Creative – Zen Micro review

competition for the iPod mini
Photo of Creative – Zen Micro

It’s not difficult to deduce that Creative got the idea for its Zen Micro hard drive music player from the Apple iPod mini. Technically the two players have a fair amount in common, and they have similar price tags, so the obvious question is whether or not Creative has managed to trump the Apple icon.

The Zen Micro has a 5GB hard drive, rather than the 4GB model that Apple uses, so it clearly has a greater capacity. While that’s a good thing, this extra 25 percent of storage isn’t as startling as it sounds. After all, if you want enough space to carry your entire music collection then both the Zen Xtra and iPod photo have up to 60GB of space. A mini player is intended to carry enough music for a lengthy journey, rather than your whole music library.

Creative has made the Zen Micro slightly shorter and fatter than the iPod mini, and both players are more or less the same weight, so when you consider the looks of the player it really comes down to personal preference. The Zen Micro looks similar to a small mobile phone, and Creative reinforces this by offering it in a total of ten different colours with something for everyone, although we doubt you’ll see many men with the shocking pink version.

Technically the big difference between the players is that Apple supports the MP3 and AAC formats, while the Zen Micro plays MP3 and WMA files. If your library is stored in MP3 the issue of formats doesn’t really affect you, but if you buy music from one of the download sites or you want to use an up-to-date codec to achieve high quality audio with small file sizes then you’ll have to make a choice.

There’s no real difference between AAC and WMA, except that they are incompatible, and only Apple supports AAC. This is a definite advantage in favour of WMA, and hence for manufacturers such as Creative, Philips, iRiver, Samsung et al, but as a result Apple has had to work hard on its iTunes software and it has done a fine job.

You can use iTunes to rip CDs, manage your playlists and to load up your iPod. If you have more music in your library than will fit on the player then iTunes will make an intelligent decision and will load up a selection of your albums. By contrast Creative relies on Windows Media Player for playback and ripping, and you have to drag and drop music files to the Zen Micro in Windows Explorer, where you’ll find that the drivers have added an icon for Zen Micro Media Explorer. Apple wins the battle for usability hands down.

There’s no dock for the Zen Micro, but instead you connect it directly to your PC or notebook with the supplied USB 2.0 cable, which also charges up the removable Li-Ion battery. The battery is also reminiscent of a mobile phone, and it’s a big plus for Creative as your iPod is only fit for scrap when the internal battery fails after a couple of thousand charging cycles. If you’re particularly well organised, you can keep a second charged battery on stand-by for your Zen Micro, and Creative supplied the first players into the UK with a free second battery. We don’t have a price on the Zen Micro battery at present, but on past form it is likely to cost about £30.

Creative has used a similar notebook touchpad technology to the iPod for the controls, but where you wipe your finger around the control wheel on the iPod, Creative has used a vertical scroll bar to control the menus on the Zen Micro, in addition to a handful of control buttons, and the result isn’t that impressive. The problem is the scroll bar, as you need to move either up or down a menu and to then tap the middle of the bar to select the option that you want. In principle it works well enough but in practice you overshoot the option that you want time and again. You can change the sensitivity of this setting, but we only managed to get it down from ‘Ludicrous’ to ‘Annoying’.

Playback quality was good, and the supplied headphones were a grade above the usual junk that manufacturers supply with their players, but we’d still recommend that you use some proper after-market headphones if you want to enjoy your music. We found that reception for the FM radio varied between poor and useless, so we gave it a miss. At the top of the player is a tiny hole which is a mono microphone, so you could use the Zen Micro as a voice recorder if you fancy.

Company: Creative

Contact: 0118 934 4322

We can best sum up the Zen Micro by referring to the On/Off switch. Toggle it one way and the player starts up with a funky blue backlight that surrounds the screen and illuminates the controls beautifully. Start an album playing and flick the switch the other way to lock the controls and the legend 'Controls locked' fills the screen, covering the details of the music that you are listening to. In short, it's a really good player but the fine points still need some work.