Digit takes the Creative Zen Portable Media Center on the road. Will it move our world?

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Watching telly on the train might attract a few stares, especially if it

There's a lot to like about the Zen, but whether you'd want to splash out on one is another matter.

The First of the PMCs

Portable Media Centers, or PMCs, display still images and play audio and video (including TV programs and full-length movies) stored on their hard drive. They do not feature wireless connectivity and they do not stream video or audio. The Creative Zen is shipping now in the US. It's yet to launch in the UK.

All PMCs will have common features required by Microsoft, including minimum specs for hard drives, display, and resolution. The Zen we tested had a 20GB hard drive and a 3.8-inch display with a screen resolution of 320-x-240.

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The Zen, which is about twice the size and weight of an iPod, feels sturdy and features firm, shiny buttons and a shiny black case. Unfortunately, that shine can cause light to reflect off the screen at times, making images hard to see. 
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All PMCs require a Windows XP or Windows XP Media Center Edition PC. You connect the device to your PC via USB 2.0 and transfer content using Microsoft

We tested out the Creative Zen on a PC running Windows XP Pro and found it easy to install (though the PC wouldn't recognize the PMC before it was upgraded to Windows Media Player 10).

Get in sync

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To transfer content to the Zen, you select the Sync tab in WMP 10. From there, the application presents a screen split in two - on the left I could build a list of content I wanted to transfer to the Zen, and on the right I could select the Zen itself.
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You also have the option of syncing content to your CD or DVD drive, or other forms of removable media storage. Then, with one click, the sync begins. Transferring a three-hour baseball game (a 469MB WMV file) downloaded from MLB.com (a Microsoft content partner) takes just a few minutes. You can also set WMP 10 to sync content automatically.
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PMCs support several content formats, including Windows Media Video, Windows Media Audio, MP3, and JPEG. The device and included software also make it easy to convert files in other formats - MPEG, MPEG2, MPA, WAV, and AVI, for example - into formats you can use. 
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The Zen is also one of the first devices to support Microsoft

If you use a PMC with a TV-connected Media Center PC (or even a standard XP-based PC with a TV tuner card) it becomes a much more useful device. You can record television programs and transfer them to your PMC to watch while you commute or travel.

However, the way WMP 10 manages the Zen is flawed. First, it's hard to find the correct software button to safely disconnect the PMC from the computer - there was no equivalent of the Eject iPod button found in iTunes.

You have to manually shut down the device using the icon in the system tray. Secondly, when you build a playlist of songs using WMP 10, and then try to transfer it to the PMC, only the songs on the list were transferred--not the playlist itself.

Let the music play

Playing back audio, video, and still images on the Zen is a breeze. The device powers on in less than 5 seconds, and the opening screen shows a basic start menu that lets you choose from My TV, My Music, My Pictures, or My Videos. Select one, and you can browse through your media collection and play back your files.

The Zen includes both a headphone jack and a built-in external speaker. The included earbuds are serviceable, and the speaker will do in a pinch, but you'll really want better quality headphones to best enjoy the audio.

The Zen includes a removable rechargeable lithium ion battery. Creative says the battery will power up to 22 hours of audio playback or 7 hours of video playback between charges.

Video quality is mixed, depending on the source. Movies from CinemaNow are crystal clear, but the baseball game we downloaded would occasionally blur, much the way streaming video appears on a PC. Despite its small size, the screen proved easy to see, even when watching big-picture events like a baseball game.

The Zen features A/V out slots that let you connect the device to a TV to watch a movie or television show. Unfortunately, watching stored video on a 27-inch television is disappointing, as the image appeared distorted.

But the Zen is really meant for mobile use, and it does that job fairly well. Still, many people will feel the novelty of watching movies on the move isn't worth the money. Frequent travellers or TV addicts (especially those with a Media Center PC) might find it to be a dream device, but for the rest of us the price is just too high.