Creative Zen Vision: M Review

By Lewis Leong

Intro

In today’s society the MP3 player has become embedded into our daily lives and there is no shortage in choices of MP3 players. But why is it that so many companies produce great MP3 players while only one holds a majority of the market share? Apple has dominated sales since its introduction of its iPod. Apple is by no means the creator of the MP3 player, as many people are prone to think. The reason why Apple has grabbed such a huge market share is that it created a trend with their stylish and sleek iPod and its no-brainer graphical user interface (which Apple “borrowed” from Creative, hence the subsequent lawsuit.) Many companies have tried to create an MP3 player to give Apple a good poke in the eye and one company that might just be able to, is Creative. With their launch of the Zen Vision: M, iPod fans were suddenly wooed away from their comfort zone because of all the extra features that the video iPod didn’t have such as a FM tuner, a screen that displays 264,000 colors vs. the iPod’s 65,000 colors, and the myriad file formats that it can play natively. These features are well enough but are they enough to dethrone the iPod? Let’s look and see.

Design

There is no doubt that the iPod and the Zen Vision: M look spectacularly similar. They share the exact same dimensions except for the thickness. The Vision: M is the same thickness of the fourth generation iPod but looks obese next to the video iPod. There is no doubt that the extra thickness is due to the Vision: M’s larger battery and multitude of features. The iPod is rated for 12 hrs of audio playback while the Vision: M is rated for 14 hrs of battery life and while the iPod is rated for a maximum of 2 hrs of video, the Vision: M is rated for an astonishing 4 hrs of video life. So the extra cub of the Vision: M is justified. After lugging the Vision: M around for a week, I did not find it to be uncomfortable to hold in the hand or heavy at all. It slips comfortably into any pocket.

Box shot. Notice the Best in Show award at CES.

Included are the sync adaptor, USB 2.0 cable, AC adaptor, carrying pouch, and stock earphones.

Creative chose to make the Vision: M in five different colors which include black, white, green, pink, and baby blue. I opted for the black because it looked the sleekest and classiest. There have been reports of the black version scratching easily so exercise caution. The front of the player includes all of the controls, minus the power/hold button, which is located on the top. The buttons include a play/pause, options, back, shortcut (which is a godsend because it can be customized to do whatever you want) and the FF and RW buttons are located at the edges of the touch pad. Creative stuck with what it knows best and continues to use its vertical touch strip. I actually prefer this over the iPod’s click wheel but I have to admit it takes some getting used to. The reason I prefer the touch strip is that you don’t have to move your thumb to the center to press the “OK” button. You can just tap where ever you are on the touch strip and it will respond. It just a matter of personal preference. There is a reset button on the bottom of the player but its ridiculously hard to reach and can only be pressed by a thin pointy object, preferably a bent paperclip. I don’t know what Creative was thinking when they put the reset button there because most people don’t usually walk around with a pocket of paper clips.

I applied an Invisible Skin to it to protect it. A worthwhile investment that you might want to check out. [www.shieldzone.com]

One small issue that I do have with the design of the player is the small extension that is required to sync/charge/display in A/V out. Though convenient in its own way, it is just another device to lose and to carry around. Apple has handled this problem better by creating a wall charger that can be used with the sync cable, which means carrying around one less cable. What irks me about Apple is that they do not include the wall charger with their players. Creative took the initiative to include a wall charger in their package, which is always welcome.

The sync adaptor (USB, AC, A/V)

Features

So the iPod wins in design but where the Vision: M wins is in the screen. The difference in the amounts of colors that each player displays is breath-taking. I played around with my cousin’s iPod video and though that the screen was good but when I turned on my Vision: M, I was blown away. The pictures and video positively pop out of the screen, though some pictures are over saturated. It makes ordinary photos look brilliant and professional on its screen. Both the iPod and Vision: M display in 320×240 but the Vision displays 640×480 on the television which translates to a crystal clear picture. Files larger than 320×240 played on the Vision yields some aliasing but it is negligible. This is applicable for photos too but the aliasing goes away when zoomed in. One feature I thoroughly enjoyed was the ability to pick any picture and set it as a wallpaper. The Vision even lets you change the brightness of the picture and add effects such as black and white and sepia to the photo before applying it as a wallpaper. Pretty nifty. One thing that irks me to no end is the fact that Creative does not bundle an A/V cable with their player. I suppose some users will never use the A/V function but they did not have to create a whole different cable just for the Vision: M. For $18.99, you can pick up the aforementioned cable. I’ll pass because I found that the A/V cable for my father’s camcorder works OK. Sure it only plays audio in mono but hey, it works and it’s free.

The lovely Allyson Larkin being displayed on my television.

Other features that may tempt potential iPod buyers include a FM tuner (with a cool reception bar and 32 programmable presets and it can record radio,) voice recording, and compatibility with subscription services, both audio (ie: Napster to go, Starz Vongo.)

Note the reception bars in the upper left hand corner.

