Bringing Some Zen Into Your Life

By Robert J. Elisberg

 

October, 2007 Back in March, the granddaddy of MP3

players was reviewed here, the iPod Video.

But that's not where the subject ends, of course. Competitors aside, the iPod Video is a hard

disk-based players, as opposed to the world of Flash memory products. The differences are three-fold. The first is that hard drives can hold

significantly more material – up to 80 gigabytes compared to 8 GB. Second, since a Flash-based device saves

files in memory, it doesn't have the working parts of a hard drive, so you can't

screw things up by dropping it (other than, well…normal breakage of the

case). That's why Flash-players are

ideal for joggers or whenever used in high activity. And third, they're much smaller.

 

 

CREATIVE

ZEN V PLUS

The Zen V Plus is a tiny, matchbook-sized Flash-memory

player that is remarkably packed and full-featured, while weighing a

feather-like 1.6 ounces. It not only

plays music, podcasts (called ZENcasts here) and displays photos, but also handles

video, FM radio and voice recording. In

addition, it can act as a PIM, holding contacts, calendar and tasks from

Microsoft Outlook (or Outlook Express contacts instead). Though minuscule, the Zen V Plus has a very

respectable-sized 1.5" OLED screen with superb contrast and crystal-clear color

images. Additionally, the screen is

scratch resistant, though it's good to be careful, especially since video is an

important aspect of the player. One

complaint: it washes out a bit too much

outdoors, and almost completely in bright sunlight.

The Zen V Plus comes in 1, 2, 4 or 8 gigabyte models. The 4 GB was tested for this review.

 

 

Sound quality is extremely good, though not as bright as

some other players as the very top. It

excels in battery life, rated at an impressive 15 hours of music. (This will depend on individual settings, and

video playback will be shorter.) As for

the video playback, it's remarkable how watchable the Zen is – crisp, vibrant

and well-defined. Footage isn't

perfectly smooth, but only jerky by a hairsbreadth. It's not likely you'd want to watch a

two-hour Hollywood extravaganza on it, but the

mere fact that you could even consider it is high praise. (The

Zen V Plus plays .avi files, but will also play unsupported video, thanks to the

Creative Video Converter which is an included application.)

Similarly, photos display very well. Because of screen size, pictures may spill

over the edges, but you can choose "shrink-to-fit," although quality seemed to

suffer just a bit. There's also a zoom

option that allows you to pan in any direction with the player's "joystick." (You hold the "back" button down to access all

extra features on the Zen, such as this.)

As for the built-in FM radio, the Zen V Plus does a very

good job there, too. Usually, radio

suffers on such players, and while it's not perfect with the Zen either – there's

some static – it's much better than most.

And the ease of setting preset stations (of which you're allowed a

whopping 32) is a bonus. Again, you hold

down the "back" button to access the feature.

Needless to say, listening to digital music is the lifeblood

of such a player, and the Zen handles it quite well. The menu system is clear and easy to maneuver

through. The "back" button occasionally

requires a second, stronger tactile push, but for the most part it was quite responsive. At the center of operation is the

aforementioned joystick, which will move you around in any direction and

fast-forward through tracks. You push on

it to make your selection. It works very

nicely, though it's small for large hands and – although sturdy – hardly the most substantial item in the world. The volume control is on the player's right

side. Everything is fairly-well placed,

albeit small – it's not as convenient as the iPod Scroll Wheel, but all very intuitive.

(Speaking of fast-forwarding, it's not the quickest around, though

being a little slower gives you more control, at least. There's a way to jump ahead in a song with

the "Seek To" option, but it's a little convoluted to use, reached by holding

the "back" key.)

When selecting a song, the music doesn't start immediately,

but the Zen asks first if you want to play it or add to an on-the-fly

Playlist. Although some might prefer to

be without this choice every time, in the long run it's reasonable option to

have, particularly if you're a heavy Playlist kind of person.

It's simple to find songs on the Zen, but not as easily or

fast as on the iPod. You can scroll by album,

artist or genre, though not by "typing" in a name or "super-scrolling."

There are several interesting features on the Zen. One will change the orientation of the

screen, should you prefer to carry or watch it from a different angle than the

default. Another lets you connect via

the included, Line-in patch cord to record directly from a CD player, cutting

out the middle-man of your computer.

While generally impressive overall, there are a few

drawbacks.

After the screen goes to sleep to save battery power, it

doesn't instantly pop back on when you hit a key, but rather fades up. It only takes an extra half-second or so,

hardly problematic, but it's still a delay and forces your eyes to adjust.

