One of the great desires of a music buff who is also a technogeek is to own an mp3 player which can store his whole music collection in a single place. Well, I have realized it sooner than I expected. The Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen 20GB is a perfect balance of affordability, quality, storage and features when it comes to handling MP3s. Here's my biased review of this techno toy.
Looks:The minimalist design of the Zen is what attracts most. With an anodised aluminium casing and built-in Lithium Ion battery, the Zen is compact at 7.6 x 11.3 x 2.5 cm.
It weighs about 260 grams and looks like a futuristic walkman. The LCD display is 132 x 64 pixels with a pleasant ocean blue backlit colour. The chrome buttons on the Zen are lesser in number than the Jukebox3. But they are sturdy and less susceptible to spurious clicks.
Storage:The Zen supports MP3/WMA/WAV files for playback. 20 GB of storage space means about 4000 MP3s encoded at 160kbps. I don't consider WMA to be in the forefront of quality audio, although the Creative Jukeboxes support WMA. This much space should be enough for any serious music buff to store his most important compilations.
But its another feature provided by Creative that makes the 20GB capacity insufficient - the ability to store data files. The Zen allows storing of normal data files in addition to audio files for transfer between two computers. It is this attribute that made me go away from other portable mp3 players. Although it does not show up as a drive when connected to the PC, a small utility called Creative File Manager is needed to copy data files to the Zen. This program is small enough to fit on a floppy. Well, I have put it in a V-Card CD(50MB) and placed the CD in the leather case itself - quite handy.
Another feature that Creative has put in the Zen knowingly or unknowingly is very popular among geeks - The internal design of the Zen is so simple that one can easily upgrade the hard drive that come with the Zen. It is a Fujitsu MHR2020AT 2.5" HDD. It can be easily replaced by a 40GB model from the same company or that of Toshiba. Nowhere else can I find such configurability. Although this is not endorsed by Creative, such an upgrade is known to have almost no problems. This is another reason why I like this puppy very much. I am bound to finish up the existing space in near future and some day or the other I can try out this thing.
Sound Quality:This is so important that given all other features of the Zen, I would have opted for the iPod if not for the excellent audio quality of the Zen. With 98dB SNR, 75dB channel seperation and 0.1% THD, it surpasses the iPod by miles in terms of audio quality.
Although the Zen has in-built support for EAX effects, an audiophile wouldn't use them for anything more than say an auditorium speech. More useful is the audio normalisation or what Creative calls it - Smart Volume Management. Basically, this is used say at night, when in a classical rendition, the volume suddenly increases and you do not want to disturb the person near you. Even in a train, when the music gets softer, the volume is pumped up so as to enable you to hear above the train noise.
Also useful is the Playback speed control. When you are listening to a speech and want to take down notes, you can slow down the speed without reducing the voice pitch. Same is the case with music if you are trying to identify the notes of a particular instrument. It can be varied from 0.5 to 1.5 times the normal speed.
Give me anything but the headphones supplied with the Zen. These big `neck phones' have a bad frequency response of 40-20,000Hz. Instead, I bought the popular ear-bud style Sony MDR E819V phones with a wide response of 12-22,000 Hz. These are small and have good quality bass output.
Data Transfer:The model I have is USB2 capable. It turned out to be a better and cheaper deal than the Firewire/USB1.1 version. USB2 gives about 40-45Mbps transfer rates while copying files to the device. Compare this with the approx. 6Mbps that USB1.1 gives and the 55Mbps of Firewire.
Misc Features:While many reviews complain about the lack of an intuitive UI for the Zen, i am pretty satisfied with the tree-like menu. The screen fonts are good and are available in large/small sizes with distinct icons for various operations. The scroll wheel is good enough for browsing through the audio tracks. Searching by album, artist, playlist, track, genre is possible. On-the-fly playlist generation is possible. This is one killer feature. Few mp3 players have this capability, although it seems trivial to implement on a hardware player. Also tracks can be deleted from the interface.
I can play the Zen 14 hours non-stop at normal volume levels, 3 hours more than the iPod's. A full recharge takes about 3 hours according to my calculations. That's very good.
There is provision for an FM wired remote. This allows for an FM tuner, a mic for voice recording and remote controlled operations. The FM remote, although available from Creative, is a bit rare due to high demand.
The firmware or BIOS is upgradable and hence future support for newer audio formats should be possible. If in case there is file corruption on the disk, a Rescue menu is available to do system tasks such as disk scanning, formatting and OS reloading.
While the Jukebox3 has more features like Optical line-in & line-out jacks for high quality recording, they are almost never used unless you are at home. And if you are at home, why do you need a portable player? That beats me. The Zen fan doesn't need those extra frills.
Cons:Yes - the Zen did hang up once. A tiny reset button did the trick to restore to normalcy. Long file transfer operations drop in speed suddenly sometimes. I cannot locate the cause for that. Is the player pausing for breath? There is no STOP button! You have to make do with a combination of Pause+Skip buttons.
The cache on Zen is 16MB compared to the 32MB on NJB3 and iPod. This is about 10 minutes of buffer before the music starts skipping. Isn't that enough? Maybe the small buffer is responsible for the bit slow scroll response of the menu.
Software is needed to transfer files to the Zen, unlike the iPod which shows up as a drive on the computer. That is trivial considering the file manager program fits on a floppy.
It is 70 grams heavier than the white iPod and larger in size. The iPod menu is more intuitive, more sensitive and lesser buttons to operate with. But then, that doesn't justify the $200 difference in cost, does it?
About the author:
Nilesh is working with Infosys in the infosec field. In his spare time, Nilesh
does photography and maintains his weblog at nilesh.org/weblog. In addition to
being a gadget freak, he is excited about emerging web technologies and
constantly experiments whenever he gets that bit of extra time."