Review: Creative Zen Vision Portable Media Player

The Creative Zen Vision occupies its own niche in the portable media player (PMP) market. Unlike the Archos AV and PMA series, it doesn't record video, and it's not as small as the fifth-generation iPod, but its gorgeous 3.7-inch screen provides a very comfortable photo- and video-viewing experience, despite some viewing-angle issues.

Overall, we like the Vision, but we do have a wish list for improvements, like the addition of line-in recording (search) and the ability to make video playlists. And all four units we tested had a problem with background noise in some audio playback. Creative is aware of the issue and is working on a firmware upgrade.

At 4.9 by 2.9 by 0.8 inches and 8.4 ounces, the Vision is smaller and lighter than Creative's initial offering, the Creative Zen Portable Media Center. The 8.4-ounce Vision is sleek, with an anodized magnesium shell and measures 4.9 by 2.9 by 0.8 inches. Thankfully, the surface of the sleek magnesium shell doesn't pick up fingerprints like its predecessor did. The device comes in black or white and has a 30GB hard drive.

Controls are well-laid-out on the right side of the screen, with volume buttons on the top of the device next to the power/hold switch and built-in microphone. The USB 2.0 port (search) and dock connector (for the optional docking cradle) are on the bottom, and the CompactFlash card (search) slot is on the left side. The headphone jack is on the right side (which makes sense considering the Vision's overall shape), and A/V output and power jacks covered by a rubber flap lie next to it.

Although the manual says setup requires installing the Vision drivers and Creative's music transfer manager, we had no trouble simply plugging the device into our PC's USB port and syncing with Windows Media Player 10. The standard USB 2.0 High Speed connection, which replaces the Creative Zen Portable Media Center's proprietary connector, makes transfers speedy.

We loaded the Vision with video, photos, and music. You can also sync your contacts, tasks, and calendars with Microsoft Outlook and Creative's included PIM software. But although you can put the Vision into hard-drive mode to transfer music and data via drag-and-drop, you can't load photos, video, or anything else without Windows Media Player (search) or Creative's software. Also, there's no Mac support.

The interface has been streamlined a bit and surpasses that of many other such devices, with clear, intuitive menus and controls. You can browse music by ID3 tag (search) and photos and video by filename. A pane on the right of the interface lets you jump to specific letters — but just for video and audio, not photos, which are browsable by folder and thumbnail only. The main menu is customizable, which we found very handy for quicker navigation.

Audio format support includes MP3, WAV, and WMA as well as WMA files protected with WM DRM 10, such as those from online music and video subscription, rental, and download services. Subjective audio quality using the default settings has some problems. Despite deep bass and crisp highs, on some tracks, as mentioned earlier, we could clearly hear a background noise that sounds like what you get when you compress music too much. Creative claims the noise is audible on classical music only, but we heard it on jazz, folk, solo piano, and any music with quiet parts.

The included earbuds are actually quite good, and more efficient than most. The built-in mono speaker, however, is nearly useless because of its surprisingly low output. Our formal tests with the included earbuds showed a flat frequency response down into the mid-bass, with an admirably slow rolloff below that. We noted plenty of distortion at maximum volume, but the player puts out a fairly clean signal up to 23 on the 25-step volume scale. Output power via the headphone jack is quite strong: We measured a sustained 104 dB and 110 dB peaks with the included earbuds on our rock test track.

We checked out some of the equalizer settings, but none added anything to the sound quality. The Rock preset results in significant distortion even at normal listening volume, though Jazz doesn't distort even at maximum volume. The custom 5-band EQ gives you 12 dB in either direction, but in our tests, raising any of the sliders more than half way caused distortion.

Smooth, Clear Video Performance

Viewing JPEG photos and video (DivX, M-JPEG, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 Simple Profile, WMV, and XviD) on the built-in LCD is a joy thanks to the 640- by 480-pixel screen, which is significantly higher-resolution than displays in most players on the market. In fact, the Epson P-2000 (with its even higher resolution LCD) is the only device we've seen with a screen this nice. We were also able to view content recorded by a Media Center PC with no problems.

Images are crisp and bright, but the viewing angle isn't nearly as wide as it should be: Look from any angle except head-on and you won't see any true blacks. And even from a couple of degrees to the left, the image will start to look like a negative. Also, the highly reflective nature of the screen makes viewing under bright lights or in direct sunlight quite difficult. Screen issues aside, video is smooth and clear with well-synced audio on both the built-in screen and on a TV monitor (using the supplied A/V cables).

We were a bit surprised to find no repeat function for video and slide-show playback, and videos won't play back sequentially or in playlists (you can only play a single video and then you're brought back to the file list). Nor does the Vision do well with large video files. When we tried to play a 2.7GB test, the player locked up. You can view some EXIF data for photos, which we like, but can't see the camera model.

Voice recording is a bit weak. We like the graphical input-level meter, but the built-in microphone isn't very sensitive and can't be adjusted. There's also a delay of several seconds after you select Start Recording until recording begins. The FM tuner supports up to 32 presets and picks up stations quite well, and you can record radio content, though you can't do scheduled or timed recordings.

The Vision's CompactFlash card slot is great for shutterbugs who want to offload and view photos from digital cameras. Creative sells an optional adapter for other memory card formats. There are also plenty of other accessories available, including a dock and a remote control (the Vision has an infrared receiver). The product ships with a charger, A/V cables, and a soft storage bag.

The 3.5 hours of video playback we got on our battery rundown test falls short of the company's claim of 4 hours, but it's still respectable for a device this size. The scant 8.5 hours of audio playback is abysmal — we conducted our rundown test (using a real-world mix of files encoded at from 128 to 320 Kbps) several times because we couldn't believe it ourselves, especially since Creative claims the battery should last for up to 13 hours during audio playback. The battery is easily removable, and Creative offers an optional high-capacity storage cell that it says will run twice as long as the included one, and we recommend picking one up.

Overall, theVision is a very good product that offers a compelling audiovisual experience. Although the screen suffers from a narrow viewing angle, it looks so good that we don't feel this is much of an issue. We'd also like to see other hard drive capacities, USB Host capability, and a line-in audio recording (as well as video recording) facility. We hope future firmware updates add some flexibility, such as slide show repeat, constant backlight, and perhaps even Mac support.

At about $400, the Creative Zen Vision is a decent value considering the high quality of the screen, but the same money will get you a 60GB iPod with twice the hard drive capacity — albeit with a smaller, lower-resolution screen. As for the background-noise problem, though it hasn't been widely reported in the media, we did experience it on four different units, so we're hoping the firmware upgrade will provide a fix.