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Creative Zen Vision W

Editor's rating (1-5):
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Reviewed March 19, 2007 by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief

Portable media players are second class citizens compared to MP3 and small format video-capable music players like the iPod Video and Zune when it comes to sales figures. Why? The little guys are about half the size, which suits those who want something that slips discretely into a pocket or clips to an arm band for jogging. Music is easily and safely consumed in many situations where video isn't (driving a car, jogging-- you get the idea). Portable video content was hard to come by a few years ago, but that's changed greatly in the past two years thanks to YouTube and a variety of online video sale and rental sites, and then there are all the bittorrents. . . Finally there's price: PMPs used to cost more than twice as much as the $249 iPod Video and Zune. PMP prices have dropped dramatically over the past few years and now the price difference is modest at $50 or so with portable media players winning big time on features: you get more bang for the buck with a portable media player.

Creative Zen W

What are the differences? Music-centric players like the iPod and Zune are small, use proprietary syncing software and music services that makes it easy to load your player with music (once you learn the software but that's not hard), may not mount as a removable hard disk for quick file copying (in the case of Zune) and have lovely color displays that are too small for extended bouts of video-watching. These players are perfect for the pocket, are easy to use and while they can play video, they are intended primarily for music playback.

Zen W, iPod and Zune

The iPod Video, Zune and Zen W.

Enter the Creative Zen Vision W whose primary purpose is video playback. It has a large 4.3" widescreen display, supports many more video formats and codecs, mounts as a USB 2.0 drive for quick file transfers (you can also use the desktop software to manage the device) but requires no special syncing software, is compatible with Vista and MTP (media transfer protocol used by Windows and Windows Media Player) and it works with any PlaysForSure service. It does everything the little guys do such as MP3 playback, photo viewing, Outlook syncing (iPod), FM radio (Zune) and adds a sound recorder, CF slot and speaker. It has both stereo line out and TV-out and the RCA cables are included in the box. It can hold 15,000 songs and 240 hours of video (120 hours for the 30 gig version). But at 10 ounces, it's portable but not pocketable. The 30 gig W measures 5.27" 2.95" 0.86" and the 60 gig measures 5.27" 2.95"1.04". Nonetheless, if watching video wherever and whenever you want is your thing, the Zen W should be on your short list.

In the Box

To bring down prices, PMP's don't come with a wealth of accessories in the box, though Creative outdoes Archos by including a charger (thank you!). The Zen W comes with a world charger, USB mini to standard USB sync cable, AV cables for video or slideshow out to TV, a software CD with desktop software for Windows only, a felt slip pouch (hair and dust magnet) and several printed flyers for free trials of services like Audible and Napster. Optional accessories available for separate purchase include a CF to SD card adapter, IR remote, spare standard batteries, skins, screen protectors, a case that doubles as a stand, cables and additional chargers.

Using the Creative Zen W

Creative uses a simple text-based interface that reminds us of Windows Media Center. It's straightforward and very easy to use: turn on the player and you'll see a list of selections: Music Library, Photos, Videos, FM radio, Microphone, Extras (Date & Time, Organizer and Removable Disk Mode), System (settings for all the various playback modes and more) and Compact Flash Card where you'll transfer the contents of a card to the player. The Zen W is as easy to use as the iPod and Zune, but with more customization possible: you can create your own folders and hide pre-created ones that you don't need, move submenu items to the main menu and show or hide menu items. Compared to icon-based Archos players, the Zen is much easier to understand and use. And yes, you can set any image stored on the Zen to be your wallpaper and you can change the color theme. Menu response, moving through even large photos and video fast forward/rewind are fast.




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bottom of Zen W
top of Zen W

Bottom and top views of the Creative Zen Vision W.

You'll use the standard 4-way d-pad with center OK button and the back button just above it to navigate the menus and the three basic media controls below to manage media playback. There's a play/pause button and fast forward and rewind buttons (hold these down to scrub through a song or video, tap once to skip to the next or previous track). Volume up and down buttons live on the top edge and we're glad they're far from the playback controls, lest we accidentally hit them and deafen ourselves. The speaker is on the lower right below the front-facing controls and does an adequate job of mono playback.The mini USB sync connector is on the bottom edge (the Zen supports USB charging too), the standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack is on the right and the charging and AV out ports are on the right under a rubber door. The CF slot is on the left side and the removable battery is on the back.

The power slider is up top and you'll slide it to the left for a second or two to turn the player on or off. Slide it to the right to enable the Hold feature which prevents accidental button presses from doing things when the player is in a bag or pocket. The Zen automatically turns off when you're not using it (you can specify how soon it turns off), and the player has a sleep timer. Should you have content you wish not share with everyone, you can create a password for folders you wish to keep private.

right side
left side, CF slot

Right and left sides.

