Creative Labs Zen Neeon
- Attractive design, small and light, extensive personalisation options, line-in recording, voice recording, FM tuner and FM recording, excellent battery life
- Poor interface, laggy and uncomfortable controls, slow file transfers
An attractive, feature-packed and affordably priced player that falls down on control and interface design, the Neeon may appeal to those who place a high premium on looks and are willing to battle a less-than-ideal control setup.
Price$ 299.95 (AUD)
Creative has been making the news for all the wrong reason at the time of writing. Hours after receiving this review unit, it was announced that Creative were temporarily suspending sales of the Zen Neeon, after a small number of units on sale in Japan were found to be infected with the W32.Wullik.B@mm worm.
Coming at a time when Creative are looking to take the fight to market leader Apple, the Zen Neeon's Worm worries are hardly what Creative were hoping for, to usher in their newest entrant to the microdrive MP3 market.
Leaving aside viral concerns, the Neeon has plenty to recommend it. At a diminutive 4.7 x 8cm, and a super-slim 1.6cm, the Zen Neeon is smaller and svelter than its' main competitor, the Ipod Mini. At 75 grams, it's also substantially lighter. The Neeon's obelisk-like black front is entirely button free, and makes a good first impression, with an anodized aluminium rear available in a variety of colours. The player can be accessorized with a variety of Stik-OnTM covers (this unit was shipped with a flower-child influenced tie-dye skin), to change the appearance of your faceplate. The unit also sports a variety of coloured, user-selectable backlights, including a striking Orange and Cyan blue option. When it comes to appearance, personalisation is the name of the game for Creative.
The Neeon plays MP3 files as well as WMA, up to 320kbps. It can also create MP3 and WAV files with the builtin Microphone, Line-In socket or FM Stereo Tuner. The 5GB of storage provided is enough for around 166hrs of music playback, and the player doubles as a portable Hard Drive for all your file storage needs.
In terms of sound quality, the Neeon is an all-round solid performer. Whilst metalheads may be somewhat disappointed at the maximum volume, the Neeon provides acceptable sound levels, even in noisy environments. We found the Neeon produces crisp, clear sound from the stylish and surprisingly good included earphones. Four Equalizer settings (along with the frequently requested user-configurable EQ) are available, and depending on the genre of music can make a substantial difference to the audio quality.
The included USB 2.0 cable serves double duty for both data transfer and charging the internal Li-Ion battery. For those who spend long periods of time away from the PC, an optional AC adapter is available for purchase. In the file transfer stakes, we found the Neeon to be a somewhat sluggish performer. Using the Zen MediaExplorer software, a1.8GB MP3 collection took a lacklustre 31 minutes to copy, pegging the Neeon at around 1Mb/sec. This makes the Neeon substantially slower than the Ipod Mini's 5.5Mb/sec transfer rate, and half the speed of Creative's own Zen Micro. Sustained file transfers using Windows explorer were substantially better, yielding an average 3.3Mb/sec.
Battery life on the Neeon is extremely good, and we were able to achieve around 13.4hrs of MP3 playback (at various bitrates) .This compares favourably to the Ipod Mini's quoted 8 hours, and the Neeon's recharge time of approx 7 hours is equally respectable.
Unfortunately, the Zen Neeon falls down when it comes to interface. The side jog-wheel is extremely small and provides poor tactile feedback. The "springy" motion of the wheel is cheap, tacky, and stands in stark contrast to the Neeon's smooth aesthetic. The wheel is also heavily ridged, making it rather uncomfortable to use. The jog wheel is clickable, however clicking is both difficult to accomplish and relatively difficult to perform. Accidental knocks are common.
Worse still, we found the Neeon suffers from chronic interface lag. It sometimes takes up to 4 seconds to change tracks or to update the LCD display, which can become extremely frustrating for users accustomed to "fast flipping" through their music collection. With a small music collection, this is relatively forgivable. However, with a larger selection, the lag can become irritating in the extreme. Combine this with the relatively small 3 line LCD display, which frustrates easy browsing, and it can make for a case of navigation frustration.
We also experienced problems with the FM tuner. The included "autoscan" feature would not work correctly, frequently presetting non-existent stations and skipping over other, valid ones. The default "tuning" behaviour of the jogwheel also made FM navigation difficult. On the upside, once working correctly, the FM recording feature is very useful.
The Zen Neeon ships with Creative's MediaSource and Zen MediaExplorer, for managing your music collection and the player respectively. Mediasource is a creditable music manager, with a fairly clean interface and basic CDripping capabilities. The Zen MediaExplorer provides an explorer-like interface to the Zen, and allows you to perform basic tasks such as creating playlists, formatting the player and ripping Cds directly to the Neeon. It also incorporates a feature called "Smartfit", that will automatically re-encode music to a smaller, lower quality file to ensure all your music will fit on your Player.
Finally, the Stik-OnTM covers are a novelty worth mentioning. Whilst the player looks very attractive in its' naked state, the ability to change the look of the Neeon is nice bonus feature. The cover was relatively easy to put on, and can be peeled off and re-used up to 100 times. Unfortunately, it is hard to avoid small bubbles forming underneath the stick-on. Whilst Creative suggests removing them with a plastic card, it seems some bubbles are unavoidable.
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