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.
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.
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.
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.