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Creative Labs Zen Vision 30GB Review

Highs

  • Small
  • attractive design; easy to use; supports various video formats

Rating

Our Score 7
User Score 6

Lows

  • Poor software; playing video can be complicated; poor audio quality
The bottom line is that the Zen Vision is undoubtedly, a very cool product

Summary

Creative Labs second iteration of their portable media player, the Zen Vision, follows in the footsteps of their Zen Portable Media Center, which failed miserably when it was introduced. Forget everything you know about the Zen Portable Media Center though, because the Zen Vision is a completely different product – one that you might actually want. First of all, the Zen Vision ditches Microsoft’s Portable Media Center operating system, instead opting for a custom, in-house solution. With a 30GB hard drive and a 3.7” color screen, the Zen Vision should have a lot to offer, read on to see if it delivers.

Features and Design

When you get right down to it, the Creative Labs Zen Portable Media Center was a terrible product. However, most first attempts usually are. It had a bulky design, poor battery performance and the Microsoft Portable Media Center OS it used, left a lot to be desired. Fortunately the Zen Vision seems to be a completely new and innovative product. Available in both white and black, the Zen Vision is a very attractive unit. Our white review unit looks very similar to the Mobinote DVX-POD 7010 we wrote about over a year ago. There are of course several differences between the two units. First of all, the Mobinote comes with 20GB of storage space, compared to 30GB on the Zen Vision. Secondly the Mobinote has a higher resolution at 720×480 pixels and a larger screen; 7-inches versus the Zen Vision’s 3.7-inch screen. Of course, the Mobinote is not only larger, but costs more – a lot more; $599 to $699.

The 3.7-inch LCD color display on the Zen Vision, supports a 640×480 resolution and 262,144 colors, great for playing video and displaying pictures. Video playback includes support for MPEG 1/2/4, WMV 9, JPEG, DivX 4/5 and Xvid. On the audio side, the Zen Vision supports MP3, WMA and WMA with DRM (Digital Rights Management). Creative Labs clearly thought ahead when working on the video side, by including support for DivX and Xvid codecs, but it boggles us as to why there is a complete lack of compatibility for OGG, FLAC, AAC or other low compression formats on the audio side. Perhaps a future firmware update will fix this, but don’t keep your fingers crossed. The Zen Vision also has a built in microphone for voice and FM recording, and an FM radio tuner.

The Zen Vision measures in at 4.9” x 2.9” x 0.79” and weighs only 8.4 oz with the standard battery installed. The unit is larger than your typical MP3 player, but not too much larger, and rests in your hands quite comfortably. Button layout is very intuitive and easy to use – If you are right handed. You have your typical audio/video controls like play/pause/track skip etc, as well as your “back” and “menu” buttons. Lastly, there is a built in control pad for navigating the systems menu. Simply press in the area you want to go and push “ok” to make your selection. It’s rather simple. Speaking of navigation, the operating system GUI is extremely easy to use. It looks simple, is not cluttered and yet gives you plenty of control options, from changing the equalizer, and clock settings, to changing the wallpaper. In fact, the GUI is so good looking and easy to use, we could have sworn it was written by Apple.

Volume controls and the power/hold buttons are located on the top of the unit. The headphone jack, audio/video output jack and AC power connector are on the right side of the unit, protected by a rubber cover. The left side, has a compact flash slot (why no SD/MMC though!?) for expanded storage, whilst the mini USB 2.0 jack and docking cradle connector are on the bottom. The docking cradle costs an extra $39.99 for the Zen Vision, whilst an extra battery will run you $69.99 and a Zen Vision IR remote goes for $29.99. If you use the docking cradle and remote, you can basically use this device as part of your home theater, it’s a very cool concept.

Zen Vision
Creative Zen Vision, iRiver H10, Creative Zen Micro, Cowon iAudio X5

Setup and Use

Creative Labs uses their own software program, called MediaSource, for transferring files over to the Zen Vision. Creative’s MediaSource program works well – when it’s working. The installation CD that came with our player would not work on any of our test machines, crashing when it launched the Install Shield. So, we had to download the software from Creative’s website in order to get it installed. Creative’s MediaSource program is broken down into three different parts: The Audio Converter, the Player and the Organizer. The Audio Converter software lets you do batch conversions of audio files from one format to another, and then place the converted files into a specified folder. The formats supported include WAV, MP3, WMA, WMA Pro and WMA Lossless. MediaSource Organizer looks and feels very similar to the Sync portion of Windows Media Player 10. Here, you can organize your video and music libraries, and have the software sync what you tell it to, directly to the Zen Vision. You can either do an auto sync, where it synchronizes your entire library, or you can manually tell it what to sync. Lastly, is the MediaSource player which acts as the software media player on your PC. The look and feel of the whole MediaSource software package is fairly clean and easy to use. There are few advanced options available, but it should do the trick for most users.