When disconnecting the Zen from your computer, you don't

have to Shut Down first in the System Tray (as with most USB devices), and

that's a good thing. However, because of

this, you need to be extra careful that nothing is being written to device at

the time – and since the display will have gone to sleep and be blacked-out,

it's easy to overlook this necessity. Moreover,

when you do remember to check beforehand, the difference between the two graphics

that designate "OK to disconnect" and "Wait" is infinitesimal – a clear circle or

a circle that's filled in.)

There were also a few problems when transferring songs from

computer to the device. The Zen self-disconnected

a few times, and the process had to be re-done.

Also when some songs transferred, not all the identifying information

(album name, artist) came come through – though almost all of the time it was

fine.

 

 

Finally, a couple of helpful items weren't included, but are

only available to purchase as accessories.

Most notable is that you can only rip to WMA, not MP3 – for that, you need

to download a $10 add-on application. Inexpensive, but for most consumers it will be

a hidden cost. Also, no AC charger is included. This isn't terribly uncommon, and of course

you can charge via the included USB cable, but if you want a charger (which

isn't terribly uncommon either), it's another hidden cost.

The good news is that the Zen V Plus has a very respectable

price. The 4 GB model retails for $180,

but can be found for around $130 at the time of this writing.

The player itself is only part of the game, of course. Organizing your songs, video, photos, data

and ZENcasts – and then getting onto your Zen – is the other significant factor

of any MP3 player. The standard by which

all competitors are compared is iTunes, and the Zen handles things quite

differently. When setting up the Zen,

several pieces of software are installed.

More detail on the main ones in a moment, but first, in brief, they are

Creative Zen Media Explorer, which uses a Windows Explorer

interface for basic organizing and transferring media, as well as ripping and

some barebones music playback.

MediaSource overlaps Media Explorer in usage, but is much closer

to iTunes, with a few more features, a very good interface and a rich player.

ZENcast Organizer handles Creative's version of podcasts,

what they call ZENcasts.

Audible Manager allows for using Audible.com and playing

them on your Zen.

Yahoo! Music Engine Suite is the Yahoo! version of

iTunes. When loading, by default the

Suite wants to install Yahoo! Messenger, Yahoo! Toolbar and Yahoo! Mail (and

make the latter your default email reader), which is far too aggressive. Choosing the "custom" option at least lets

you determine what you want. At the very

end of the installation process, Yahoo! also asks to make itself your default

search engine and default home page.

It's easy to select "No," but also easy to accidentally click "Yes" to

everything. The attempt by Yahoo! to impose

itself so heavily is inappropriate.

It's also worth noting that you can sync songs with the Zen

via Windows Media Player, which Windows users will likely already have

installed. It works extremely well,

though without all the features available through Creative's software. Also, syncing can be done manually or

automatically by configuring the Sync Manager to your preference.

CREATIVE

ZEN MEDIA EXPLORER

Zen Media Explorer will never be confused with iTunes, but

then it's not trying to be. It's a very

basic program that uses Wizard commands or drag-and-drop to transfer files, create

and manage playlists, sync music and rip CDs, or convert video. You can play music from ZME, but there isn't

even a volume control.

 

 

While it's possible to drag-and-drop files into its Music

Library, you'll do much better using the Add Media Wizard, since it displays

the progress, as well as lets you know how much space is left on your Zen.

Most songs from elsewhere on my hard disk imported fine – but

a few albums didn't have their titles or artists names included, and had to be

added manually.

SmartFill is an interesting feature. It will determine how much space remains on

your Zen and will randomly fill up your player.

(You can also manually make selections, but everything is listed

randomly as individual songs, not albums.)

An option is available in SmartFill to empty your player and refill with

new, random selections.

 

 

 

One downside of Media Explorer: the Zen player must be plugged in to use ZME. Therefore, you can't use the player while

organizing files.

 

MEDIASOURCE

MediaSource handles most of the same options as ZME, but

with greater functionality and more features.

With a very nice interface, it's far closer to iTunes, particularly in

its ability to playback music with a full-featured player which is not only

built-in but can be used standalone.

 

 

You can burn files to CD with Media Source. Record with Audio Clean-up. And add effects, like cross-fade.

However, unike iTunes, you don't manage podcasts/ZENcasts

with Mediasource – that requires a different program, described next. And to get online music, you'll need a

separate program, as well. (The included

Yahoo! Music Suite for example.)

MediaSource will track down all the songs on your hard disk

and link to them, so that you'll have access to everything. It found all my music fine, as it should –

but oddly didn't do a good job transferring album titles and artists names.

