 32GB SD cards hit our shores next year, you'll have unlimited interchangeable libraries at your disposal. Similarly, with DivX/Xvid video support, that collection of DVD-quality movies you acquired legally can grace your pocket, without weighing down your trousers with the mass of a 160GB hard disk.

Navigating the Zen is easy, though a touch unwieldy. Menus are attractive and browsing is self-explanatory. Our small complaint is that 'Music' is the third option in the main menu's list, 'Artists' is the fourth option in the music library list and selecting a single track to play requires two clicks -- one to bring up the song's compulsory context menu, one to select the 'Play' option. To be fair, you would certainly get used to this, but it does make browsing a little clunkier than we'd like.

Sound quality is, as we expected, superb. We played a variety of songs through a pair of Denon AH-C700 earphones and heard great performance on the Zen's part. Quality is almost indistinguishable from that of the new iPod classic. At identical volumes, the classic outputted marginally more bass, but the difference is negligible and by no means any better or worse than the Zen. The Zen is sure to please even critical ears.

We'd loved to have seen support for a lossless format instead of just uncompressed WAV files. Most of Cowon's superb-sounding players support FLAC, the iPod supports Apple's lossless format and even underdogs such as TrekStor's vibez support FLAC as well. A class 'A' nitpicker would argue there's no place for lossless audio in a flash player. Such nitpickers are free to comment with their complaints but should expect lengthy explanations as to why they're completely wrong in return.

Videos look stunning on the 64mm (2.5-inch) screen. Colours are vivid and rich, and playback is beautifully smooth. While we haven't had chance to extensively test video features, our first impressions are extremely positive.

Keep your eyes peeled for our full review very soon. In the mean time, click through for more close-up photos than you can shake your ex-girlfriend's cat at. -Nate Lanxon

Some glossy navigation buttons sit to the right of the display.

A mini USB socket graces the right-hand edge, along with a hold switch and headphone socket.

The casing to the rear features a nice indented ripple effect.

For a device of this size, the screen is attractively large.

An SD card sits in the top of the device...

... but is fortunately filled by a fake card when not in use!