The Creative Zen Vision W Review

After my recent, somewhat disappointing experience with the Cowon A2 –and yup, I did in fact return the device–it was time to move on and try another of the available personal media players (PMPs) out on the market. This time, it’s the Creative Zen Vision W. (If you’re into unboxings, take a look at my unboxing on the Vision W.)

I’ve been very much looking forward to trying out the Vision W, as in addition to having the standard movie/music/document viewer software, the underlying OS is based on Windows (rather than, say, the modified and proprietary version of Linux that Archos uses for their PMPs). This allows Creative to provide you with the capability to have some personal information management (PIM) capability on the device, in addition to playing media. “Could be cool,” thought I. Is it? Well, I’ve been playing with it for a couple of weeks now, so read on.

NOTE: For reasons I explain later, I only tested two of the major pieces of the Zen Vision functionality: the movie viewer, and the PIM management.

The Zen Vision, like the Cowon A2, has a very clean design. I like it better than the A2, honestly, because I’m a geek, and a guy, and it’s flat black. Guys like flat black; what can I say? The buttons and switches are well laid-out and intuitive; there are not too many buttons cluttering the face of the device; it’s a nice job all around, design-wise. Good job by the Creative team.


  • 10.5 oz (298g)
  • 4.3″, 480×272 screen
  • 134mm (wide) x 75mm (high) x 26.4mm (thick)
  • 60 GB hard disk space
  • 4.5 hours rated of battery time
  • built-in mono mic
  • built-in external speaker
  • USB port
  • Compact flash card slot
  • standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack

I didn’t do any size comparison photos of the Zen Vision; sorry about that, PMP fans. But take a look at the comparison photos of the Cowon A2 (link); the Zen Vision is almost the same size, but thicker. I liked the Cowon better; it was more slender, and had a denser, more well-built feel even though their weights are almost identical.

The accessories that come with the Zen Vision are pretty standard:

  • Earbuds
  • Power Adapter
  • USB Cable
  • A/V Cables
  • Pouch
  • Installation CD

I have to admit that I was a little surprised that the device comes with a pouch instead of an actual case; that seems a bit cheap to me, honestly.

Time for the famed “Gear Diary Device Tour.” We’ll start with the face:
As you can see, there’s a D-button in the middle to provide basic in-function navigation, and from top to bottom, “back” , menu, pause/play, next, and previous. There is also a small (mono) speaker on the front, which I found to be plenty loud, but of course you get much better sound quality through the ear buds or headphones.

The top:
From left to right, there is power/lock switch, the volume up and down buttons, and the microphone. (Those other two things–one on either end–are just screws.)

The right side has one of those rubberized cover dealies (That’s a technical term, kids! I’m a professional technical writer! Don’t try this at home!), which covers the power jack and the A/V plug.

The bottom has the two ports, on USB 2.0 port and one for the (optional) docking station:
The left side (i.e., the side away from the buttons) contains a CF card slot, which is a nice little bonus, I think. I am glad that Creative didn’t go with some of these newer card form factors; I much prefer either CF or just plain SD cards. Once you get down into mini- or micro-SD, I think you’re getting absurd.

And finally, the back has the battery cover. The battery for the Zen Vision is removable, which makes it different from the Cowon A2. And to reiterate: this is just not a big deal for me. 4-5 hours of battery life is plenty for me, and by the time I run a battery dry, it will be time to buy the next generation of the device anyway, so what’s the big deal? But some folks find it important, so there ya are.

Right off the bat, I found the Zen Vision much much easier to get up and running than the A2. The getting started doc was simple, clear, and straight-forward, the software that came with the Vision was simple to install, and the software itself was, well, decent. (It wasn’t Apple, but it was okay.) Moving my film and music samples over to the device was easy, and I didn’t have to refer to the manual to figure it out, which was a Good Thing ™. The Zen Vision wins this one.

The Zen Vision does not provide any eBook reading capability, so I used it to listen to music and watch videos. I also tested the PIM functionality somewhat, but did not test the radio or any other built-in functions; sorry, eager readers. You’ll see why in a bit.

The Zen Vision interface is not as fancy as the Cowon A2 interface:
However, because of the way the controls work with the interface, I found it much more intuitive and easy to use. With the Cowon, I was constantly having difficulty remembering which function which button was for (all buttons on the A2 except the “back” button are “soft” buttons), whereas with the Zen Vision I was never lost. Not once did I get confused as to which button to press to get where I needed to go. Nor did I have anything like the frustrating experience I had with the A2’s “jog button,” which was constantly doing something other than what I expected (because my fingers are too fat, or I’m a spazz, or some damn thing). The buttons worked well, I liked the tactile feedback very much, and as I say I never, ever got confused as to which button to press next.

So maybe the interface isn’t as slick as one might like–it’s pretty much a standard tree interface (and in fact looks a lot like someone spent too much looking at seeding charts during College Basketball March Madness)–but it works, which is the important thing.

