The Zen PMC's interface, which looks and behaves much like its Media Center counterpart, marks a significant advance in navigating a portable device. The Start menu has five basic options: My TV, My Music, My Pictures, My Videos, and Settings. Once you drill down into a main menu option, you'll be able to instantly categorize your content without much fuss, thanks to the interface's innovative x/y-axis design, which Microsoft has coined twist navigation. For example, within My Music, a horizontal list appears with the items Artist, Album, Songs, Genres, Playlists, or New. As you navigate left or right, the contents of each item spills down below it, including a Play All option. Once you select a track or any other item, it appears along with all the other tracks in the horizontal list. It's difficult to understand without using it, but it makes playing music or adding songs to a playlist a breeze.
Likewise, you can sort videos by New, Name, or Date, and all videos include an automatic resume feature. You can have 10 movies bookmarked and resume watching them from where you left off. The same goes for My TV; you could have five recorded shows, then watch and bookmark all of them independently--and on your own clock. Also, you can move forward in commercial-skipping 24-second intervals and rewind in 10-second intervals. In My Photos, you can set parameters for slide shows and even listen to music while you're viewing photos. While it lacks convenient features such as audio and video recording, the Zen PMC has the soul of a computer and the heart of a multitasker.
Once you're experienced with the interface, you'll realize the player's depth. For example, when you're listening to a song, you'll see a Now Playing page with graphically pleasing ID3 tag info and larger-than-life album art. Pressing the left or right controller buttons will take you to additional screens with options such as play-mode selection, an equalizer, user ratings, and even an option to buy CDs (which takes you to a purchase page when you sync up with your PC).
One of the Zen PMC's coolest features is Auto Sync, which allows the player to sync automatically with WMP10. The device utilizes Microsoft's driverless MTP device standard and shows up in WMP10; based on user-defined auto playlist settings, the Zen can transfer up to 20GB (pretranscoded size will be much higher) of content via USB 2.0. These settings can include top-rated music, favorite photos, TV programs acquired within a certain time frame, and so on. You can also manually transfer content. Additionally, the Zen PMC is compatible with the next-gen Windows DRM (formerly known as Janus), which will allow music and video subscribers to download and play licensed content on the device for as long as the subscription is valid.
The settings page includes Equalizer, with seven presets that can be monitored in real time; Display; Effects, for sound and animated screen effects; International, Restore Original Settings; and Information, which has a breakdown of all the content on the unit.The Creative Zen Portable Media Center, along with other PMC models, runs on standardized hardware specs, including a 400MHz Intel XScale processor, 64MB of RAM, 2MB of ROM, USB 2.0, and a screen resolution of 320x240 pixels. The size of the screen and the hard drive may vary, depending on the manufacturer and model.
Depending on the quality of the file, video files look sharp and vibrant on the 3.8-inch screen. Occasionally--and depending on the original file's aspect ratio--video can look squeezed. The device's audio quality takes a step down from that of its audio-only counterparts (such as the Creative Zen Touch) with a 90dB signal-to-noise ratio, but it's still impressive to the ears, especially when you're watching a movie.
The Zen PMC's animated screen effects, such as text and graphics morphing and sliding, are a nice touch and give the interface a responsive feel. We noticed an occasional delay while forwarding or rewinding through and between songs. This is not a concern, though, as the 400MHz processor is speedy enough in most cases. As far as powering on the system, this is an instant-on experience, and it resumes where you left off.
At 7 hours, 45 minutes, the Zen's battery life exceeded the rated 7 hours for video only; we were also able to squeeze a bit less than the rated 22 hours out of the Zen PMC for audio. Most users will play back a combination of video, audio, and photos, so expect a realistic battery life of somewhere between 10 and 15 hours. These are impressive numbers indeed, more so because you can throw a spare battery into the mix for about $70 (price has not been finalized). The Zen PMC has a modest transfer rate of 2.5MB per second using Windows Explorer drag and drop and 2MB per second using WMP10, both over USB 2.0.