One reason why the iPod is such a popular seller is because of the seamless integration with iTunes. Everything is simplified into one program and opens the user to a world of content. The iTunes store is simple and beautiful and has been the one defining choice among some users to choose an iPod. Other MP3 players can not enjoy such seamless integration with a music program. Or can they…? With the recent release of Windows Media Player 11, users are now able to purchase DRMed music from MTV’s URGE service. Still in beta, Windows Media Player 11 and URGE are still slowly being improved so the “seamless” integration is not quite there yet but I’ve had to pleasure to try it out and I have to say it’s on the road to taking on iTunes. Purchasing tracks on URGE is simple because it only asks you for your credit card number once and you can purchase million of songs with a click. One feature I really enjoy about URGE is way they organize their content in easy to access playlists and charts. Some pages still will not show up properly in URGE but since they’re still in beta, that’s forgivable. One thing I find strange is Microsoft’s investment into their own music service after investing millions into URGE. We’ll wait and see how that pans out.

The software that is included in the installation CD is not as pleasurable to use as WMP11. WMP11 adds simplicity with a lot of manual functions that are easily accessible to the user but the included software is just…blah. It works and that’s about as much as it can do. It’s simplified by the drag and drop method but there’s no eye candy and seems very archaic. WMP11 is the program to use with the Vision: M and all other MP3 players, excluding the iPod of course. DivX, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, WMV, and XviD formats are all supported by the Vision: M which means less time converting files and more time playing them. For the files that aren’t supported, WMP11 or Creative’s own software converts the files into .avi.

Watching a scene from NBC’s new show, Conviction.

A gripe that many people will have about owning a MP3 player other than an iPod is the lack of podcast integration. Creative takes a stab at the podcasting scene with its ZenCast website and it’s ZenCast Organizer. It works but it’s not as intuitive or pleasurable to use as iTunes. The website especially needs work with the organization of its content because no one wants to flip through 15+ pages of podcasts to find the one they want. The ZenCast website is a good idea because it does not isolate other players from using the site and subscribing to RSS feeds.

Browsing pictures through thumbnails.

Some noticeable aliasing.

With all the talk of video playback, it is easy to forget what the Zen Vision: M was designed to do: play music. It is in the DAP (digital audio player, ie: video iPod) class and not the PMP (portable media player, ie: Archos AV500.) Audio play back is everything someone could ask for. 97dB signal to noise ratio ensures flawless sound and album art is displayed well, though a little aliased because of the smaller resolution. The included headphones are decent for their price ($9.99) but they lack the bass and clarity of higher end headphones such as the Shures or Etymotics. I recommend ditching the stock ear phones and purchasing some noise isolation or noise canceling headphones. You won’t regret it, especially if you take public transportation. The Vision: M supports MP3, WMA, WAV, Janus, and now Audible with the latest firmware upgrade. One function that I enjoy on Creative players is the DJ mode in which you can select “Album of the Day” which just chooses one album at random, “Random Play All,” “Most Popular,” and “Least Popular.” It’s a nice function to have.

Nicely displayed album art and audio info.

Performance

The Vision is rated at 14 hrs for audio and 4 hrs video but reports from consumers have found that they can surpass these times, which is very impressive indeed. An improvement over previous Creative players is the startup time which takes about 10 seconds from a cold start but just 2-3 seconds when it’s been booted up at least once every 4 hours. Every 4 hours, the player slips out of “standby” mode and into a fully off mode to spare battery life. Charging via USB takes a whopping 5-6 hrs but with the included wall charger, that time is slashed to 2-3 hrs. I have yet to test out the battery life by myself but from normal use, I suspect I can reach the claimed battery life.

Blue LED indicates that the power is on. Notice the rather “pudgy” thickness relative to the iPod.

The user interface is easy to use and figure out without reading the manual. This is a good thing because the text in the included manual is sparse, to say the least. Creative could do with a little more text and pictures in their manuals because there are a lot of shortcuts and features that are not highlighted in the included documents. I was a little intimidated when I first opened the box because there were 3 installation CDs included with the player. One was for Creative’s own software, one was for Yahoo’s software and services, and the last was for the Plays4Sure software. If I had no prior knowledge to Yahoo’s and Plays4Sure software, I would have probably been very confused.

The ability to zoom into pictures.

The FM tuner was a great little feature with better reception than I expected, due to the poor reception that I got from my Zen Micro which is now dead from a catastrophic hard drive failure. In FM tuner mode, there is a little reception bar in the upper left hand corner which I found pretty useful.

The Zen Vision: M allows you to rate songs on the fly.

Conclusion

It is hard to recommend one MP3 player over the other because each has their strengths and their faults. The iPod wins in design and popularity while the Zen Vision: M wins in features and many like buying the “underdog” of the MP3 players. With the release of WMP11, URGE, Starz Vongo, Napster to go, Rhapsody to go, etc., it seems that the underdog has a chance of staging a coup and overthrowing the iPod regime.

Creative Zen Vision: M and Sennheiser CX300s in perfect harmony.

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