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Creative's superslim Zen has a gorgeous 320-by-240-pixel color display, an FM tuner, a built-in microphone, robust video- and photo-viewing capabilities, and the ability to import contact management information--and oh, yeah, it plays music.
What's impressive is how the flash-based Zen takes the best features of the Zen Vision M, and yet still manages to weigh less and to refine an already-tight interface. The $150 unit we tested has the size and shape of a standard-issue business card case (3.26 by 2.16 by 0.44 inch). Storage capacity in the product line ranges from 2GB ($80) to 32GB ($300). All models have a built-in SD Card slot to accommodate an instant space upgrade.
Despite its reduced size, the Zen earned consistently high marks in our lab's audio tests. Its signal-to-noise ratio of 77 dB fell well short of the 89 dB achieved by SanDisk's Sansa Connect, but it was still quite good (a higher number means a cleaner signal).
The Zen's custom five-band equalizer (and eight presets) helped bring out the best in a variety of high-bit-rate test files.
This jack-of-all-trades can handle most audio formats, too, including Apple's AAC files. It can't play FLAC or Ogg Vorbis audio codecs, though.
The Zen works with MPEG-4, DivX4, DivX5, XviD, and WMV video files. Creative's simple Video Converter software optimizes output for the Zen's tiny screen; a typical hour-long show takes about 20 minutes to convert and occupies about 400MB of storage space.
A standard mini-USB jack built into the Zen's tiny frame lets you sync and power the device, which has a 30-hour play time for audio files (5 hours for video). Plug it into any PC, and the Zen functions as a hard drive. File transfer times are adequate, considering that the Zen works over a USB 2.0 connection: it copied some 16GB of mixed-media files in roughly 2 hours.
The player's simple interface makes navigating your media a breeze. All of the controls you need are flush against the right side of the device. A directional pad and four surrounding buttons let you drill down quickly through menus. The Zen is not ideal for one-handed operation, however. To get a clear look at the gorgeous screen, you have to steady the unit with your left hand while your right thumb taps to the desired song.
The Zen comes bundled with few accessories: a good pair of earbuds, a short USB cable, and an instruction pamphlet. If you want a protective case, you'll have to pay extra for it at Creative's Web site. In an admittedly unscientific test, we batted the Zen to the ground from 4 feet up; it bounced off the office carpeting and kept playing video--no scratches, no dings, no interruption in playback.
The Zen may lack the funky Wi-Fi functionality of Apple's iPod Touch, but it's a great choice for gadgeteers and audiophiles alike. If the 16GB's $150 price tag is too rich for your blood, buy a lower-end Zen and make up the difference with SD Cards.
This story, "Creative Zen Flash-Based MP3 Player" was originally published by PCWorld.
Gadget-lover's player may lack Wi-Fi but has lots of other features, wide format support and accepts SD cards.