Creative was one of the first companies to back Microsoft's Portable Media Center standard, with its Zen PMC (see Nov 04 issue). Now it's back with a new addition to its portable media player lineup, although this time the firm has decided to turn its back on Microsoft and go it alone - the Zen Vision runs Creative's own software. While the capabilities are similar to that of PMC, this brings both advantages and disadvantages.
Firstly, since Microsoft specified some quite strict hardware specs for PMC devices, by using its own software Creative is free to specify any hardware it please for the Vision - the most notable difference being the screen, which has twice the resolution of the PMC at 640x480 pixels.
Creative has also added support for more video codecs. In addition to WMV (Windows Media Video), the Vision will happily gobble up AVI, Mpeg1, 2 and 4, MJpeg (motion Jpeg), Divx 4 and 5, and Xvid. As a result, the Zen Vision can play a lot more video content without the need for conversion to WMV, which is a time-consuming process.
The down side of parting company with Microsoft is that the player interface is far less intuitive to use, and a lot less pretty. The more technical user probably won't mind, but for the uninitiated it could be a hurdle. The Vision also lacks some of the PMC's visual niceties, such as displaying album artwork while audio is playing. Again, no great loss - but a shame, nonetheless.
And despite the noticeable hardware improvements, there are also some issues with the screen - see Screen Burn, below, for more details.
While the Vision can handle a fair few video formats, Creative has also included a utility to convert any content you have to 320x240 WMV. The application is simple enough to use - just tell it what video you want to convert and then leave it to get on with the job. It's a slow process, however, with an hour's worth of video taking roughly an hour to convert.
The Vision is also supported by Windows Media Player 10.0, so you can simply hook it up and set it to sync with your media collection if that's your desktop player of choice.
In addition to video, the Vision supports audio in MP3, WMA (including digital rights management protection) and WAV and photos in Jpeg. If you're still bored, there's a built-in FM radio, although reception isn't great, as it uses the headphone lead for an aerial.
In an interesting move, Creative has popped a CompactFlash slot on the side of the Vision, allowing you to copy photos and videos directly to the device. Unfortunately, we couldn't get this to work as the only CompactFlash card we had in the office gave an error complaining of an unsupported file system, despite working perfectly well on a PC.
As for battery life, there are promises of four and a half hours for video and 13 hours for audio, with an optional extended battery available offering about double that.
Despite the Vision's improved resolution, it's not the best screen in the world. For a start it's very reflective - watch a dark piece of video and you'll soon find yourself focusing on your reflection and not the onscreen action. It also has an incredibly poor viewing angle. Move it just slightly to the left or the right and it becomes hard to make out the picture. Using it to show photos to a group of friends would be a frustrating task, since only two at most would be able to view them, and even then only just.
It also seems strange to opt for a 4:3 aspect ratio screen when the majority of content created these days is in widescreen 16:9.