The Video Vault software that also comes with the Zen Vision, is probably going to be your best friend if you want to put DVD content on your player. With this software, you can convert and transfer DVDs, VCDs, SVCDs, Analog and Digital Camcorder Tapes and even files to the Zen Vision. The main problem, is that this seems to have just been thrown in as an afterthought on Creative’s part. There are no instructions included with the software, plus it’s a trial version which means you will need to pay even more for a full-copy with all of the functions.

Other integrated features include a calendar, tasks and contacts list. You can sync these with Microsoft Outlook using the Creative Sync Manager software. It’s a nice feature to have, but don’t expect a full PDA replacement. We recommend going for the Palm Life Drive if you want that.

When viewing pictures, the Zen Vision will show a full screen full of picture thumbnails for you to choose from. You can opt to manually control which pictures are shown, or you can use the systems slidshow function to show images in a set order seperated by timer. You can setup the slideshow settings under the top level menu settings option. During manual or slideshow mode you can also play music in the background if you want to. Using the joystick, you can skip backwards, forwards or rotate the picture orientation. You can also output images to your television using the included A/V cable.

Zen Vision
Photo Thumbnails

On the audio side, we are very disappointed in the way the Zen Vision sounds. Bass distorts at medium to high volumes, and the included ear buds sound terrible. Although there are 9 equalizer settings to choose from, it is hard to tell the difference between them. Audio enthusiasts that are interested in this player, should buy a nice set of headphones or ear buds to help compensate for the poor audio hardware in the unit itself. Really though, you should get the Zen Vision for its video and picture capabilities. We expected better sound quality from Creative, which is known for their sound cards. Creative should have also added a second integrated speaker to give this device stereo sound, much like the Sony PSP. Instead, you are forced to listen to the single speaker found on the Vision if you do not want to have to use ear buds.

Zen Vision
Song and Artist Information

Video playback is very sharp on the 3.7” color screen, but you have to be looking at it directly in order to appreciate it. The LCD is very directional and looks terrible when viewed at an angle. Don’t expect to be sharing this with another person, since they probably won’t be able to see what’s going on. You can turn up the brightness and this will help a little bit, but expect your battery life to dwindle quite a bit. When outputting video to a television, the video quality is pretty good, remember, you are using composite/RCA connectors and a 640×480 resolution, so don’t expect HDTV quality images. The video quality is pretty amazing for a unit this small. There is an option on the player itself to playback recorded TV shows, but no where in the manual or the Creative MediaSource software, does it tell you how to play or record these, so treat it as a separate folder and manually dump TV shows in there if you want – If you can figure out how to record them that is. Now, there is a big catch to playing video files on the Creative Zen Vision. First of all, it does not support your typical MPG, .AVI, .ASF file, although the system says it does. We had to convert most of our files using Windows Media Player 10 before they would play on the Zen Vision. This can take quite a long time to do so, and would have been nice if we could have kept the files in their native format. A lot of DivX and Xvid files use the .AVI extension but we had to convert them before using them on our Zen Vision. Talk about a pain in the butt.

Zen Vision
Video Menu

Creative says, you should be able to get around 13.5 hours of audio playback from the unit, between battery charges, and 4.5 hours of video playback. We were able to get about 11 hours of audio playback, and close to 4 hours of video from a full charge. If you think you will be traveling a lot with the Zen Vision, we recommend buying a few more batteries.

Conclusion

The Creative Zen Vision has the potential to be a killer product, but once again, Creative blew it with their software. The Creative MediaSource program can work well, but there is so little information about it in the manual, that you will have to just explore and play with the software if you want to get it to work right. We found Windows Media Player 10 to work just as well, so you might as well use that software. The Video Vault software that Creative also includes is pretty useless in its current state, forcing you to visit the company’s website for instructions on how to use it. Plus, you have to pay even more money to get a full copy. Get with the program Creative, if you are going to want to beat Apple and others at their own game, you will need to take care of the customer instead of leaving them high and dry.

Another big fault we found with the Zen Vision is its screen. When looking at it directly, it looks gorgeous, but if you try to look at it from an angle, or in bright light, you can hardly see it. Sony does a much better job with the screen on their PSP. Creative should have taken a page from the Sony book on this one.

Music fans that want a little video playback, should look at the Cowon Audio X5 which has amazing sound. The Creative Zen Vision will appeal to those that put video higher on the totem pole than audio. Keep in mind that transferring and converting video files to the Zen Vision is very time consuming, a big waste on Creatives part.

The bottom line is that the Zen Vision is undoubtedly, a very cool product. It’s small and supports the video formats that count, including DivX and Xvid. Audio quality is definitely not as good as you would expect from Creative Labs.  However, right now there is little that can compete with the Zen Vision in this price range. If you must have a product like this, you should be fairly happy with the Zen Vision in its current state. Otherwise, wait until some software updates and fixes have been released before buying. Creative has a long history of releasing products with problems, and our advice is to wait until everything has been ironed out.

Pros:
Small, attractive design
Easy to use and excellent navigation
Supports the important video codec’s
Expansion slot (but why only compact flash?)
Cons:
Poor software
Very directional screen, prone to a lot of glare
Bass distorts at high volumes with supplied ear buds
Requires video conversion before you can play any videos
The included ear buds are too large causing ear pain

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