The screen on the Zen Vision is not as bright as that on the Cowon A2, but it is plenty bright, and I didn’t have the viewing angle problems with it that I did with the Cowon; all angles seemed to work just fine. I didn’t have any trouble viewing the screen in daylight, although I would not want to do it regularly, honestly.

One nice thing that I noticed with the Zen Vision was that, after a few seconds of no use, the screen *dimmed*, but didn’t shut off, to save battery life. Then, after a preset (and configurable) time, the screen would shut off. I liked that feature, personally.

I will say right up front that I did not give as much time testing the PIM and music playback capabilities as you might like, due to my experiences with the video (which I consider the main feature). So I will only touch on those two areas briefly.

First, the music: as an MP3 player, the Zen Vision is just fine. It’s awfully heavy for an MP3 player, of course, but it’s fine. It’s tree-like music navigation will put some people off, but I didn’t mind it. Moving music over to it using Creative’s software was easy and intuitive. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that it copied the directory structure, which means you end up with your music sorted on the Zen Vision in ways you might not particularly like. This can be gotten around by changing the directory structure on your source location (i.e., your PC), or by creating playlists on your Zen Vision. This is hardly a deal breaker. And I am sure that the Zen Vision has other capabilities that I just didn’t get around to figuring out in the music area, honestly.

With regard to PIM information, I found it very nice indeed to have my personal contacts and calendar information available on this device. If I had ended up keeping the Zen Vision as an entertainment gizmo, this would have been a really, really nice value-add. The interface wasn’t the same as Windows Outlook, but it was clean, easy-to-use, and fairly easy to figure out. It synced up automatically whenever I plugged my USB cable into the Zen Vision, although I had to disable my firewall software for the Creative software. I really did enjoy having this capability available. Kudos to Creative for having this.

So here’s the big question: how was the Zen Vision at playing movies?

As with the Cowon A2, I tried a number of different movies in a number of different formats at a number of different rates. For you fanatics out there, here’s what I tried:

Test files: The Incredibles, The Matrix Reloaded, Serenity, Cowboy Bebop
Test conversion rates, video: 900kbps; 1100 kbps; 1300 kbps
Test conversion rates, audio: 80kpbs, 120kbps

I found no frame drops until 1300 kbps in The Incredibles. But here’s the bad news: I got problems with every other film at every other conversion rate. The difficulties were sometimes subtle–gentle catches in the playback in the live action sequences, blurring of colors in animated sequences–but they were there. They were so irritating to me, in fact, that after trying to watch a few films I simply gave up, and decided to return the Zen Vision. (The other thing that bothered me was the fact that the hard disk was audible; so audible that I could hear it seeking all the time. Not good.)

Another thing that I found bothersome: The Zen Vision does not provide playback for DivX movies. Yes, I know; they tell you this up front. Even so, it disturbs me. Add that to the fact that, for AVI format, it does not provide what I would consider adequate playback at reasonable conversion rates, and for those reasons alone, I cannot recommend this device. That is perhaps a harsh assessment, but this device is advertised as a media player; if it does an inadequate job at playing back media, I don’t care how clean the design is and how intuitive the interface, it doesn’t satisfy the main requirement. And this is why I didn’t do a thorough testing of the other functions. I mean, why bother?

It is possible that lower conversion rates will provide a watchable film, or that the catches and difficulties that bothered me won’t bother you. But my experience is that lower conversion rates provide a less-sharp image, and I am unwilling to settle for that. But you may not be. (I can’t wait to try all this on an iPhone, honestly.) Totally up to you. I’m a picky jerk when it comes to that sort of thing; I freely admit it.

Bottom line: Nice design, good price, good interface, decent collection of features, but inadequate film playback (for me).

Next up (hopefully): I’m still “on the list” for the Archos 604 WiFi. Will the availability of WiFi make up for the fact that the Archos doesn’t have PIM capability? Will I be able to read my eBooks on the durn thing? Will you care? Will I? Tune in to the next review to find out!

The Creative Zen Vision W is available from various retailers
: $349.99
What I Like: Overall design; user interface; available memory
What Needs Improvement: video playback quality; hard disk noise


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8 Comments on "The Creative Zen Vision W Review"

  1. For a player designed so clearly for video playback, it is totally unacceptable to not support DivX/XviD.

  2. Ellen Beeman | January 21, 2007 at 7:34 pm |

    I have an Archos 500, one of their older models, and like it a lot for movie playback, even though their button UI is -horrifying-. DivX support definitely matters.


  3. Just a quick aside. I find it amusing that you make a disparaging remark about Archos using a “proprietary” version of Linux (which is hard to envision), but you’re thrilled that the Creative W uses a variant of Windows. I’m trying to understand how Windows is somehow less proprietary than open source GPL code.

