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Tuesday 28 December 2004

Creative Zen Micro review [Lurks]

MP3 players have come a long way since my first one, the Diamond Rio withits 32MB of memory and 115k serial link. Creative's newest Zen Micro isabout the same size as the ancient Rio but of course sporting a hard drivethe Zen Micro is gunning for the iPod Mini. This here blog is a review ofthe Zen Micro but I'm going to have to digress a little to discuss whereCreative fits in the scheme of things.
Until fairly recently, Creative shipped more MP3 units a year than Appledid, thanks to the solid-state Muvo series. That'd still be the case ifthey owned all of the solid-state market like they did, but now pretty muchevery shed in the Pacific Rim is churning out solid-state MP3 players thesedays and many of them were just plain better.
On the hard drive side of things, Creative pretty much invented thatconcept. The Zen Jukebox series were basically CD player cases with themechanism ripped out and a 2.5-inch hard drive inserted. Of course when1.7-inch drives came along, it was Apple that realised that with a bit ofdesign there was a mass market device waiting to get out.
When hard drives got so small that they threatened the smaller pocketablesolid-state players, Creative also beat Apple to the market with a 4GBmicro-drive based player, the Muvo 2. The Muvo 2 is still a reasonablelittle player but it suffered from a particular Creative disease. It lookedlike it cost £5, even though it cost over £200. It didn't help that theyslapped it in a plastic clamshell box. A year-or-so ago I had a meetingwith Creative where I ranted that they were an inch from the finishingpost, if only they would sort out the presentation and usability.
Then I got a plain package in the mail with a note attached, "Happy now?".Inside was a proper cardboard box for the new Creative Zen Micro with tendifferent coloured Zen Micros on the front of the box. Changable faceplates? Actually no, it comes in ten different colours.
Alright but let's look at the player so I bust open the box and I findsomething which Creative have never done before, presentation. It's notexactly iPod level but it's pretty good and surely no coincidence that thePSU and USB cable are bone white too. It's difficult to illustrate themassive difference this makes from the nasty transparent plastic clamshellof the Muvo 2.
What of the player itself? Smaller than a pack of cards, the Zen Micro hasa bone white back with a compartment for a changable battery. The frontface is flat and painted any of the ten colours. The display is on thesmall side but is quite high resolution. 160 x 104 in fact. This is enoughto show you really what's going on and allow proper browsing.
Here's the kicker, the Zen Micro doesn't have regular buttons as such. Theentire front panel is touch sensitive. Depending where you're at, the tallrectangular section in the middle serves as a volume control, scrollerthrough your music collection or menu options and as a selector by simplytapping it. I confess I'm quite used to difficult and fiddly controls onother MP3 players but nevertheless, I was up and running with it inminutes. The only real drawback here is that you really have to remember tolock the device before tossing it into a pocket but fortunately they'vemade that easy with a slidey dual purpose on/off and lock control.
The display has its own backlight while the buttons and a thin transparentline around the entire front face are backlit with another deep turquoisebacklit. No power supply is necessary for the Zen Micro, it charges on USBand in fact through the USB is the only charging mechanism. For thatreason, they've provided a PSU with a USB mini connector on it to chargeaway from your computer. When the Zen Micro is charging, itslowly pulses the keypad, surround backlight. Nice touch, very tron.
With the Zen Micro, Creative have moved away from the device simply showingup as a mass storage device in Windows. At first, that upset me. I'vealways preferred to just be able to shovel my own music on how I like.However doing so means that the player has to scan your collection on powerup, which can take a little while. The Zen Micro steps over to the iPod wayof doing things and uses a database on the player. It doesn't show up as ahard drive but you can, if you wish, partition some of the 5GB drive toshow up as a hard drive for portable storage purposes. You can't play anyMP3s you shovel onto that though.
