Advantages Small, great looks, compatible with most formats
Disadvantages Touch screen a little to fiddly
|Ease of Use|
|Look & Design|
|Range of Features|
|Value for Money|
I didn't set out to buy a portable music player - why would a person like me need one? The gadget freak in my heart pined for one, a shiny white Ipod would be great - My mind knew that I wouldn't use it. My portable CD player has sat mostly idle in the 5 years or more that I have owned it. It still works, if I need portable music I've got it. When could I use it?When could I listen to music that I don't already do so? I travel to work by car and that has a great CD player. I don't do a lot of activities where I'm out and about on my own, I would never have chance to use it. If we go walking or even on a train journey my companion, who ever it is, isn't going to let me lock my self up in my own musical world, I've tried that, I could expect to be interrupted every few minutes - 'Look at that horse', 'Will they have a tea trolley?' or 'Have you done your report on the new pricing model yet?' - When could I use a portable mp3 player?
So with that resounding conclusion that a personal music player was a gadget I really didn't need, why did I buy the Creative Zen Micro? I'll answer that later, just in case you are interested, did my gadget heart beat my mind into submission for a £140 gadget?In this review I have two parts, general info about music players and then a review of the Creative Zen. I have tried to cover all of the questions someone might have about a portable music player. If you are new to media players you should spend some time learning about the major differences in players. It will help you make a better informed decision before you buy. If you already are up to speed with music players and just want to know what's different about the Creative Zen then skip to the section "How does the Zen compare?"
What is a portable music player? It's an audio player that runs on batteries and you can take with you; this means you could use it to play music or any other kind of audio, perhaps a spoken book or even a recording you have made yourself. It might be a tape player, it might be a CD-player, and, of course in the context of this review it will be a player of one of the new music recording formats, MP3, ATRAC, WMA, OGG, there are many types of different types of format - You will need to choose which formats you want your player to support. The first part of this review will help explain how to make that choice. As well as being music players some devices may have other functions, perhaps a recording facility or a radio receiver. However, all of them try to meet the basic need of providing a portable audio playback.Decide which type of player you need
When you try to choose a player it certainly appears a difficult choice for someone who isn't following the gadget trends. Most people now know that they might prefer an MP3 player rather than a CD or tape player next time they want a portable music player. When you get to the store you'll find that the choice of devices is incredible, and unlike a CD player, there is a range of competing technologies, not all devices are the same. Be careful when choosing, if you buy the wrong device you may be disappointed. I will try and explain some of the details about the choices. It's not actually that complicated if you understand a little of the terminology.To decide which player type you need you should consider three factors.
Features, Style. And Price. Features
Players are usually chosen on features rather than sound quality. There's a good reason for this.Here's an unusual fact that is rarely discussed, current digital music formats are generally lower quality that the digital standard of the 80s, the CD-ROM. That is to say, MP3, ATRAC, WMA, whatever it's called, it is usually a compressed version of the master copy. The compression process changes the music; although the compression technologies are designed to have the least impact on the sound it is inevitable that some quality is lost.
The compression technologies work on the basis that the human ear has a limited range and response and is less sensitive to sound as the extremes of response. The brain also interprets the data that the ear receives. The compression technologies claim that Psychoacoustic compression tries to take advantage of this to remove the data that you can't hear and leave more space for the data that you can hear.How much does this matter? Here it's even more difficult to know, each of the compression formats provides the publisher with the opportunity to control the trade off between compression and quality. A highly compressed file will take up less space on your player and be faster to download but won't sound as good as a song with less compression.
The upshot of all of this is that most music players are limited by the file format rather than then the audio electronics of the player itself. The file formats are all good enough for portable playback but they won't replace home audiophile systems in standard format. For the purpose of this discussion you should know that the music shops are limiting quality not the technology. All the download stores limit their music quality to somewhere between FM Radio and CD quality format. If you can live with that then you can use a portable music player.Whichever player you choose, perhaps an Ipod - this is the big name music player from Apple computer, it has been a huge marketing success and has woken the music publishers up to the opportunity of electronic music - or perhaps you'll chose a standard MP3 player or a Sony ATRAC player, they will all sound much the same, unless you buy a really budget player (sub £50) then don't expect to hear much difference in the sound quality.
So, what features should dictate your choice?The main feature is capacity; most players express their size in Megabytes (Mb) or Gigabytes (Gb). 1 Gb. is equal to 1000Mb.(actually 1024Mb) If you buy a song from an online shop, e.g. Napster or MSN Music or even Tesco, the file size will be just over about 1Mb per minute. So, an average 3 minute song will take 3Mb. If a player is quoted with a capacity of 1Gb. you can expect to get about 300 songs onto the player.
If you load your own music, from a CD for example, then you will use software on your PC to compress the CD file. A file you create yourself can be created at the same compression level as the online music shops, however, you may prefer to use less compression and get a better sound quality. In this case the number of songs you can store per Gb. will reduce.The next most important feature is usability, the players range from incredibly simple to use to very complicated. You should read reviews of individual players to decide which sort of player will work best for you. Player usability is a bit like a mobile phone, there are so many ways to do very similar things, and you need to find the player that works best for you. If this is your first music player purchase then don't worry, you will be able to use whichever player you choose. When you get your second player you'll see how different the usability can be between two devices.
