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Creative Labs Zen Micro 5GB Review

Highs

  • Excellent sound quality; more features than comparably priced models

Rating

Our Score 7
User Score 6

Lows

  • Uncomfortable ear buds; firmware must be updated to work properly
The Zen Micro by Creative Labs is arguably the best looking iPod clone on the market.

Summary

Apple’s iPod is truly a testament to the power of good engineering. What started out as a new design approach to a relatively old idea, the iPod has turned into a phenomenon unlike anything the tech world has seen in recent years. Who would have guessed that a portable audio player from a computer company would set a new standard for others to follow.

Creative Labs, a company which has been in the portable audio market for years, has had to adapt to the iPod craze by developing players that emulate the look and feel of Apple’s digital success. The Zen Micro by Creative Labs is arguably the best looking iPod clone on the market. Featuring more storage space for the same price as Apple’s iPod mini, the $249 dollar Zen Micro will appeal to those that want more compatibility with music services and audio formats. The Apple iPod is hard to beat for a reason; does the Zen Micro have the right stuff? Read on to find out.

*Edit 1/24/05 – Firmware version Creative Zen Micro *PlaysForSure/MTP Firmware 2.00.12 was used for this review

*Edit 2/1/05 – Score was raised from a to an 7 due to resolved problems the new firmware update fixed

Features and Design

Creative Lab’s Zen Micro comes in ten different colors, from black and orange to blue and the infamous white, there is a color that should appeal to everyone. Our review unit came in the white variety with an out-of-the-box look that rivaled the Apple iPod mini from a distance. Featuring a silver touch sensitive control pad on the front of the player, you can control the Zen Micro by simply tapping an area of the pad just like you can with an Apple iPod. But other than its looks, the similarities stop there.

Creative Labs Zen micro
Which color will you choose?

Utilizing an IBM micro drive manufactured by Seagate, the Zen Micro comes with 5GB of storage compared to the 4GB found in the Apple iPod mini. The Zen Micro has a number of features that separate it from others on the market as well. This includes a built in FM receiver and voice recording capabilities as well as the ability to store not only music but data on the player, including synchronizing your calendar and a to-do list with Microsoft Outlook. The 12-hour battery which comes with the player is removable so you can replace it easily; perfect for those long flights. The Zen Micro also has a built-in sleep timer that will wake you up to the song of your choice.

Although the Creative Labs website does not do a great job telling the user what music services the Zen Micro is compatible with, it should support any service that utilizes Microsoft’s WMA DRM (Digital Right’s Management) technology which includes Microsoft’s MSN music service and Napster. And because it uses Microsoft Plays for Sure media transfer protocol, you can synchronize your music library with your PC using Windows Media Player 10.

The Zen Micro supports playback for MP3, WMA and WAV audio formats. There is no word on whether Creative Labs will be adding support for Ogg Vorbis or other audio formats. The Zen Micro is not compatible with Apple’s iTunes music service and software which is expected since Apple has not licensed its DRM technology to any other company yet. With the built in microphone, you can record up to 10 hours of voice recording in the WAV audio format. And lastly, there are 10 equalizer settings which include acoustic, classical, disco, jazz, new age, pop, rock, and vocal.

Design-wise the Zen Micro is a very attractive player. The screen is backlit by a light blue light and the menu font is very easy to read. All of the cables and accessories come in the same white color as the player keeping the look very consistent. The ear buds are attractive looking and heavy giving them a feeling of quality. There are two ways to charge the Zen Micro, you can either plug it into your computer using a USB 2.0 interface or you can plug it into a power outlet using the included A/C adapter. When the player is charging, it emits a pulsating blue glow informing you it’s in charging mode.

Setup and Use

If you purchase the Zen Micro, the first thing we recommend you do is to go to Creative Labs website and download the latest firmware update. If you decide to update your players firmware at a later time, be forewarned, at this time doing so will erase the entire hard drive, including your stored songs and data files.  We believe this to be a current bug that will hopefully be fixed with later firmware updates.

We were impressed with the size of the player; it is about a ¼-inch shorter than the Apple iPod mini, although it is a tad bit thicker and wider. And with its rounded corners, the player fits comfortably in your hand. After initially unpacking the unit, we charged its battery overnight before trying the unit out. After charging our Zen Micro, we updated the player’s firmware and proceeded to transfer music over to it. We are a big fan of Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 10 and were excited to see how the Zen Micro interfaced with it. We also installed Creative’s own MediaSource software to see how the two programs compared to each other. When using Windows Media Player 10 (WMP) we noticed that Microsoft’s program would delete the music files previously stored on our unit before synchronizing with its Auto sync feature. Fortunately there is a setting in WMP that will allow you to turn this off, so you might want to do that before you synchronize the two.

Creative’s own MediaSource software is adequate, but its interface and ease of use is not on par with Apple’s iTunes or Windows Media Player; it feels incomplete and clunky after a while. If you prefer to bypass using software altogether, you can simply drag and drop the music files over to the player using Windows Explorer. A word of caution though, if you do this, your audio files will not be categorized by artist, album, genre etc like it would be using WMP 10 or Creative’s Media Source. You must use one method of storing your music, you cannot do both otherwise the player will have trouble differentiating between the two.