We'll touch the user interface in a moment but given that the Zen Microneeds software to upload files - it's going to live or die via how easythat is to do. The software installation is sadly bloatware deluxe butCreative have provided three out-of-the-box mechanisms to get stuff ontothe player. Firstly there is your standard obligatory all-in-one music ripper,organiser type application called Creative MusicSource. It seems serviceableenough but, well, for aficionados of the 'old way' of doing it - it'spretty horrible. And even if you like this way of doing things, it'scertainly no iTunes.
Fortunately the player shows up under 'My Computer' as a virtual devicecalled the 'Zen Micro Media Explorer' and if you browse to itin Explorer, it will show you what's on the player. You can importdirectories and access the nifty functions such as syncing up the built-inorganiser with Outlook and so on. The third option is to use Windows MediaPlayer, which has this sort of standardised mechanism to sync to supportedMP3 players. So if you use that to organise your music (and obviously a lotof people do) then using the Zen Micro is as painless as it gets.
Out of the provided mechanisms, I found the Media Explorer mechanism to bequite serviceable. The only real problem I found with it was that itdidn't work with my Explorer replacement, Directory Opus. Buggery.
At long last, let's discuss the player interface itself. It is, not to puttoo fine a point on it, absolutely wonderful. Of course a fogey like me hasto get used to browsing by artist and/or album, rather than directorystructure but it's very easy to do. So's adding things on the fly thecurrent playlist. The interface is, for Creative at least, revolutionaryand I must say a country-mile in front of iRiver.
One thing I particular found intuitive is that there's a button on thebottom right which looks rather like the 'menu' key thing on a Windowskeyboard, between the right hand windows key and alt. It does the samething, basically like hitting right mouse button on whatever file/optionyou're on to offer a context sensitive menu which you can scroll through(with the volume/scroller control) to select the right option. It'sbrilliant. In fact the touch controls work so well it took me no time atall to enter in my entire (long) name in as the owner in the settings.
There is a built-in microphone for meeting recordings, which I found moreor less acceptable but nowhere near the superb iRiver 100-series andthere's a built-in FM radio. Reception seemed fairly poor using theprovided headphones (which get used as an aerial) inside but I found itworked well enough outside and it does carry the usual features includingan auto-scan. You can record the FM to PCM, although I never worked out quite why you'd want to. In addition to MP3, the Zen Micro also plays AAC, WMA and - vitally, DRMed WMA files courtesy of all those MS-powered music download sites that are appearing.
Audio quality wise, Creative have always known a thing or two here and haveincorporated good quality headphone amplifiers with separate dc-to-dcconverters offering higher voltage rails for the amps to work with. Thatmeans that even if you plug in a set of decent hi-fi cans with highimpedance drivers, you still get a good level out unlike many other devicessuch as the iPod. The Zen Micro doesn't disappoint here either but the realsurprise was also the presence of some actual bass with the provided in-earheadphones. Now they're not fabulous by any means, and I'd soon scrap themfor the sublime Sennheiser PX100 portable headphones but these things areactual useable, in stark contrast to the abortions which come with theiPod (yet miraculously still get used by seemingly endless iPod owners).
Extras wise, the Zen Micro comes with a nasty belt clip thing that does,usefully, double as a desk stand when a little plastic foot is slotted intothe back inside of the belt clip. Given the device necessarily needs you tobe able to touch the entire front panel, your options with regards to carrycases are limited but it strikes me that so long as you're putting in apocket by itself, it will be resilient to wear and tear.
It's also worth mentioning that the third party Notmad Explorer works atreat with the Zen Micro and allows simple copying of music files to thedevice where upon it will extract the tags and update the databaseaccordingly. I found this worked with Directory Opus so it is my currentfavorite choice of getting music onto the player.
In all, I'm going to stick my neck out here and call the Creative Zen Micro the best MP3 player I've seen. Good looks, 12 hours of battery life, 5GB micro drive, FM radio, microphone, excellent interface and superb audio quality have really made an impression on me where I didn't expect to find it.All this for less than £170? Bargain.