 

 

To transfer music to the Zen player, that's only done from the

ZME Music Library, not directly from Mediasource – though in essence, it's almost the same thing and a one-step

process. (Assuming you have the

aforementioned Sync Manager set for "automatic," you're simply moving songs

from the Mediasource library into ZME which in turn syncs fluidly and instantly with your Zen

player.) "Almost" because there's one

downside – Mediasource will only

transfer individual tracks, not album folders.

I did come up with a workaround:

if you first create an album folder in Media Library ahead of time, you

can then transfer the tracks into it.

It's inconvenient, but it works.

 

ZENCAST

ORGANIZER

This is how you subscribe to Creative's version of podcasts,

the ZENcasts. And manage and then transfer

them to you player. The Organizer links

up with the ZENcast.com website, which gives full access to everything.

 

 

Though generally easy to use, there are flaws with the

program. It doesn't provide as many

options for ZENcast management as does iTunes (what to get, what to keep, how

long to keep it). Also, while there are

a huge number of ZENcasts to choose from, it's a smaller selection – though you

can always track anything down individually and manually add it in. Additionally, there are fewer ways to search

for ZENcasts, and the graphic interface is flat.

I had a problem downloading my first ZENcast, when it

stopped at 78%. A second attempt worked

fine, so it could have been a connection problem.

 

 

Syncing ZENcasts with your Zen player can be set to be done

automatically after each update. I temporarily had difficulty finding

transferred ZENcasts on my player – but that's because it turns out they're not

listed with their own "ZENcast" heading, which by far would be most convenient,

but under Music Library where they must be searched by genre or "album," for

example.

 

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

Looking at the Zen V Plus requires dividing it into two

areas: the player itself, and the

accompanying software.

As for the player – which of course is the most important

part of the equation – it's a gem. Though

with some imperfections, it remains a stunningly fully-packed product. Competing players might have ever-so-slightly

better sound, or slightly better ways to maneuver around the data – but the Zen

V Plus puts so many features and of such high quality that it has to be near

the top of any list of consideration.

MP3 player, video, FM radio, voice recorder and more…all in a package

not much bigger than a matchbook.

Don't even consider the regular Zen V. For only a few dollars more, the V Plus

provides video and FM. And the V Plus

may well even beat the iPod Nano. For

all the Nano's popular strengths, it too lacks video and FM – yet at the time

of this being written, costs $35 more than the Zen V Plus for the 4 GB model on

Amazon.com.

That leaves the Zen's software to consider. It's reasonably easy to use, however not

everything is intuitive with the software, and most notable is that it's all

separate, rather than integrated like iTunes.

For simplicity's sake, I preferred using Zen Media Explorer,

rather than MediaSource for organizing files to use with the Zen player. Mediasource has much good about it, but was a

bit problematic with transferring files.

And if you use Mediasource, that means you have to run three pieces of

software (four, counting Sync Manager) just to do the basics. Mediasource was at its best when it came to

its player, but that can be run standalone.

I wasn't bowled over with ZENcast Organizer, but it works

fine. It just doesn't work great. And its issues are not close to big enough to

steer you away from the Zen V Plus.

One day perhaps Creative will integrate its software into

one seamless product. Until then, you'll

have to deal with things separately.

It's not ideal, but given how good the Zen V Plus is as a player, it

might well be a small price to pay.

TWW

NOTES

 

  • A few

    updates and corrections from last month's article on turntables and their

    companion software. First, and most

    notably, "Spin It Again" was incorrectly referred to in a few places as

    "Spin It Right." The eyes glaze

    over when proofreading, but it should have been caught. Also, it turns out that Spin It Again will pause when detecting a minute

    of silence at the end of a side.

    Finally, when saving a recording, only the original sound file is

    saved, not the cleaned recording with effects; the effects information are

    saved in a separate .sia file.

  • The

    Ion turntable has since-changed its name to "TTUSB." Ion also now offers a free download of

    "EZ Vinyl Converter" which assists in converting to MP3, and will ship the

    product with the retail version of TTUSB.

    The included Audacity software will convert recordings to 78 RPM,

    though I found the process a bit convoluted.

 


Note: The Writers Guild of America, East neither implicitly nor

explicitly endorses opinions or attitudes expressed in this article.

Copyright 2007, Robert J. Elisberg. All rights reserved.

Robert J. Elisberg has written about computers for such publications as C/NET, PC Games, CD-ROM Today, Yahoo! Internet Life, E! Online and Hollywood Screenwriter. He

also wrote a regular technology column for WGA.org Online and the

Television Academy Online. A screenwriter, he served for five years as

a member of the WGA, west website editorial board and Editorial

Advisory Committee.