The Creative Zen Vision W is flash upgradable using the USB connection to download new firmware to the player. Creative typically releases a few firmware updates over the life of the product and these are bug fixes and small improvements to the user interface (not generally significant new features). The player automatically detects when you've connected it to a TV via the AV cables and switches the picture to the TV screen while shutting off the player display. Unplug the cables and the image transfers back to the player's screen. Likewise, if no headphones or AV cables are connected, the Zen plays sound through the speaker and switches to headphone or AV when those are connected. Watch out-- you'll likely crank the volume high for the speaker and that's loud enough to deafen you when you plug the headphones in. Creative does have a volume limiter option under System settings which you can enable to protect your ears.

Once you install the Creative desktop software for Windows, you can view the device as if it were a removable hard disk and manage files. The software also provides for playlist creation and editing, media transfer, media conversion (if a file needs conversion Creative Media Center will let you know and offer to do it, otherwise it's a straight drag and drop to transfer), ZenCast management (podcast collections from Zen) and more. You will need to install the desktop software to use the Zen Vision, though it supports MTP, drivers are needed to mount it as a drive. The player has an option to set aside a portion of storage as a hard disk for transfer (up to 16 gigs) and you won't need any drivers or software to use that partition under Windows or Mac OSX. Mac users don't get any support from Creative, but a freeware application called XNJB does the job to mount the Zen so you can manage media on the player (rather than just work with the data partition which is separate from the main media partition).

In addition the Zen can sync to Outlook for Contacts, Calendar and tasks. These are read-only and data is pushed to the Zen rather than a 2-way sync.

Display and Video Playback

The W features a 480 x 272 pixel 262,000 color widescreen display that measures 4.3" diagonally. This hits the sweet spot where video becomes truly watchable and enjoyable, particularly widescreen movies. The display itself is gorgeous: bright, super color saturated, great contrast and sharpness. Turn it on and look at one of the pre-loaded photos or watch a movie and the screen itself captivates you. When a display looks fantastic indoors, it's rarely outdoor viewable, but the Zen W is indeed watchable outdoors in all but very bright, direct sunlight. When watching videos there's no ghosting and the picture is extremely sharp. Colors are accurate and brightness more than adequate. The widescreen aspect ratio is perfect for movies and should the movie not fill the screen, you can use the menu button to zoom or stretch the movie to take up maximum real estate. The Zen automatically bookmarks your position in a video before you exit (a must!)

The player supports a wide variety of formats included WMW, Xvid, TivoToGo (using Tivo's desktop converter), MPEG 1/2/4, MGPEG and DivX 4 and 5. In our tests it handled DivX6 as well and we rarely found an AVI file that it couldn't play natively. Should you have videos that require conversion, the included Creative desktop software will do it for you, and we only found 2 files out of nearly 100 that the software couldn't convert (then we resorted to SUPER, a powerful free converter/encoder). Amazon's Unbox movies are compatible with the W as well, and you'll use Amazon's desktop software to transfer movies to the player. Creative doesn't specify a maximum suggested bitrate for encoding files, so we tested a variety of files at various bitrates. 650kbps is plenty good enough for a sharp picture on the built-in screen, and we hooked the Zen up to a 46" plasma TV using the included cables and the quality was expectedly pleasing (better than broadcast TV but obviously not at good as HD). Files encoded in the upper 900s to 1,000 kbps played back fine with no stuttering or frame drops and clearly look better on large flatscreen TVs. We tested the Zen with an 1,800 kbps WMV file and though the desktop software let us copy it to the player without conversion or warning, the Zen put up a message saying it was encoded at too high a bitrate and wouldn't play it. Fair enough-- that's a very high bitrate, certainly more than we'd expect a mobile player to handle and more than we'd use in the interest of keeping file sizes reasonable.

Music, FM Radio and Recording

We were very impressed with music quality on the Zen using a variety of headphones for testing. Dynamics, range and perceived quality are superior to the iPod and Zune-- given the greater space for electronics, we're glad Creative put it to good use. When recorded in good quality, movie stereo soundtracks sound fantastic as well. The included earbud headphones are good quality and very comfy but they tend to favor midrange and bass. They're surprisingly loud, easily beating out the stock iPod, Zune and Cresyn offerings.

The Zen supports MP3 and WMA formats included copy protected PlaysForSure up to 320kbps. The PMP is compatible with Napster to Go, Rhapsody, Urge, Yahoo's Music store and other PlaysForSure purchase and subscription services which you'll sync to the Zen using Windows Media Player. Since the iPod and Zune use their own service and DRM, you won't be able to use purchased music from these services on any other brand of device. If you're an iTunes user who has ripped CDs into AAC format, sorry the Zen Vision W doesn't support AAC so you'll have to re-rip your CD or use a converter. The Zen Vision W also plays Audible books and TivoToGo (you'll need to download Tivo's desktop conversion program).

The Zen has playlists for music (but not video), a bookmarking feature (very handy for musicians wishing to repeat specific sections of a tune), an auto volume leveling option, a hearing protection option for those who don't want to accidentally blast their ears, and a 5 band EQ with 8 presets. You must go to sound settings to change the EQ (for some reason it's not available directly in the song menu during playback). The DJ feature is pretty cool: it's a collection of playlists such as rarely heard, most popular, highly rated and so on.

size comparison

Size comparison: iPod Video 30 gig, Zune and the Creative Zen Vision W.