I feel the fourth feature is ease of use when loading with songs. You will probably use a PC for this. The software that manages the device will help you load it from your PC. The software varies considerably in ease of use. Read reviews to find out which work best in the real world. All will be limited with the hardware that they use, look for USB, USB-2, Firewire or Serial communication. Serial is the worst performer but will work with almost any PC. USB is much better and will probably work with any PC less than 6 years old. USB-2 is the same as USB but faster, music will transfer to the player faster than standard USB, however, check that your PC has USB-2. If you don't have USB-2 then the transfer will still work at standard USB speed. Finally Firewire, this is the fastest format but the least compatible. Very few PCs have a firewire adaptor. For this reason players with firewire will also have one of the other connectors. Think of firewire as a way to connect faster if you have it, if you don't have it then don't worry you won't really miss it. If you have an Apple you may have a Firewire adaptor that will make your Ipod connect faster. However even the Ipod also has USB support.. Style
This may or may not be relevant to you. However, if you want to feel "cool" then you need to choose carefully. Like mobile phones these devices have style values beyond their simple functions. I personally would say choose the one you can afford that you like the look of. However, if this is important to you then you'll probably need an Ipod or one of the other names. If this is the case then this review won't help you much. The Ipod is a great player but it is rarely chosen after a rational comparison of features. I think you'll know this is you. Do you want an Ipod or do you want a music player?. Price
Not as much to this as you might think. Players start from £20. This will get you a generic Taiwanese brand CD-Player that can also play MP3 files. They work, they are great value, the sound quality may be a bit ropey but you can improve that with a set of better earphones. These players are cheap because they use CDs as the storage mechanism. For approx 5p per disc you can get 750Mb of storage. I don't recommend these type of players but if you are on a very limited budget they certainly work. They may not play WMA files as the WMA format requires a licence agreement with Microsoft, this adds to the cost to make the players.The next level of player is the generic "solid state" player. These players have memory chips instead of CD-ROMs. The size of the memory will have a major effect on the price. The players can usually play MP3 or WMA format files, however be careful if you want to purchase and download music. Most downloaded music is WMA format with protection built into the files to control how you use the file after you have downloaded it. The player must be able to support WMA files with Windows Media Protected Rights support. You are best advised to get the assurance of the seller that the device will play protected files. If you do this then you will have the option to return the device if it doesn't work with your preferred online music shop. If you purchase Sony you may be limited to the Sony Music store, if you purchase Apple then you will be limited to the Apple iTunes Store.
The next level of player is the Hard Disk player, these devices tend to have a lot more storage because they use a hard disk (like a computer) to store the music. You will see players with 40Gb. (or more) storage, at standard compression used by the music stores you could fit your whole music collection onto one of these.One final thing to look for, in early 2005 Microsoft introduced WMP9 format files. These files support subscription music. E.g. you download a music file and you can play it for as long as you continue to pay the monthly rental charge. Napster and Yahoo music shops currently offer their whole catalogues for rental on this standard. This is an important new feature. See the review on the Creative Zen for more details on this. You will know that you have WMP9 format support if the player has a "Windows Media Plays for Sure" logo.
How does the Zen Compare?I hope you didn't find the long haul to get to the review too tedious.
Now to the review of this little player and especially why I decided to purchase even with my prior history of not using portable players.. Size.
The Creative Zen Micro is one of the smallest players on the market; it's smaller than an Ipod but still large enough to be usable. It will fit comfortably in a shirt pocket if you wanted to. I use mine in the car so the size isn't so relevant. The player is about the size of a small mobile phone. Whenever I show the device in public it catches people eye.. Features
The player is available in various capacity sizes; however, at this time (July 2005) most stores are only carrying the 5Gb. model at about £150. This is adequate for most uses.Ease of use, the player has a very simple text based menu system which makes the most used features, such as play album, play artist, and play track available very easily.
Access to the menus is via a touch sensitive panel on the front of the player. Each button is large enough for a thumb or finger so you won't be fiddling with controls that are small.The panel has contours that make it possible to identify and use the controls without looking at the panel.
So far so good but, the touch panel does have its limitations. It seems to be too sensitive at some times, e.g. when trying to get the volume level just right and then not sensitive at other times, e.g. when you want to skip a track. In my view the touch panel lets the player down, this is a niggle that I have not been able to resolve even after adjusting the sensitivity settings. The sensitive controls should have been set up with traditional controls. E.g. A thumbwheel for volume.Cosmetically the player looks very good. The white shell gives the player a very high quality look and feel. The touch panel can be ordered in many different colours - however silver or black seem to be the only ones stocked by the retail stores. The screen and touch pad light up with a nice blue colour which enhances the cosmetic appeal of the player.
There are more advanced features such as Auto DJ and random play. These work but you will probably find it more practical to create your own playlists on your computer before loading to the player. If the player has all of your albums loaded you'll find the random play picks too many of the obscure album tracks to be usable. If you create a playlist on your PC you can create lists by music genre, beats per minute, artist etc.The player has an equaliser built in, this works very well for adjusting the sound to compensate for the sometimes poor quality of digital music formats. I do use this but I find the player very good in standard equaliser off mode.