Creative Labs Zen Micro

We had a chance to use the player using Real Player and found that the Zen Micro had a tough time working correctly with this software. With RealPlayer running, connecting the Zen Micro would frequently cause RealPlayer to lock-up, ruining the overall experience with Real Player. Until Creative Labs or RealNetworks releases a fix, we recommend you stick with WMP 10. As of this writing the Zen Micro is not compatible with MusicMatch Jukebox, but we have been told that Creative is working with Musicmatch to get the Zen Micro supported.

The menu system on the Zen Micro is easy to use but follows a navigational pattern that may take a while to get used to. There is not a separate volume control, so you are forced to use the center slider touch pad which is also used for menu navigation, if you want to adjust the volume. This can get very frustrating at times. In the top level of the menu you can choose from Music Library, Play Mode, Now Playing, FM Radio, Extra and System options. You will use the same center touch pad to scroll up and down through the menu options and then you quickly tap the touch pad to make your selection. We were forced to lower the sensitivity of the touch pad to its lowest setting in order to navigate the menu, and even then we found ourselves accidentally making selections we did not want because the touch pad is just too sensitive. Putting the player in “hold” mode will lock the controls and make sure you do not accidentally hit a button while music is being played.

Performance

Although the Zen Micro comes with a USB 2.0 interface, we found music transfer to be much slower than we expected and noticeably slower than other hard drive based music players we have tested in the past.  We transferred the same album to both the iPod Mini and the Zen Micro, and the results where surprising.  They both use USB 2.0, but the Zen Micro seemed like it was transferring at USB 1.0 speeds.  The iPod Mini took about 2 seconds to transfer each song, where the Zen Micro took between 8 to 10 seconds per song, depending on size.

The ear buds that come with the Zen Micro are of very high quality and probably the best sounding ear buds to come packaged with any audio player out there. The player itself features a 98dB SNR (signal to noise ratio) according to Creative Labs, although we are not sure of power output levels.  Unfortunately for as good as the ear buds sound, they physically hurt our ears after an hour of prolonged use. We had several people try them out and everyone found the size of the ear buds just too large to use for long periods of time – a shame for sure.

The 10 different equalizer settings do a good job of distinguishing the various genres of music out there. We were able to noticeably hear changes in our music when changing the equalizer settings from one setting to another. Bass is adequate when playing techno or hip-hop music in “pop” mode and acoustic guitars sound very life-life when the equalizer is in acoustic mode for example.

Creative Labs rates the battery life of their Zen Micro at 12 hours of use in between charges. Initially we found this to be pretty accurate with about 10-11 hours of use before we had to charge our unit. What we also found out was after about a month and a half of use that we were lucky to get 4 hours out of the battery before we had to charge it. Creative uses lithium-ion battery packs, but for some reason our batteries would drain very quickly. We even left the player plugged into its charger for a day and a half, and then unplugged it to see if it could keep its charge. After three days of simply sitting there and not in use, our test unit was drained dry. We tried this on two separate Zen Micro players just to be sure, and they both did this. Hopefully Creative finds a fix or there will be a lot of upset people out there.

Zen Micro
The battery is replaceable

Something of particular annoyance is that the Zen Micro has a tendency of locking up during normal use.  We experienced many lock-ups just trying to turn the player off, where it goes into a permanent shutting down cycle.  Removing the battery was the only way of getting the player to shutdown, even after leaving the player in this shutdown state for hours.  The fact that the player can frequently lockup just shutting down is a severe issue.  This could cause your data and music to become corrupt when removing the battery.

Conclusion

There is a reason why the iPod reigns supreme; it simply works as it says it will. Apple has made us upset with their unwillingness to support software other than iTunes and we were really hoping the Creative Labs Zen Micro would be a good alternative, but it just left us feeling let down. If you read any other reviews both in print publication and on the web, you will be led to believe that the Zen Micro is the iPod killer we have all been waiting for, but it isn’t. We have to wonder if these other publications even tested the Zen Micro before writing a review. After testing two different players and using them for a couple months, the flaws in the Zen Micro were very obvious to us.

Creative Labs has a couple problems they need to address before they can stand to compete with others in this market. First of all, something is draining the battery life from its player at increased rates, both when it’s being used and when it’s powered off. Getting four hours of battery life from a 12-hour battery is inexcusable. Secondly, while we love the audio quality from their ear buds, they are too big to use for long periods and will make your ears very sore. Lastly, Creative needs to polish their own MediaSource software and work on software compatibility with other Media Players like RealPlayer and MusicMatch. Here is our suggestion for Creative Labs: make a hard drive based digital audio player with only a few polished features and make sure it works well. Throwing in everything but the kitchen sink shouldn’t automatically mean it’s the best, it has to work correctly first.

*Images courtesy of Creative Labs