Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Creative Zen Micro (review sort of)

A couple years ago my daughter wanted an IPOD Nano for Christmas so I picked up a Creative Labs Zen Micro for her on E-Bay instead. I have this bizarre attraction to technological underdogs. Naturally, I had a Beta VCR, a cpm computer, and ran OS2 for a year instead of Windows. I also have a mountain bike with 27” wheels, bought a Pocket PC pda instead of a Palm, and use something called “Snapstream” instead of Tivo. I’ve maybe been most extreme with mp3 players. I started with an Archos (fwiw I loved rockbox), went to a Frontier Nex II (AA batteries and removable compact flash cards for storage), and had taken to just using my PDA for mp3s when my daughter made her request. One of the joys of oddball choices in the electronic world is that you run into audio eccentrics. The Frontier Nex II was recommended by Xin Feng of who built portable headphone amps, found ways to make am-fm walkmen sound dramatically better, and offered tips on how to keep neighbor dogs from leaving excrement on your front lawn.

Anyway, I have this weird gene that can’t resist going against the consumer grain. I reasoned that the Creative Labs option had more than double the storage, included an FM radio, and also had a voice recorder. I had to buy one. I was just using the daughter as an excuse for doing it. In any case, my older daughter helped me avert a Christmas disaster by telling me that I had to get the IPOD Nano because teenagers don’t generally like being that different.

My daughter was very happy with her Nano until our dog ate it. A year later, someone stole the replacement. So, for her birthday this summer I got her another Nano. In the meantime, the other daughter’s Nano bought the same Christmas lost its ability to turn on and off this summer. Nonetheless, they’ve been very happy with the things. They use them for workouts and when they travel and to them simplicity matters. You plug the thing in, the software works, you learn a couple buttons, and that’s pretty much it.

In the meantime, the Creative Labs Zen Micro sat in a box in my office. I would have used it myself, but there was a problem - my computer wouldn’t recognize it which meant I had no way to load music on it. Creative sold two million of the things for Christmas 2005. Somehow, they didn’t make it terribly clear that the Zen Micro not only worked only with PC’s, it only really worked well with Windows XP. I had Windows 2000. In my frustration, I erased the firmware on the player which only made matters worse.

Creative maintains a pretty good help board on their own site. That said, reading the thing would convince you that the Zen Micro was a tech support disaster. First, the company had a quality control issue with the headphone jack. Thousands of Zen Micros had a loose connection which resulted in the loss of a channel. Second, the original firmware had a battery drain issue. The Zen would go from full to empty just from sitting on the shelf for a day. Third, I wasn’t the only person who couldn’t get the computer to recognize the player.

The E-bay guy I bought it from was very nice, but I figured I’d dallied too long before I discovered that it didn’t really work. I just consigned myself to treating it alternately as a paperweight in my office or as a “project”. Fwiw, the Creative Zen tech support people were also sort of helpful. It was just that nothing they suggested actually worked.

Maybe it was having to get my daughter another Ipod this summer or maybe it was finally making the change to Windows XP on my computer (I’d tried getting it to work on other people’s XP computers without any success), but I decided to give it one more try. I looked up a clue on the Creative support board and actually got my computer to accept a working driver. The trick turned out to be that you have to remove Windows Media Player from your computer, install the driver, then reinstall Media Player. I think it has something to do with what Creative calls “Plays for sure”, a feature that makes the Zen compatible with Windows Media Player 10. If you have Windows Media Player 11 though, all bets are off. Once I got the driver loaded, the firmware installer then was able to recognize it and load firmware (with the battery fix) onto the player. My daughters would have shot me had they had to go through tis and I have no idea how many hours I spent fiddling with the thing before I got it to work.

Once done, I was pleasantly surprised. I had bought the Zen partly because audiophiles claimed that Creative actually made the best-sounding MP3 player (of course the minor problem there now is that most audiophiles use formats other than MP3 to minimize or even eliminate compression issues. Talk about shades of writing your software only for Windows XP). The Zen actually does sound better. For you audiophiles playing at home, you can hear instrumenetal detail clearly separated in space. Supposedly, they took some care in choosing capacitors and in layout with the Zen.

Someone had designed a very nice product. There are little issues like the touch buttons being too sensitive, but aside from the production flaw with the headphone jack, the Zen really is better in many ways than the IPOD. It sounds better, holds more, has a great menu system, and I use the radio more than I thought I would. It’s not the best radio, but sometimes you just get tired of listening to the music you already know. Btw, it’s just easier to use a single purpose device. PDAs do mp3s reasonably well and I still think they’re better than most media players for video, but the zen is a better size for regular use and it helps to have dedicated buttons located in the right places. I got tired of hitting the wrong thing and turning on my PIM instead of music. Having the Zen fit just so in your palm is a reminder that there is such a thing as too small.

I have no idea how Creative Labs managed to screw up virtually everything else about what might have been a very competitive product. In the meantime, I’m trying to understand the giant nerd that lives inside me who would hang on to an MP3 player for 19 months without ever having it work properly. It’s actually very satisfying to have gotten the thing to work and adds to my enjoyment of my Zen. I suppose “Zen” was a good name for the thing. It’s just that I would never recommend a Creative Labs product to anyone else.



At 8/01/2007 02:30:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are a perseverer indeed. Now if only you or one of your fans could tell me a portable cd player for audio books that could bookmark or otherwise start up exactly where one left off?

I long to listen to newer books on tape, but I pause and restart my tape player all the time. There has to be some cd machine which will go to where you left off???!!!

At 8/01/2007 08:55:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I don't know of a CD player that will do that, but most CD players have chapter stops that get you to within a couple minutes (depends on the CD) if you remember which chapter you were on. MP3 is pretty close to the perfect medium for audio books btw, but most libraries don't have them in that format. One thing it's great at is letting you stop and start where you want and just as significant, no multiple tapes or CDs.


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