The FM radio offers better reception than average with 32 presets and like most all mobile players, it uses the headphones as an antenna. The built in mic and voice recorder application do a passable job of recording audio but the quality isn't sufficient for music recording (it's no Boss Micro BR and it's not as good as the iPod with a stereo add-on mic). The Zen records audio in mono at 16 kHz in ADPCM format and shows a handy level meter when it's in recording mode. Recording length is limited only by available storage space and you can transfer recordings to your desktop using the Creative desktop software.

Photographers will appreciate the W's CF slot (compatible with type I and II cards as well as microdrives), though the Zen only handles JPEG files natively. Creative's desktop software can convert TIFF, GIF and BMP files then transfer them to the PMP, but there's no RAW support (to be fair, RAW is a challenging collection of file formats itself). Insert a CF card and you'll have the option to copy all images or just the last, 10, 20 or 50 to the device. You can't view them while they're on the card-- first you must transfer them to the player. We tested RAW handling and the device copied them just fine though it couldn't display them, which means it can act as a repository for images if you're a photographer on the go who needs to offload from card before the next shoot.

The Zen W presents images as thumbnails and while it wasn't super-fast at filling the screen with lots and lots of tiny thumbnails, it was very quick at rendering each photo (you need not wait for all thumbnails to load before viewing individual photos). We tested it will 4 meg JPEGs taken with a Nikon D70s dSLR and it handily loaded images and switched between them quickly, which is more than we can say of many PDAs and smartphones. The slide show feature is nice for "entertaining" friends and family with your latest vacation photos and more.

Battery Life

User swappable batteries still aren't standard on PMPs, and we're glad Creative went with one for the W. Should you be away from an outlet for a trans-Pacific flight and wish to watch non-stop video, no problem: pick up a spare battery and swap it in. Likewise, when the battery finally gives up the ghost in a few years, there's no need to send the player in for service or attempt disassembly. The 1650 mAh slim battery serves as the back of the player and is retained by a single sturdy latch. Creative claims 13 hours of music playback and 4.5 hours of video playback which is average for a portable video player with a large display but we actually got better results in our tests: 17 hours of music and 5.3 hours of video playback.


If you're a video collector, DVD ripper (we won't tell anyone), YouTube addict or are enamored with Amazon's Unbox service and want to take your videos with you anywhere, the Creative Zen Vision W is an excellent choice. We recommend the 60 gig if you can afford it, leaving room to grow. The US portable video player market represents a relatively narrow playing field with Creative and Archos dominating. The Archos 604 is also a strong contender, but we prefer the Zen's ease of use, wide video format support (no need to buy extra plugins from the manufacturer) and included accessories in the box.

Pro: Fantastic widescreen display is perfect for movie playback: high resolution, great brightness and super-saturated color with a good viewing angle and sharpness. Sound quality is also excellent and the FM radio gets better reception than average, though the voice recorder is weak (though better than nothing). The photo viewer handles large files easily making it a good match for dSLR owners and the CF type II slot is useful as well as versatile (if you get a CF to SD or CF to SD/MMC/MS and etc. adapter). Battery is user-replacable and battery life is decent. Good selection of video file formats supported and it works with DRM music from popular services.

Con: No add-on hardware for recording video. Natively supports JPEG format photos only- RAW photographers can backup images from a card to the Zen Vision W but they can't view them. Requires included drivers to mount the entire drive as a removable disk (only a separate partition is mountable without drivers on Windows and Macs).

Price: $299 for 30 gig and $399 for 60 gig.

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Display: 262K color transflective TFT color LCD. Screen size diagonally: 4.3 ". Resolution: 480 x 272.

Battery: Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable. 1650 mA. Claimed 13 hours continuous music playback, 4.5 hours continuous video playback.

Storage: 30 and 60 models. Hold approximately 15,000 songs or 240 hours video (120 hours of video for the 30 gig).

Size: 30 gig: 5.27" 2.95" 0.86". Weight: 9.73 ounces. 60 gig: 5.27" 2.95" 1.04", 10.48 ounces.

Audio: Built in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone jack. Has recorder application and records in ADPCM at 16kHz mono. Supports MP3 and WMA (up to 320 kbps) including protected PlaysForSure files, WAV and Audible. 8 EQ settings. Good quality stereo earbuds included, 5-7 watts per channel.
Sound specs: Frequency response: 20Hz - 20kHz, signal to noise: 90 dB, channel separation 65 dB, harmonic distortion: <0.1%.

Video: Plays MPEG1/2/4-SP, XviD, TivoToGo, DivX 4 and 5, AVI, MJPEG and WMV9 files. In our tests it played DivX 6 as well. Handles up to 1,000 kbps videos well. Video (supports NTSC and PAL) and audio out with included RCA cables.

Image support: Natively handles JPEG and the desktop software can convert TIFF, BMP and GIF files then copy them to the Zen.

Wireless Networking: None.

Software: Desktop software: Creative MediaSource Player and Organizer, ZenCast software, Zen Media Explorer (mounts the device as a drive for file management).

Expansion: 1 CF slot compatible with type I and II cards and the microdrive. Can take other card formats with adapter.


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