We can only imagine the conversations with Microsoft that took place when Creative decided to ditch Redmond’s Portable Media Center platform in favor of its own homebrew interface (“It’s not you—it’s us”). But it was a smart move. The Zen Vision is far superior to its Microsoft-powered predecessor in almost every respect.
Creative is learning how to sex up its products in order to make consumers feel inadequate for not having them. The Zen Vision’s aesthetic appeal is seductive—almost slutty, even—with a mellow finish, chrome detail, and gently rippled surface in the back.
It powers up at the flick of a slider switch at the top, and the buttons even illuminate for a brief interval after any contact, for nighttime use. The Home menu screen is both attractive and utilitarian (not Microsoft’s strong suit), presenting all the player options on a single, easily navigable page. Navigation is controlled by a five-way rocker switch on the right-side of the player fascia, which also sports three playback buttons, a return button for backing out of menus, and a button that pops up a contextual menu with options based on the media you’re viewing.
The Zen Vision’s 3.7-inch screen supports 262,000 colors at a resolution of up to 640x480; that’s enough shades to actually attract a bee should you inadvertently leave a picture of a clover blossom on the screen. But, sadly, the screen’s ideal viewing angle is extremely limited when viewed in landscape mode—which you’d use to watch a movie. The optimum viewing angle is actually slightly off-axis!
Granted, from this angle the video looks fabulous, with rich color and no artifacts, but who wants to watch a whole movie in such a manner? If you turn the player on its side and view it in portrait mode head-on, it looks spectacular and every bit bee-worthy, an indication that the Zen Vision is using the same screen designed for today’s high-resolution PDAs, which are intended to be viewed in portrait mode.
Curiously, the software bundled with the Zen Vision will only convert video to—here we go again—Windows Media Video, and then only up to 320x240! What gives? The player is certainly capable of better: We had no problem playing back files of up to DVD resolution (740x480) in Divx and WMV formats (though not Divx 6, which will hopefully gain support in a firmware upgrade). This is a strange quirk, but more eyebrows will likely be raised by the Zen Vision’s lack of any video recording ability at all. (Then again, Sony initially dismissed the Walkman, thinking no one would want a cassette player that didn’t record!) The choice is yours.
As is customary with players from Creative, the sound is dee-licious; although audio playback is slightly tilted toward the high end, there’s plenty of boom in the bottom. There are a few extras, such as organizer functions, a built-in voice recorder, and FM radio, but none approach the convenience of the integrated CompactFlash slot. While not breathtaking in itself, you can purchase an optional adapter that supports five different formats, including SD cards. You can also purchase a higher-capacity battery if three hours and 45 minutes of continuous video playback just isn’t enough.
Creative Labs did the right thing ditching the Portable Media Center platform to become a little more permissive about the formats it supports. Now we’d like to see the company push the envelope with a wider viewing angle and higher volume ceiling. If we end up buying a competing player from Archos or even Apple, we’ll just have to admit to Creative—it’s not us, it’s you.
Beautifully crisp screen, good design, and no stupid video DRM>
Extremely narrow viewing angle, no line-in video recording, and mediocre battery life.
|VIDEO||WMV, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, Divx 4, Divx 5, Xvid|
|AUDIO||MP3, WMA (including protected WMA>, WAV|
|DISPLAY||3.7-inch TFT LCD; 640x480; 262, 144 colors|
|EXPANSION||CompactFlash with optional 5-in-1 memory card adapter|