Once, Apple's iPod had no serious competitors. Now, the iPod Nano faces serious competition from a handful of devices, most notably Creative's new Zen media player.
This little flash-based device is the width of a standard credit card and about a half-inch shorter. It sports an attractive and simple, if somewhat retro, interface, excellent display and sound quality and some nice-to-have extras that are missing in the Nano. And it's tiny, fitting comfortably both in the hand and in jeans pockets.
Other Nano competitors, including SanDisk's Sansa View and Microsoft's flash-based Zune, are expected soon, and we'll review them when they are available. In the meantime, if you're not tied down to the iTunes store, Creative's Zen line of players is worth your serious consideration.
The first thing I noticed after unpacking the Zen is its diminutive size. Yes, there are smaller media players -- the new Nano is a bit shorter and thinner -- but none with as big a display and as much storage capacity as the Zen. I tested the $129 4GB version, but Creative also is offering 8GB ($199) and 16GB ($249) versions. Apple doesn't offer a Nano with the latter capacity.
Perhaps because the credit card size and shape of the device is so familiar, the Zen fits comfortably in the hand. The 2.5-in. display (compared to the Nano's 2-in. display) uses most of the front of the device, with controls to the right of the display.
If you're looking for cutting-edge media player controls, you'll be disappointed with the Zen. It has rocker-type buttons at the top and bottom right side of the device that control functions like playback and going back to previous screens. Between them is a four-way rocker for browsing through menus with a selection button in the middle.
If you can get past the relatively old-fashioned controls, you'll find an intuitive, attractive and surprisingly customizable user interface. Creative's screens use large, bright and intuitive 3-D icons. The interface also uses the large screen well -- information about, for instance, the music track that's playing is easy to read.
Usefully, you can customize the top-level menus. For example, submenus to the main Music menu include Artists, Albums and Genres. You can easily add any of those options to the top-level menu. You also can easily change the order of items that appear on the top-level menu. This customization is available via a menu option.
Beautiful display, excellent sound
Creative put a lot of attention into making it enjoyable to watch videos on the Zen. The 2.5-in. display has 320 x 240 resolution and displays 16.7 million colors and, for a device this small, it's visually a stunner. One missing capability is that it can't switch between portrait and landscape modes -- this device works entirely in landscape mode.
I downloaded several video podcasts and other videos and found the playback to be sharp, adequately bright and without even a hint of jerkiness or dropped frames. The device supports a reasonable number of video formats, including MJPEG and WMV9 and, with transcoding using an included video conversion application, MPEG1, MPEG2 and even DivX.
Of course, the 2.5-in. display is large only compared to other media players this size. As appealing as it is, you can't watch a lot of videos on a screen this small without getting squinty-eyed.
The Zen's sound quality is strong, easily equaling iPod's clarity and definition. It also provides more than ample volume, a seemingly mundane and expected capability that even some otherwise competent media players don't offer. The device comes with eight preset equalizer settings, but they didn't add much to the sound quality. The same is true of the built-in bass booster, which does what it promises but also muddies the sound a bit.
The selection of supported audio formats is generous, including MP3 and both protected and non-protected WMA, which means the Zen works with music subscription services such as Rhapsody and Napster. It also supports nonprotected AAC, so you can transfer your iTunes tracks to the device after you've burned them to a CD. The device also supports WAV and Audible audio book formats (and it comes with a software application to manage Audible).
Extras and drawbacks
The Creative Zen is full of nice little touches. Unlike the iPod Nano, the Zen has a built-in FM player. It supports voice recording and also has a microSD storage slot, two more features iPods don't have.
The Zen comes with a decent set of software that includes applications to manage Audible audio books and ZenCasts, which are what Creative calls audio and video podcasts. Also included is an application for synchronizing contacts, appointments and to-do items with Outlook and one that installs firmware upgrades. However, the included MediaSource software for managing media on your PC and transferring it to the device is getting long in the tooth and is not particularly intuitive.
Projected battery life is 25 hours of continuous audio playback and five hours for video -- a smidge better than Nano's advertised playback time.
Of course, no device is perfect, and this one has a few flaws. The documentation is skimpy and the Zen comes with a strangely short 5-inch USB cable. Practically speaking, you'll need to get a longer USB cable.
The most maddening problem is related to using the add-in storage slot. In fairness, Creative and other media player vendors have been painted into a corner by Microsoft, which requires devices to be in so-called MTP mode when used in conjunction with online services that use Microsoft's digital rights management scheme.
This means that music and other media stored on the SD card, which uses MSC mode, can't be integrated with your core media collection. To Creative's credit, they made it very easy to switch to MSC mode -- you simply use a top-level menu option. Once in that mode, you can browse and play back the contents of the disk, but that's where the convenience ends.
In particular, Creative extended no advanced media management capabilities to its MSC support. That means, for instance, that a full CD of music appears as a folder and the files play back in alphabetical order, not the order they appear on the album.
Still, the Creative Zen's other capabilities, its small size and excellent video and audio playback quality make it both a solid iPod Nano competitor and a highly attractive gift option this holiday season.