  1. Creative players will continue to get trounced by the Apple ones for the foreseeable future. I believe this because I am a complete cockheaded cunthook who wouldn't know a good media player if it crawled up my ragged arse hole and played sweet music inside my hollow chest cavity. If I spent more time listening to my ipod instead of stalking websites of people who think I'm a twat I might realise that it's an overpriced pile of shit with some serious design flaws. But I do, so I don't and I'm still a cunt.

  2. My second iPod is dying (sigh) but back to the subject of retro first-gen MP3 players... I had the original Nomad when you had your Rio: the Nomad 64. Ghastly plastic case, duff FM radio, slow serial transfer, and a Smartmedia slot for expansion gawd bless it.
    It was tiny, but so tiny and light that it got lost at some piss-up or other. A bit like small phones, you need a bit of size and weight or you lose 'em.

  3. There's no doubt that the iPod mini will sell more, but this is a better player. The interface is quite similar on the Zen Micro, which is only a good thing from a Creative perspective given their previous players. I like the way, for example, you can add and remove the menu options which you are shown and it's particularly easy to access the DJ function for favorites/random and so on.
    Yeah the Muvos have always been pretty crap but they've sold by the absolute bucket-load. As for software, Notmad Explorer probably isn't necessary for most people who'd use an Micro. The Media Explorer does basically the same thing. I suspect more people will use Media Player 10 to manage it though.

  4. Good review Lurks - I saw this advertised in a mag the other week and liked the look of it; the price and feature set is killer next to Apple's massive £300 for an i-Pod.
    However, my original 5GB 1st generation i-Pod is still going strong, albeit I get around 5 hours continuous play before it conks out... so I'll wait until that dies completely before making the change.

  5. Apple may capture the mainstream because of it's brand awareness, but there'll always be a market for a cool gadget that's technically better that also shows better value. I'm in the market for a box like this, and from what lurks has said, it'll be the zen for me. You want to be a tosser and pay more for an inferior gadget just because it's popular and shiney then fair enough, don't assume everyone else is as shallow as you though (dickface).

  6. Failing that, anything other than extreme technical advantages will not win this market.
    I don't agree. If that were the case, why would so many companies invest so much time and effort delivering new hardware which essentially do NOT let us in on any amazing new technology?
    If anything, i-Pod's success may be a disadvantage, especially since people are fast becoming aware of alternatives that are just as functionally impressive, store as much data, and a) don't cost an absolute fortune and b) don't have Apple's stupid i-Pod synchronisation issue and c) don't look like you are simply following the crowd.

  7. Now hold on a moment there. The iPod hardware with iTunes proposition as a whole one is a very good system. There might be others making technically superior players but Apple have done a very good job. I have no doubt that while the iPod is the cool toy on the street, a lot of people chose it because it's a damn good package for what they want.
    I've seen a lot of alternative product owners slagging off iPods and iPod owners as if they are so clever they have found an alternative, I'm sure we all know at least one. The reality of the situation is that the Apple hardware/software package is a top bloody notch proposition and it has been the one to beat.
    Putting this back in perspective with the Creative Zen Micro, the reason this player is actually superb this time around is because they've got it wrong so much, for so long, that they've blatantly turned around and copied Apple outright on some of the big issues (product presentation and user interface) while retaining the boosted specification. The Zen Micro is the better player but only because it's an enhanced knock-off. If it wasn't for Apple, they'd still be knocking out ugly-as-sin cheapies in plastic clamshells on peg hooks in Dixons.
    The interesting question is, what happens when the technical gods in Korea finally wise up. Well, that day is coming.

  8. Nice review Lurks, I was going to ask you about this before Xmas because the UK creative site was screwed. It was claiming that the micro only played mps upto 128k, plus none of the tech specs pages were found either! Anway, they've sorted it all out and they had mixed up the battery life stats with playback formats on the introduction page.Ok now: uk.europe.creative.comBrit: are you getting £300 for a similar ipod from adding the cost of an ipod mini to the price of a Belkin iTalk voice recorder, or are you getting ripped off for ipod minis where you live?

  9. Creative have released a 'PlaysForSure' firmware for the Zen Micro. This PlaysForSure stuff is basically Microsoft's attempt to consolidate and simplify the situation with MP3 players and Media Player 10, DRM and all that jazz. I tried it out and basically the player doesn't show up at all when jacked into an XP box but it can be synched to any WMP 10 without any drivers. It broke Notmad Explorer and the new Creative Zen Media Explorer wouldn't install, bombing out with some silly InstallShield error, so I went back to the old drivers. I can't see any advantage other than not needing drivers if you were, say, shovelling music on from different machines. But surely any machine you'd shovel music from, drivers is no hardship and you can partition a bit of the drive to show up as a mass storage device if you're not moving music.

