MP3 players are definitely among the hottest products in consumer electronics today. Folks often divide the players up into three categories. The smallest players, having less than 1 GB capacity, and using flash memory (internal or on removable cards), are the most affordable. The largest capacity players have capacities of over 20 GB, and are the most expensive. In the middle, we have these 2 to 10 GB players which account for the middle ground. They blend the mix of enough space for plenty of tracks, with a price tag that won’t prompt a phone call from your credit card company. While this middle portion appears to be squeezed on both sides, it has prospered as most folks only have about 4 GB of tracks on average. Therefore, for the majority, these middle players are “just right.”
Creative has been manufacturing digital music players since the beginning of MP3’s. They have a full MP3 player line including flash players, and larger capacity players. In addition, they make many computer audio products, including sound cards, and speakers. This review will look at the Creative Zen Micro player. Just for the record, this is the first hard drive player we’re evaluating here at Live Digitally. With a 5 GB capacity (4 and 6 GB are also available), this player strives to hit the “sweet spot” of capacity and affordability. Let’s see how close it gets.
• Microsoft® Windows® 98SE/Me/2000/XP
• Intel® Pentium® II 350MHz or AMD K6® 450MHz (Pentium III 450MHz or higher recommended for MP3 encoding)
• 64MB RAM (128MB recommended)
• USB 1.1 port (USB 2.0 recommended for faster transfers)
• 30MB free hard drive space (more for audio content storage)
• CD-ROM drive with digital audio extraction support
These are the bare minimum requirements in order to use the Zen Micro. In my mind though, you really need a USB 2.0 connection for transferring anything more than a handful of songs unless you have a lot of patience and time. Also, in order for the software to allow maximum functionality (more about this later), you need to be running Windows XP with Service Pack 1 installed. In other words, only the latest Windows OS’s need apply! (I sincerely doubt if any of the Apple faithful would stray off the iPod path anyway).
What’s In The Box?
The Creative Zen Micro ships with the following:
– Creative Zen Micro 5 GB
– Software disc
– Rechargeable lithium battery
– USB cable
– Quick start guide
– Protective pouch
Holy colors Batman! Creative’s Zen Micro comes in 10 different color schemes covering the entire rainbow. We received the red version for testing. If you look at the lower left corner of the product box, you’ll see that it indicates the color of the included player.
The Zen Micro has a small size at 51 mm x 84 mm x 19 mm, and weighs in at 108 g. This is only slightly larger than many flash based players. It features 160 x 104 pixel display with a white backlight. The Zen Micro will play MP3’s and WMA’s encoded up to 320 kbps, as well as WMA DRM 9 files (“Plays For Sure” ie: Napster subscription). Both constant bit rate, and variable bit rate files are supported. It does not support AAC (Apple iTunes), or Ogg Vorbis files; however no non-Apple player supports the AAC format at this time (it would be a great hack though).
The heart of the player is a 5 GB hard drive. This is reportedly the same hard drive that Seagate manufactures and uses in its Pocket Hard Drive product. This is a great small drive that is designed to lock its mechanism when not in use to improve longevity. With 5 GB of storage space (4749 MB when formatted), it has room for about 1000 MP3 files (encoded at 128 kbps). However, a hard drive’s technology will always be more prone to failure than flash memory. It’s the old “the more parts that move, the more parts to break” theory, and nothing moves in flash memory except the electrons so it is unbeatable for reliability. I did not drop the player, and Creative recommends “you should not subject Zen Micro to continuous shocks, such as those that are likely to occur while you jog or run.” I don’t expect this player to be the official music player of the Boston Marathon with that disclaimer!
While testing in the Northeast’s freezing temperatures, there were some issues of booting the player. On more than one occasion, roughly once a week, the Zen would fail to boot up. The player would get stuck on the opening screen and freeze there. Trying to turn it off had no effect. The only solution was to remove the battery and reinstall it. It always did boot on the second try. This weekly “battery removal reset” was a concerning deficiency to say the least.
