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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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Looking at the Zen V Plus requires dividing it into two
areas: the player itself, and the
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
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.
- 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.
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