by Sergey Samarin
10/22/2004 | 02:22 PM
Last summer Creative announced the launch of sales of their new player called Zen Touch, the next model in the Zen series. The “Touch” in the name denotes the menu-navigation tool employed in the device – a touchpad.
Being a portable audio player with support of all popular formats (MP3, WMA and WAV), the Zen Touch is also remarkable for its ability to store as many as 10 thousand musical compositions and to work as long as a whole day without recharging the battery!
I can’t say the market of digital audio players is a new territory for Creative since the company has been mining it for few years already. The accumulated experience of the company engineers should have generated something really exceptional. We’re going to see today if that’s really so.
Built-in battery (supplied with an external power supply)
Up to 24 hours of non-stop playback without recharging
Supported file formats
MPEG Audio Layer 3 (MP3),
Blue-lit LCD panel with 160x104 pixel resolution
USB 2.0 Hi-Speed
Supported frequencies range
20Hz ~ 20,000Hz
Up to 97dB
FM-radio with wired remote control unit
* The battery life time was measured by the manufacturer as the player was continuously playing tracks encoded at 128 Kbps
** Recommended price at Amazon.com
Here are the things you must have already marked out in the list of the characteristics above: an integrated hard disk drive capable of accommodating over 10,000 audio-files; a high-capacity accumulator for a longest time of autonomous work; a big and very informative LCD display; a high-speed USB port for fast file transfers. With all that, the Creative Zen is an example of miniaturization, its dimensions being similar to the ones of a small-size organizer. The radio receiver is supplied separately for the player; it is a special headset – Creative uses this solution with many models of its digital players. The downside of the player’s extensive functionality is not only its high retail price, but also its weight (203 grams).
And here are the things you are given after you have counted your money out:
In fact, this is all you may want for everyday use of your player. The only thing that probably needs replacing is the pair of earphones. Now, let’s learn how you can control the player; main controls are found on the front panel of the device.
The monochrome LCD display with blue highlighting takes up a big portion of the face panel. It is really very informative, displaying a lot of info about the audio-file:
Onscreen information during playback
Musical compositions are searchable in various ways: by play-lists, by albums, genres and so on. You select the search method in the menu. The screen shows the scroll bar during the search process, and you move the cursor from the touchpad. Its sensor pad is divided into three sensitivity zones. The outermost zones are for fast scrolling up and down. The sensitivity of the touchpad can be adjusted in the menu, and I should confess it was too high for me at first even at the Low setting. You confirm your choices with the Ok button or with a gentle press of the touchpad.
The screen menu represents a logical hierarchical structure:
As shown on the picture, the headphones socket is located on the top edge of the player. Its keyhole-like shape is due to the optional headset with a radio-receiver (the ordinary earphones are plugged into the standard mini-jack socket). The USB port is found next to the line output. There is also a key lock here that protects the player from accidental touches during transportation or wear.
There is nothing on the right panel of the player save for a power connector. The power adapter you receive with the player is used for charging up the accumulator. After the accumulator is fully charged, it is recommended that you unplug the adapter.
The left panel carries volume controls as well as a turn on/off button with a blue integrated LED. In case the player stops responding to you – when it “hangs up” – you can use the reset button (you need a clip or something to do that).
The flat accumulator is attached to the back panel
I couldn’t resist the temptation to see what was inside the player. Its back panel is fastened with four screws, one of which is warranty-sealed. The accumulator is attached to this back panel. So I can tell you the player uses a 3.7v lithium-ion polymer battery. The Zen Touch owes its long battery life to this accumulator.
A Hitachi drive occupies most of the player’s internal space.
This snapshot reveals the type of the hard disk drive employed. It is a miniature-size Travelstar from Hitachi (1.8” form-factor, 20GB capacity). Such drives are going to be used in portable computers soon, instead of 2.5” ones. As the hard disk drive is sensitive to shocks and impacts, you should be careful with the player. First of all, it’s desirable to keep the player in the leather case you receive with it.
Create play-lists and organize music albums in Creative MediaSource Organizer
The file-transfer process is described graphically in the transfers window
For the player to communicate with the computer, you install the driver and the exclusive software that you receive on the CD. Without that, you cannot access files on the player’s internal had disk drive. Working with file managers through the generic driver is not supported, which is not too handy. You have to organize play-lists in Creative MediaSource Organizer – I have never considered it as an intuitive tool with a friendly interface, and inexperienced users may find this program very complex and confusing. I do wonder why Creative is trying to force this utility on its users, without permitting any alternatives. I spent quite a lot of time to learn this exclusive file manager and then spent some time more to clear away the mess of musical files that grew after my copying albums from the computer.
NOMAD Explorer is the only way to access files and folders on the player
Creative says the player can be used as a universal portable data-storage medium, but you should install the file manager called NOMAD Explorer first. So, if you’re going to use the Zen Touch to share data between two computers, you have to install this program on both machines.
I performed my tests of the Zen Touch audio-player in two stages: audio output quality and speed characteristics.
The first test – the quality of the player’s line-out – was performed with the help of SpectraLAB utility. I created two etalon audio-files in SoundForge especially for this test stage. The first file contained a 1kHz signal to determine the basic audio characteristics of the player; the second had two tones at 250Hz and 8020Hz frequencies for evaluating the intermodulation distortion coefficient. Both files were copied to the player’s drive and reproduced from there.
I pushed the player’s volume control to the maximum to see if the device is usable in this mode. Many players produce strong harmonic distortions at the maximum volume levels – this spoils all the fun, of course. Unlike them, the Zen Touch had no distortions at the maximum volume; the sound was clear and translucent, and powerful enough to silence the noise of the underground or street. But let’s get back to the tests…
The reproduced signals were measured at the player’s line output and were transferred to the input of the Creative E-MU 1820 professional-class sound card. The spectrograms follow:
The tests confirm that the player has a very low noise level, although the measured SNR value is somewhat above the specified one. The spectrogram shows that this parameter is worsened by the surges at 3 and 5kHz frequencies. The rest of the noise, however, is after the -100dB point, which is a good result for any player.
Next, I tried to estimate the real data-transfer rate when you use the player as a portable hard disk drive. Due to the above-said reasons, I had to install NOMAD Explorer and measured the file-copy time with an ordinary stop-watch. Knowing this time and the total size of the files (5.8 gigabytes) I calculated the data transfer rate when copying onto the player. It was 5.74MB/s. That’s a good speed – the high-speed USB 2.0 interface shows its best here!
I also enjoyed listening to the player much. To make my opinion about the sound quality, I used digitized tracks from the IASCA Competition CD. The player would be excellent if used as a music box with some speaker system. Overall, there are more positive points about this device than negative ones.
Without any doubt, the Zen Touch audio-player from Creative is going to make a good buy for many users, but people with a small budget are unlikely to be interested. Of course, the high price of the device is due to the use of new hardware stuffing, but they could have reduced the cost by abandoning the exclusive software and switching to the OS’s generic driver. I hope, though, that the price of this excellent in many respects player is going to drop after the market is duly saturated.