    That being said, Divx/Xvid support is absolutely essential in any PMP, so slamming it for that lack is not in any way a petty note.

  4. Douglas Moran | January 22, 2007 at 2:01 pm |

    AndySocial: I didn’t mean to be disparaging of Archos; I just meant to point out that you can’t get “under the hood” of their implementation of Linux in any way. It probably would have been more accurate of me to say “closed,” which kind of flies in the face of the whole idea of Linux, but there it is. I understand why they do it that way, but it bugs me. I asked, and you can’t go tweaking their implementation. So it’s just as closed as Windows, alas.

    With regard to DivX support (or lack thereof), I just wanted to be clear: Creative does not state that they support DivX, and so I didn’t want to give the impression that they lied or misled me in any way; that wouldn’t be fair to Creative. But I agree; lack of support for DivX is a negative, absolutely.

    It’s too bad, too; I really liked this device as a *gadget*. Ah, well! We’ll see how the Archos is. And the Apple iPhone. I don’t want to get my hopes up, but that device is looking pretty good, honestly. If it only had an SD card slot, and a page-down button . . .

  5. Douglas…I own a Creative Vison W – it most definitely supports DivX/XviD playback….not sure where you are getting your information from or if you are possibly having problems playing a file that you encoded – but Divx is definitely supported – if the file you have has AC3 audio it is possible that is your problem as the Vision W does not support that.

  6. I feel if you’re going to review a product you should take more time than you obviously did, otherwise you just end up giving people misinformation, it’s not really fair to the device. You saying it doesn’t support Divx would turn a lot of people away from the product, but it’s simply not true, it doesn’t support some advanced features like GMC (which my DVD player with Divx playback doesn’t even support), and it doesn’t support the Divx 3 codec, which was actually just a hacked Microsoft codec. Videos encoded with Divx 4, 5, & 6 can be played back on the Vision W, and I’ve watched a number of videos encoded with these, and with the Xvid codec. In fact I’ve encoded with Divx at higher bitrates than 1300kbps and noticed no viewing problems, so perhaps your problems are a result of your particular encoding method. Also, music is organized according to the ID3-tags, directory structure is irrelevant.

  7. Douglas Moran | January 29, 2007 at 6:25 pm |

    Jason and Chrome: You are both right in one respect; I should have been much clearer, and I apologize. One *can* convert films using the DivX codec and view them on the Zen Vision. Allow me to be more specific:

    The Zen Vision W is not a “DivX Certified” device; that is, the good folks at have not given it their official imprintaur. If one uses, the DivX Converter tool, which generates a file with the *.divx file extension (in other words, a divx container file), that file will *not* play on the Zen Vision W, and gives you an error message. Based on my (ridiculously extensive) video conversion experience, my guess is that if you change the file extension to *.avi (an AVI container file), it probably *will* play on the Zen Vision. I did not test that, however.

    Now, if one uses a different tool that *uses* the DivX codec but creates an AVI file, you are fine. So if you use Dr. DivX, or Lathe, or DVD Catalyst, or Pocket DVD Wizard, or some such, and that tool uses the DivX codec but doesn’t create a file with the *.divx extension then yes, the Zen Vision W will play that file. And my apologies to all for not being clear about that.

    And Jason: With all due respect, man, I spent two weeks testing. I have a library of over 30 films, as well as a set of 5 test clips that I use at several different audio and video conversion bit rates. I use multiple tools and codecs to run my conversions, and I do them on two different laptops for comparison purposes. I used Dr. Divx, Dr. Divx 2.0, and DivX Converter. I use conversion rates that range from 500kbps up to 1500kbps, and audio bit rates of 80kpbs to 120kbps. While I didn’t test every single variant I could think of (I have a day job, after all), I got enough dropped frames, blurred images, film catches, and other issues at the 900kbps mark in live action scenes for it to be annoying. (The color blurring in “Cowboy Bebop” I found *particularly* annoying.)

    Or to put it in its simplest terms: The *very same sample clips* that played *fine* on the Cowon A2 and on my Tapwave Zodiac *did not* play well on the Zen Vision W. And that was enough for me.

    And let me add this: I *really wanted* to like this device. I really wanted to *a lot*. Aside from the fact that I liked its controls a whole lot better than those of the Cowon, it has PIM support, and that’s a *big deal* for me. But I kept testing movies, and they kept not playing back to my satisfaction. If the playback quality is fine for other folks, I have no problem with that. But it wasn’t fine for *me*.

    But don’t accuse me of insufficient testing. Believe me, I banged on that baby plenty!

    With regard to the music issues; I’m sure you’re right. As I acknowledged, I didn’t spend nearly as much time on the audio stuff as on the video stuff.

  8. Douglas Moran | January 29, 2007 at 6:40 pm |

    And yes, in case you hadn’t guessed, I’ve done a wee bit of research in the area of video conversion tools. And no, you don’t want to get me started. [laughter]

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