Creative Zen

Ever since it introduced its first portable MP3 player, Creative has struggled to get the aesthetics right. It's still struggling. New Creative Zen 20G looks more like a voltage meter than the last word in high-fashion e-wear, although it's otherwise a very fine product.

Creative claims Zen can deliver 11 hours of MP3 music between recharges. It takes about four hours to recharge Zen using USB 2.0 power.

Much like Sony with its Walkman products, Creative has kept Zen simple, focusing on delivering quality audio and long battery life instead of weighing it down with an array of additional features. The extra features it does have are quite logical and unobtrusive, such as an in-built calendar, FM tuner, voice recorder and a mode called removable disk mode, which allows Zen to act as a high-capacity transport for files of any type. It weighs just 140.5g.

Controlling Zen is managed through five face buttons and a glide-pad-like scroller (which even makes a clicking noise when used to indicate that it is, indeed, scrolling). The scroller and the play controls work very well--it takes little time to adjust to them, and once you have, navigating through your songs is a breeze. It could have used a button for quick access to voice recording, but navigating through the menu to get to the voice recorder is relatively painless. Its audio output during our tests was very good, delivering excellent MP3 playback even at low bit-rates, although the audio could be a bit flat at times. It has an internal EQ with presets. It also tuned and played back FM radio well, and even had an auto-scanner for presets.

Zen has is an internal calendar and contacts manager that you can sync with Microsoft Outlook. It's quite a neat little personal information manager, not overly complicated or detailed, but enough to keep things running. Zen comes with some very slick software called Creative MediaSource, which takes an age to install but is well worth the wait. It's a media player, converter, playlist manager and transfer tool. It's well-designed and powerful. Also included is a much simpler tool, called the Zen Media Explorer, which is designed for one-button synching between your PC music library or data files, ripping CDs directly to Zen and downloading your Outlook schedule and contacts to Zen.

Zen does not present itself to the operating system as a removable hard disk, but goes one better. It has excellent Windows Explorer integration, appearing in the device list on the left hand side, with a logical (not actual) file system that allows you to drag and drop files into the Music or Data folders.

It's hard not to like Zen. It plays music well, has some excellent PC software, and FM radio tuner and even has a small PIM application built into the player.

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