ZEN Micro: New Digital Player from Creative Reviewed

We would like to introduce to you one more representative of the Creative MP3 player family. This even more advance solution is definitely worth your attention. High-quality sound quality, long battery life and convenient use. Check it out yourself!

by Sergey Samarin
02/04/2005 | 10:19 AM

A very short while ago we published a review of the Zen Touch (see our article called Creative ZEN Touch Player: Love Me Tender), a small-size digital audio player from Creative with most original controls, and I thought then that the Zen family had reached the height of perfection and we would have to wait for a long time to see a new model of this glorious series.

 

But I was wrong: the company’s engineers decided to please us with yet another novelty. The new model is called Zen Micro and, like all devices of the Zen series, it uses a miniature hard disk drive as a storage medium.

Without unnecessarily puffing up this introduction, I invite you to get going right away and check out the specification of the new device.


Technical Characteristics

Manufacturer

Creative

Model name

Zen Micro

Dimensions

51mm x 84mm x 19mm

Weight

108g (with the battery)

Storage capacity

5GB

Power supply

Battery: one rechargeable Li-Ion battery, USB bus power supply when connected to the AC/DC source or the active USB port of the PC

Battery life

MP3 128kbit/sec: up to 12 h continuous playback with fully charged battery;
WMA 64kbit/sec: up to 12 h continuous playback with fully charged battery;
FM Radio: up to 16 h continuous playback with fully charged battery.

Supported
playback formats

MP3: up to 320Kbit/s
WMA: up to 320Kbit/s
WMA with Digital Rights Management (DRM) 9

Supported
recording formats

Voice (via built-in mic): IMA ADPCM (16kHz, Mono)
FM Radio: IMA ADPCM (22kHz, Stereo)

FM-radio

Up to 32 preset stations;
supported frequency range: 87.5MHz ~ 108MHz, with 100kHz increment

MP3 Playback

SNR: up to 98dB
Channel separation: up to -70dB
Frequency characteristic: 20Hz ~ 20kHz
Harmonic distortion: <0.1%

Connectors

Headphones jack: 3.5mm stereo mini-jack, 5~7mW per channel
mini-B USB port (USB 2.0 Hi-Speed / Full-Speed)

Harmonic distortions coefficient

<0.05%

LCD display

160x104 pixels, white backlighting

Headphones specs

Frequency characteristic: 20Hz ~ 20kHz
Response level: 111dB +/-5dB (I/P level: 1mW)
Resistance: 32Ohm +/-15%
Plug: Stereo mini-jack 3.5mm

Approximate price

$300


The player in its retail package

I want to stress the fact that the new Zen player comes equipped with an FM-tuner. Earlier models of this series could also support this feature, but only if you purchased optional headphones.

You find the following in the package of the Zen Micro player:

You can also buy an optional wired remote control, but I don’t think it’s much useful considering the very small size of the player.


The optional wired remote control

Functional Features


Simplicity is everything!

So, the player’s in my hands. The Zen Micro is true to its name as it is the smallest in the family (here are some numbers for you to compare: the dimensions of the Zen Touch are 68 x 105 x 22mm against the Zen Micro’s 51 x 84 x 19mm). This miniaturization was made possible by the use of a 1” hard disk drive and of a flat Li-Ion accumulator. As a result, the size of the Zen Micro is close to that of a typical flash-based player. The new Zen is also lighter than its predecessor (108g against 203g), and again, I’m talking about a player with a hard disk drive rather than with chips of flash memory inside!

The functionality of the player didn’t suffer from its small size. I’d even say it’s improved. The developer equipped the device with a rather large and very informative LCD display. It’s smaller than the display of the Zen Touch, but the resolution (160x104 pixels) remained the same. You control the player using five touch pads the sensitivity of which can be set up in the settings menu. The device fits snugly into the palm and you can do all the control manipulations using just your thumb. You may remember that the Zen Touch had only one touch pad that was pressed to control the sound volume and to navigate the menu system. That single pad gave the name to the previous model, but now the manufacturer extended this feature to all the buttons.

The photograph above gives you a notion of what the new player from Creative looks like. We have got a black-and-white coloring here, but there are many other colors available to anyone’s taste. The blue highlighting of the touch pads and of the bezel around the front panel looks admirable whatever the color of the case, though.

A USB port, a headphones socket and a microphone port are found on the player’s top. There’s also a power-off slider here, which also blocks the touch pads. When you turn the player on, the display highlighting is growing up smoothly, and after a couple of seconds of booting up the Zen Micro is ready to work.

Now I want to say a few bitter words about the software you can use with a Zen Micro. I’m not pleased at all that it’s necessary to install the exclusive software and driver (depending on the OS) for the player to communicate with the computer successfully. That is, the player remains an “identified device” to the system if you attach it to the PC and do not install the driver. That’s sad because many people use their portable digital players as a storage medium to share files between computers, and many manufacturers make their players support the generic OS driver. Such devices just add a new letter with a label “removable disk” in any file manager and you can work with them as with any other disk. Creative, on the contrary, is trying to push the user to work in Creative’s exclusive programs. They offer a rather complex Creative Media Source utility, which is not handy, but they are also changing the interface of their own file manager every now and again, without preserving any continuity.