The display is a backlit monochromatic affair. In this era of photo and video playing color screened players, it looks a little dated. However, it does get the job done. The display is quite bright, and readable in direct sunlight, or at night. In the center are displayed the track title, the album, and the artist. The battery level is indicated in the upper right corner. The upper left corner displays play vs. pause, and the track number relative to the stored tracks. Along the bottom, the track timing, including a progress bar are shown. This is complete information about the player’s status, and done quite well. Three shortcomings are 1- the title is small and hard to see at a glance when in the car and the player is in a cup holder, 2- there is no button to press at night to only activate the light (every button activates the light, but also something else), and 3- the bit rate and type of music file are not displayed.
The top of the player reveals two connectors and a switch. On the left is the on/off switch. Pushing it to the right side locks the player, thereby disabling the other controls. In the middle is the standard minijack for the earphones. On the right is the mini USB connector; all MP3 players in the Windows world seem to use this interface. On the extreme right we can see a pinhole. This is the microphone for recording. Larger fingers may have some difficulty in turning the Zen on and off with the earphones installed.
An MP3 player sets itself apart based on its interface. At the end of the day, having a ton of features that are frustrating to use is just as bad as lacking the features. While the iPod has a “scroll wheel,” the Zen Micro has a “touch pad.” This is the central portion of the device having an area that can respond to up or down input. This is useful to go through a large number of tracks when searching for one specifically. The touch pad is seen in several other Creative music players, and is one of the company’s signature features.
The other buttons on the front include the usual fast forward, rewind, and pause/play functions. In addition, there is an options button, and a menu/back button. They serve to navigate through the menus on the device.
Overall, this player has a bit of a learning curve to it; I can point to a few reasons. The first is that the control “buttons” are totally flat. It took some practice to be able to scroll one track at a time. Even after practice, it took concentration, and is not well suited to being done during a commute in traffic as you need to have some visual input. I did adjust the sensitivity, but it still took quite a bit of concentration, and I frequently overshot. A button with a click would be easier to use. The second is the long menu structure. While I did get used to it during testing, I did frequently need to consult the manual in order to figure out how to play certain tracks, or to program the radio. I could envision a newbie getting lost in the menu structure when trying to play their music. This is one player that you need to read the manual for. Unfortunately, the quick start guide is very basic and doesn’t explain much beyond the very basics. There was no printed manual, and not even one on the included CD. I found one on the Creative web site, but I didn’t think I should have to look so far to get a manual. An included printed manual would make shorten the learning curve on this player and should be a necessity.
Remember the iPod’s dirty little secret? This was when users discovered that the battery could not be changed except by Apple for no less than a Ben Franklin note. Arguably, one of the biggest selling features of the Zen Micro is the battery that is removable, and replaceable. At $49 for a spare, it’s a lot more reasonable than the overpriced iPod situation.
The included lithium battery fits under the removable back of the Zen Micro’s case. It was very easy to get to. For travelers looking to use their player on a trans-oceanic flight, a spare battery would provide the power to the Zen Micro until you hear “trays in the upright position, seatbacks up, and prepare for landing.” The battery is rated for a 12 hour life, in my informal timing it got about 10 hours of use from a full charge.
The Zen Micro can be charged in two ways. The first is drawing power from a USB port of a computer. This is nice that every time you sync the player, it gets some charge from the USB port. Some computers even keep the USB ports powered on with the system power off to allow devices such as this to get recharged. The alternative is that I was supplied with a power adaptor (I believe this is an optional accessory). It plugs into the wall, and the USB port on the Zen Micro. This serves to charge the player directly from wall power when not in range of a USB port. This is the first player we’ve tested that could be charged from either a computer or the wall outlet. In other words, whether you bring your computer or not on vacation, you’ll be able to keep the Zen Micro powered up, and this is the way it should be.
