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Creative Zen review

Is Microsoft's original favourite still a class act?

Our Verdict

A reasonable performer hampered by Microsoft's apparent insularity

The original Microsoft portable media centre, Creative's Windows Mobile-powered Zen was followed by the Samsung YH-999. The Zen also has 20GB storage capacity,but the two differ in terms of size and appearance. Both the player and the 3.8in 4:3 320 x 240-pixel screen are slightly larger.

Press the Windows-logo key to the left of the centrally-located screen on the piano-black body and you can choose the video,music or photos you want to access.A fifth option is 'settings', from which you can choose a preset audio-equaliser, adjust the display brightness or specify a language.

To the right of the screen are controls for audio volume, playback/pause and skipping through media in either direction. You'll also find a headphone jack and an AV output (composite-video - NTSC or PAL standards - and stereo audio) for feeding an external display. No remote control is provided.

As an alternative the Zen incorporates a 'squeaker',but it's useless unless the room you're in is very quiet indeed! No AV input has been included and so you cannot make audio or video recordings without a computer to hand - and that computer must run Windows XP. USB 2.0 forms the connection 'between PC and player.

On top of the player are four presets that can be programmed to 'jump' to a favourite song,album, movie or other medium stored on the unit.A handy feature.The 3.6Ah lithium-ion battery is capable of powering the Zen for up to 7 hours of video playback or 22 hours of continuous music and can be changed by the user.

In terms of file formats, the Zen is compatible with WMV video files, WMA/MP3 audio files and JPEG stillimages. The Zen wouldn't, alas, handle any of the DiVX or XviD files we tried.

Getting files into the player is achieved via Windows Media Player 10,which is supplied on CD-ROM. If the video file you're trying to transfer is incompatible,the software will first convert it into WMV - provided your PC has the right codecs installed.

The software also contains drivers that allow the Zen to be seen as an external hard drive under XP. Files that don't require conversion can then easily be dragged from your PC's hard drive to the relevant folders on the Zen. performance

The Windows-based user interface is undoubtedly intuitive and speedy. Video quality is also more than acceptable with a sharp presentation, although the dynamic range is somewhat restricted. In terms of sound quality, we found the Zen's full-bodied character to be pleasant - certainly when partnered with decent headphones.

The Zen is an interesting device, and has battery life and sound quality on its side. Ultimately, though, it's hampered by Microsoft's apparent insularity.