The player has volume limiting feature, this allows all music to be "normalised" to the same sound level, and this is good for preventing those shocks when music volumes change between albums. This is a great featureA FM Radio is built in, it works but I don't use it enough to comment on reception etc. Reception seems a little limited to me. I wouldn't buy this player on the strength of its radio support.
Your address book and calendar can be synchronised between the player and Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express. This is ok but it's not a feature I have used a lot. The player isn't really up to the job of replacing a personal computer device! If I wanted to make more use of this I would prefer a wireless link between by computer and the player - a wired link doesn't get updated enough.The player may be loaded with tracks via its USB2 interface, all the cables are supplied. The loading process isn't fast but it is no worse than any other player with USB2. In practice I tend to spend an hour or so choosing my tunes for the next month and then download them all in a single session. I don't notice the speed limitation.
There are many application supplied with the player including a file manager and a music jukebox player, however, I have not used them. I use Windows Media Player 10, this works with the player without any special software (I had to download a firmware upgrade for the player to make this work in this way; this was very simple to do and is covered in the user manual). I prefer to stick with Windows Media player because I don't want to learn how to use another media player. Windows Media player allows you to organise your music, create playlists etc and then send them all to the player. I have a WMP auto playlist "all music less than 30 days old", I have this playlist synchronised to the player. This means my player always has my most recently acquired music downloaded to it.Battery life is fine, I usually get 3 days of play (about 1-3 hours a day) before I feel I must charge the player up. I haven't suffered a flat battery yet. The player charges itself from the USB lead when connected to a computer. It also comes with a mains charger so that you can charge it when away from your computer.
The player also has a carry pouch, I've never used this as it hides the good looks of the player and you can't control the player through the bag! I suppose the pouch is intended to keep the player scratch free when not in use.There is a nifty stand supplied with the player, this allows you to leave the player propped up nicely on your desk - I never use this as it's too difficult to snap on and off as you move from desk music to pocket music.
You can get accessories for the player, this includes a remote control headphone set, this should save you reaching into your bag or pocket to change tracks etc. I've not seen these in the shops but you can probably order online.Extra batteries are available, this has been one of the weaknesses of the Ipod the battery cannot be replaced. The opportunity to replace the Zen battery when needed is comforting. However, I still hope to get a year or more out of the supplied battery (which is Li-Ion 680mAh battery specially designed for the player). Recharge time is about 3 hours from my PC.
The documentation with the player is OK. It tells you all you need to do to get the player working. I would like to have seen more about how the player can be used with online music services.So, now you'll know that the player is a good player, has good sound but is not as good as CD, it was obviously more expensive than my existing £80 CD player purchased 5 years ago and rarely used. So just why did I buy this player?
Napster introduced its subscription service to the UK earlier this year. This service allows you to download an unlimited number of songs from the whole Napster catalogue (they claim 1,000,000 songs). This works very well on my media centre PC. I can find almost any song I want, some of the obscure tracks from my teenage years aren't there but all regular music I need is there. I just search it and play it. This music on demand concept works very well at home.This player allows me to take that concept into the car with me; this is because the player also supports subscription music via the Napster To Go service. This takes the subscription music downloaded from Napster and allows you to take it with you. This is fantastic in my opinion. I can hear a track on the radio and grab the album, if I don't like it I haven't lost anything, if I like it then that's brilliant, I get music that I might not otherwise get to appreciate. I am now listening to so much more new music. Prior to signing up for subscription my music purchases were limited to the "big" albums. Now I spend about the same amount of money, £15 per month but have an almost unlimited collection.
This is of course 100% legal; the new Napster only has music and the name in common with the old Napster. If your kids are downloading music why not use Napster and then know that they are legal? You can even use the parental controls features if you want to avoid "unsuitable" lyrics.The downside, well I don't own the music anymore, if I end the subscription then the downloaded tracks won't play anymore. I thought hard about this and feel this is a risk I am prepared to take. I tend to play a CD to death and then leave it alone for a few years. I might never play it again. Subscription music is very similar to this. I've been able to get all the music I listened to as a teenager. Its great to hear this music again but I don't think it would have justified the CD purchase again.
There are strong opinions about the licensing of online music. I don't claim to have the final opinion. Subscription works for me. Others like to buy music permanently. You can do this as well through the music shops, including Napster. However online music quality is not yet good enough to tempt me away from CD when I want to buy.Generally living with the player has been great, its 3 months old now, I've purchase an FM transmitter to go with the player. This allows me to set my car radio to receive the sound from the player. I can now take all my new CDs into the car without having to load the CD Changer. The sound quality is as good on the radio as it was via the player. CD is better but this is good for day to day use.
In summary, this is a great player one of the best, its capacity to support the Napster To Go service sets it apart from the current batch of players, this will change as all players upgrade to the latest WMA format. However, for the time being, I'd get this player over an Ipod on features and over any of the other Napster to Go players on style. This is a good player, I recommend it.
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