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.

Specs:

  • 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
MSRP
: $349.99
What I Like: Overall design; user interface; available memory
What Needs Improvement: video playback quality; hard disk noise

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