  10. Saw this in the shops around here a couple of days ago, costing 2300 NOK (approx. £170), and for a limited time with a spare battery. The unit looks very nice and I was actually tempted to shell out for one, although I don't have much use for a mp3 player since I have one in my car already.
    It definately looks as sexy, or even more, as the mini iPod from Apple. Being able to use it for data storage in addition to music is a big plus.

  11. Had one in my hand last night and tested it out a bit, and have to agree with Lurks here, it's a damn nice unit.
    The touch-pad took virtually no time getting used to, and navigating in the menus was dead easy.
    I deffo would want one of these!

  12. So I finally caved in and decided to get a portable mp3 unit, saw this at the aiport with a free extra battery for £162 notes... out came the plastic.
    I checked the Creative site and the PlaysForSure firmware seems to suggest that the unit can be used with Windows drag'n'drop - which would mean it should work with DOpus natively? Is that right? You seem to suggest it doesn't show up Lurks?
    Are there any disadvantages to this firmware - I guess the main question is can you 'downgrade' to the former revision if it's better?
    What's your current preferred method of getting music to it? Still Notmad?

  13. You can drag 'n drop in so far as you can drag 'n drop to WMP 10, as far as I say. Then no other software works at all so I flashed it back to the regular software. Notmad Explorer is great but sadly it doesn't work right with DOpus. It works, that is, but some weird temp dir fills up with all the files you've copied and you need to delete them by hand. Which isn't really the idea...

  14. Yeah - I went to some forums and worked out Notmad is the best option, rather than having to let MS rule my life with crappy WMP10, so am sticking with the current PDE firmwareAs far as the Temp file thing - have you tried CrapCleaner - it's superb for properly getting rid of temp files, either automatically, or through the Recycle Bin menu, as well as things like old registry crap and uninstalling programs. You can set it to clear Temp each restart which should help.

  15. It doesn't stick it in the actual temp dir. Rather in your documents folder in some utterly bizarre directory.

  16. You can choose the dir in the Notmad options, but in any case, CCleaner rocks - you can give it any directory to add to its purge list, and it cleans many other things like old logs and other crap from known applications.

  17. i got a zen micro and it rocks!!!it took only a minuete or two to work out the touch pad. and it works great with windows media suggestion buy it.

  18. Yes, this little thing is superb, I've got mine recently. However there are a few problems, that I have encountered during a weak of use. To make it clear, I'm in agreement with lurks in all his statements, but to recapitulate the good facts would be mere parroting, so lets see the dark side: - The touchpad is great, but the lower left field (functioning like an enter) soon get weared, and nowadays I had to push it real hard - Yes, the lack of a directory structure is a bit of problem for those who use own categorisation, and not the IDEtag's genre fields... Maybe a firmware later? Could it be possible? - A little but annoying problem is that when I take out the player from my pocket, hold it in my palm, and try to turn on, or set the hold button, I can't do it with one hand only, because I cannot get my finger around the earphone jack (maybe this won't be a problem for a lefthander) - The earphones' jack had gone wrong very soon. It stands out like a stick from the player, and every time I've reached into my pocket, I've bent/pushed/arched the wire, that is now making serious contact-noises. I've already made a deal with some other earphones. Sad that in Europe no earphones with remote control can be purchased...
    Besides all of these I think that it is a great player, an effective, big HDD (as I frequently transfer huge chunks of data with it, not just music), small and fitting, easy to use, lots of functions, fairly large LCD, good contrast, VERY sexy look, and many, many moor...!
    I have to confess that I've definitely bought it to make a concurrence to Apple...

  19. Ahh, and yet an other:
    I have immediately lost the earphone-bud covers (some soft spongies) in the first night in some bar. After a few drinks.Well, If I won't lost more, it was a good deal :)

  20. what if I don\'t use WMP and I want to shovel? Any firmware hacks to give me flash/external drive functionality? I hate the AOL bloat it loads...who fucking needs a new AOL account??????
    Or do I take it back and get another Muvo?
    If I wanted an Ipud, I would have bought an Ipud.