The included earphones are similar to the headphone earbuds that many popular players include, and feature a white cable. The specs are as follows:
– Frequency Range 20 Hz – 20 KHz
– Sensitivity 111 dB +/- 5 dB (I/P Level = 1 mW)
– Impedance 32 Ohm’s +/- 15%
– Plug: 3.5 mm standard stereo minijack
The earphones are above average compared to other company’s offerings. The sound has a full sound, across all frequencies, in the highs, mids and lows. We’re not talking earth moving bass here, but from these tiny drivers, it was a full and warm sound. There is good definition of voice and instruments as well. Even on tracks featuring some crunchy distortion that small earphones notoriously fall apart on, these did well until pushed to very high volume levels (louder than I would listen to anyway).
The earphones were comfortable even for a few hours at a time. They also stayed in place even with vigorous activity. I believe the foam padding helps contribute to the comfort and staying in power. I believe that most users will be more than satisfied with the included earphones and not feel the need to upgrade.
The Protective Pouch
In and of itself, I like the protective pouch. It looks sharp, and is just large enough for the Zen Micro and earphones to fit into. With its lining inside, it’s great to protect the player from getting scratched in the bottom of a purse or backpack. It has a drawstring on top to close it up.
On the other hand, I realized that the player couldn’t really be used from the pouch. A belt clip and a case are both “optional accessories.” I believe that most users wouldn’t think of these essential items as options for their new player. Hopefully, in future versions, Creative will include these for a more complete package. Those lucky enough to find the limited edition 5 GB model will find some accessories in the box, including a belt clip, stand, power charger, and the pouch.
There is much excellent software written that can rip music tracks, and organize a collection under the Windows platform. Windows Media Player, included in Windows, and Musicmatch Jukebox both are robust with synchronization features for a portable media device such as Creative’s Zen. I would recommend you choose either of them, and not get involved with Creative’s included software.
I installed both Zen Media Explorer, and Creative MediaSource Player/Organizer. Instead of creating one streamlined application (like iTunes), they created two programs, neither one worth space on your hard drive. Zen Media Explorer is the simplified software that is designed to simply transfer your tracks onto the player. Sounds simple, but on repeated attempts, I couldn’t get it to work. The program often froze, and required the “alt-ctrl-del” keyboard combo. The MediaSource Player/Organizer was only marginally better. First, it had to index my hard drive to find the tracks. Then it took a lot of looking around to figure out how to transfer the tracks to the player because it was hidden in some menu. The software is capable of a lot more including building playlists, and ripping tracks. However, it is difficult to use for the basic tasks, and the lack of included printed documentation (and only one page in the PDF manual) doesn’t make it any easier.
Strengths & Weaknesses
Groovin’ to the tunes…
– replaceable battery
– small size
– built in recorder
– built in FM radio
– doubles as USB storage drive
– battery can be recharged from computer, or directly from wall outlet
– backlit display
– high quality earbuds
– many customizable features
– auto leveling of tracks
– supports MP3, WMA, and WMA DRM (eg: Napster “Plays For Sure”)
– available in many assorted colors
– can sync with Outlook
– good sound quality from included earphones
– adjustable equalizer
– display with small text
– monochrome display
– clunky included software
– quick start guide very basic
– no included manual
– no included case or belt clip
– no bass boost or audio enhancing feature
– easy to get lost in menus
– touch controls difficult to press once and only once
– had to look to find manual on Creative web site
– firmware only upgrades in Windows XP SP1 or better
– failure to boot on occasion requiring “battery removal reset”
In short, this player is hard to fall in love with and recommend. On one hand, there is a lot to like including a great form factor, a choice of colors, wonderful sound, and all powered by a removable battery. On the other hand though, many folks will not be able to look past the buggy software, difficult to use buttons, monochrome screen, and lack of included accessories. After reviewing Creative’s Zen, it’s easy to see why Apple’s iPod is running away in the portable music player segment, when the competition is having so much trouble getting out of the gate.
Special Thanks to Creative for supporting this review.
For more info, visit Creative’s website here.