So, after the installation of the software pack from the CD you receive with the Zen Micro player, a tool for working with the player, called Zen Micro Media Explorer, integrates into the standard Windows Explorer. Here’s its screenshot:


You are supposed to use the exclusive software tool from Creative to transfer files

This file manager may suffice for transferring musical files (audio formats not supported by the player are automatically converted into a suitable format), but it is very awkward with data transfers. Well, especially for skeptics as I am Creative’s engineers suggested an alternative approach to file transfers. There is a “Removable Disk” item, on the Extras subsection of the player’s settings menu. When this option is chosen for the first time the user is offered to choose the desired capacity of the removable disk (128, 256, 512, 1000, 1500 or 2000 megabytes). After thus setting up the disk you can attach the Zen Micro to computers that don’t have Creative’s exclusive software installed (before this connection you should select Extras ? Removable Disk in the settings menu again). In other words, you can reserve a portion of the drive to be used a removable disk, and that’s the only way to get along with the standard Windows XP driver. This is certainly a progressive move on the Creative part, and I guess there will be fewer angry users. Note also that if the player is attached as a “Removable Disk”, you won’t see your musical collection on it as it is stored on the other part of the disk.

The Zen Micro supports the same file formats as the Zen Touch does. The player also supports any MP3 and WMA files as well as certain WAV formats (lossless formats, i.e. without compression, are an exception – the Zen Micro doesn’t work with them).

Next feature to be mentioned is the FM receiver now originally integrated into the player (in earlier versions of the player this function was only available if you purchased an optional wired remote control). The sensitivity of the receiver is rather average (some radio stations are rather noisy), but the very fact that Creative’s HDD-based players have acquired an integrated FM-receiver is praiseworthy.

The Zen Micro can also be used as a Dictaphone. The sound from the high-quality microphone is recorded in IMA ADPCM format (16kHz, mono) while the big capacity of the internal HDD allows to store a lengthy conversation. This format suits well for recording voice, but I can’t say the same about recording FM stations for which the manufacturer preferred IMA ADPCM (stereo) with a sample rate of 22kHz. I think it would be better to use MP3 encoding.

Well, the support of different audio formats, the extensive menu structure, the service functions and a lot of other things that make the Zen Micro such a highly functional player are all written by the manufacturer into its firmware, and the chip that stores the firmware can be reprogrammed. For the player to be always up to date, the Creative tech support service regularly puts firmware updates on their website. To update the firmware, you should copy the files from this website, connect the player to the computer, launch the application, click the Upgrade button, and follow the onscreen instructions.

Right now there are two firmware updates available there. The first update solves some problems with charging the battery from an external power supply, improves the sensitivity of the touch pads, removes undesired sounds during WAV-files playback, and improves the identification of the player in the “Removable Disk” mode. The second update appeared very recently and I haven’t had much time to test it. The manufacturer says version 2.00.12 fully supports Windows Media Player 10 (by the way, this version of the Media Player is included among the software titles on the installation CD) and Windows XP without any additional drivers or software. Besides, the Drag-and-Drop technique in the Windows Explorer is supported. So, if you purchase a Zen Micro, I advise you to download and install the firmware updates as soon as possible.


The player works on a removable Li-Ion battery

As for the power consumption of the Zen Micro, the manufacturer says a fully charged accumulator can last as long as 12 hours of continuous operation. That’s enough for city, but it wouldn’t do to take the player with you on long tourist trips. The accumulator is removable, but I haven’t seen one in shops. Of course, it’s a problem if you can’t easily find a replacement battery, but a minor one.

I measured the read and write speed of the disk drive employed in the Zen Micro in our FC Test utility. The results are presented in the following diagram:

This diagram allows estimating how fast the player performs file read and copy operations. You may be interested in these numbers if you’re going to use your Zen Micro as a portable storage medium, too.

Having used the player for a while I am very pleased with its functionality and ergonomics as well as with a very high quality of its sound. I listened to audio tracks digitized from an IASCA Competition CD and the sound was crisp and clear even at the maximum volume level.

Conclusion

So, we’ve met an excellent new representative of the Zen family of portable audio players. The Micro model is a result of a new round of miniaturization in this class of products, thanks to the 1” hard disk drive employed. Of course, this approach has its pros (small size and weight) and cons (a rather high price of the player and a small max capacity of the drive; the Micro is equipped with a 5GB drive, while the Zen Xtra with a 60GB one, for example).

Still, I think the Creative Zen Micro has got a step closer to perfection and I’m really at a loss thinking of what new the company can show us next time. A color graphics OLED display maybe?

I have no doubts many people will like such a cute and high-functionality player as the Zen Micro, and maybe you will also prefer this HDD-based player to flash-based devices?

Highs:

Lows: