Creative Zen Vision Portable Video Player

There were a lot of announcements at Apple's recent gala press event touting the iPod nano, but conspicuously absent was any news about a video iPod. Apple, it seems, is content to let everybody else fight over the small market for portable video players (PVPs) - at least for now.

The Short Form
creative.com / 800-998-1000 / $400 / 4.875 x 2.875 x .75 IN / 9 OZ
Plus
•Good size, high-rez screen. •Nice sound. •Easy-to-navigate menus.
Minus
•Not Mac-compatible. •No line-level recording input.
Key Features
•35/8-in, 640 x 480-pixel LCD screen •USB 2.0 port •Slot for CompactFlash card •Plays AVI, MPEG-1/2/4, WMV, DivX, and XviD video files and MP3, WMA, and WAV audio files •Displays JPEG photos •FM tuner/recorder •Voice recorder
Good news for Creative, then. With Apple out of the picture, so to speak, Creative's Zen Vision player has a chance to shine. Creative got into the PVP game last year with its Zen Portable Media Center, which used Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system, meant to sync with Media Center PCs. The Zen Vision has a more generic interface that will work with any computer. Well, almost - it turns its nose up at Macs.

SETUP The Vision made an excellent first impression. From the moment I turned it on, I was amazed at how sharp the screen looked. The 4:3, 3.625-inch LCD has an impressive resolution of 640 x 480 pixels, which bests even the 480 x 272-pixel screen on the Sony PSP that everyone raves about. More important, there's virtually no LCD screen-door effect - those faint lines between pixels that are sometimes visible. Unless I put my nose up to the screen, photos and videos looked crystal clear.

With 30 gigabytes onboard, the Vision's hard drive has plenty of room for videos, music, and photos. Thankfully, getting them there isn't a challenge. Once installed on your PC, the Zen Media Explorer software is straightforward - all you do is select "Import Media," click the files you want to transfer, and you're loaded up. There's also a CompactFlash slot if the 30 gigs aren't enough, or if you want to dump photos from a digital camera to the hard drive. You won't find any line-level input for recording as on some PVPs, but Creative does provide a composite-video A/V cable for hooking up the Zen Vision to a TV. An optional remote control ($30) and stand ($40) are also available.

PERFORMANCE As a fan of the British sci-fi series Doctor Who, I was really happy to hear that the BBC resurrected the series earlier this year. But I was disappointed that no network in the U.S. picked up the programme...er, program. Fortunately, a friend provided me with some AVI recordings of the show, and I transferred them to the Zen Vision.

Video looked amazingly sharp. In close-ups, I could pick out individual eyelashes on the face of the Doctor's companion, Rose, and action scenes were devoid of the motion blurs that sometimes plague LCDs. Audio was good, too: when an army of monstrous Daleks began chanting their battle cry - "Exterminate!" - I could still hear specific voices as they multiplied and overlapped between the right and left earbuds.

When I watched the same videos on a TV through the supplied cable, colors looked a little too intense, with skin tones leaning noticeably toward the red. There's no way to adjust picture settings on the Vision (apart from switching to PAL format), so I had to fix this by turning my TV's color control down.

As a music player, the Zen Vision proved a capable match for the iPod. First, sound quality was fine, and it played plenty loud with the supplied earbuds. More critically, navigating the menus and playlists was a snap. The logical interface sports a minimum of buttons - conveniently, they're all on the front panel (too many devices unwisely incorporate side buttons for navigation). Creating playlists on the fly is a bit tedious; I'd suggest whipping up lists with the supplied software, then transferring them to the Vision.

BOTTOM LINE The Zen Vision really nails everything you'd want in a portable playback device: good video and audio quality, a smooth interface, and lots of memory. Plus, it wields an arsenal of extras including an FM tuner, a voice recorder, a sleep timer - even PDA-ish stuff like a contact organizer. At $400, it may be a bit more than some other PVPs, but you can really see where those dollars went. If Apple ever decides to try its luck in video portables, Creative's ready for it.

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