The Vision:M is Creative’s newest creation poised with an impressive set of features. The most notable feature is the video playback file support which easily handles MPEG, DivX, XviD, WMV9, and Motion-JPEG. The video, as well as photos, play back on the Vision:M’s bright 2.5” 262k color 320 x 240 pixel screen.
Features and style aside, you cannot argue with the massive amount of quality content providers- Napster, Yahoo!, Rhapsody, MSN Music, AOL Music, to name a few, along with the upcoming content deals with MTV, Microsoft, BBC, TiVO, and others. When selecting a new MP3 player, this one should not be overlooked. It is a well built, well designed, easy to use player with lots of useful features. Overall I am very impressed with the Vision:M, despite some of its shortcomings.
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Weighing in at 5.7 ounces and measuring 4.1″ x 2.4″ x 0.7″ the Vision:M has a smooth design with soft edges making it nice to look at and easy to hold. Music fans will have the option of 5 different colors: black, white, pink, green, and blue. All of the controls are located on the front of the player, except for the on/off/hold which is located at the top next to the headphone jack. All buttons, including the on/off/hold switch, glow blue making it easy to use in the dark.
The Vision:M sports a brilliant 2.5″ 320 x 240 pixels 262,144 color screen. On the screen the pictures are crisp and the video is smooth. The viewing angle is somewhat limited top to bottom but is fairly standard when viewing it left and right. Since the screen is not trans reflective, it can be tough to see in direct sunlight (more or less the same way your color cell phone screen would wash out in the sun). The screen will dim to 10% when inactive but will shut off when the hold switch is turned on.
A major design flaw is the material used to cover the entire front of the player. It is made out of a soft plastic which scratches easily, even under normal use.
The Vision:M comes with earphones, AC adapter, USB/AC/Video connector, USB cable, carrying pouch, software, and manual. The earphones are your typical Creative earphones, not the best but not the worst. Creative has chosen to include an AC adapter which charges the player faster than USB. Like the Zen Sleek, the Zen Vision:M has the same proprietary connection on the bottom. Proprietary connections are never a good thing, so included in the packaging is the next best thing: a USB/AC/Video connector. It is a small piece that snaps into the docking port and it gives you audio/video out, AC, and USB connections, which is a little better than carrying around another cable. You can then attach the supplied standard mini-USB cable to transfer music and data. Finally, the carrying pouch is a nice touch to help keep the scratches away. The supplied pouch is made of some sort of synthetic chamois. (You know… that leather like cloth you use to dry your car off with.)
It would be nice to see third party manufactures make some accessories for the Vision:M, but don’t hold your breath. In the mean time, Creative has a decent set of accessories to go along with this player, like a leather case (in black, white, or tan), AV cables, wired remote, docking station, and car charger.
There are a couple different pieces of software that help you transfer your media to the Vision:M. The easiest and best method to transfer music to your player is to drag and drop- if the device supports UMS, which the Vision:M does not. However, it is still easy to load music onto it with the provided software.
Creative Media Source
Creative Media Sourc
e is Creative’s answer to the jukebox media player. It rips, burns, and organizes and it will also allow you to transfer music to your player. I would not bother installing this program. It is just another lack luster media player. Windows Media Player 10 is already installed and it does the same thing.
Creative’s Technical Marketing Engineer in charge of CMS contacted me the last time I put CMS in the Zen Sleek review. He wanted to know why I thought it wasn’t worth installing and wanted additional feedback. I was impressed by this. Creative soliciting ideas from the outside shows they are truly interested in improving their software. And they are. Creative is currently working on a new version of the MediaSource software with a “cleaner and sleeker user interface” along with a more consistent design and will probably integrate video along with Creative’s ZENCast podcasting portal.
Zen Vision:M Media Explorer
This is the main tool to transfer media, browse media, rip CDs, convert video, create playlists, manage data, and sync with Outlook. Everything is straight forward and easy to use. The Zen Media Explorer has a familiar browsing screen just like Windows Explorer where you can brows your audio, video, pictures, playlists, and data.
I was, however, disappointed that it did not work exactly like Windows Explorers in some ways. Zen Media Explorer will not allow you to create, rename, edit or move files and folders. It is very limited to basic functions, such as browsing files.
Despite the minor annoyances, this program is useful for synchronizing all of your media as well as converting your videos to the optimal formats for viewing on the Vision:M
Windows Media Player
If you like the bare minimum then Windows Media Player works just as well. Having the Zen Vision:M work with WMP allows you to transfer media on a Windows XP machine that does not have any Zen drivers installed. This is great for when you are at a friend’s house.
ZENCast is Creative’s podcast and video cast directory that works with the Zen Vision and Zen Vision:M. It will probably work with the rest of the Zen family in the near future. Both types of “casts” can be downloaded directly from links on the site or they can be downloaded and transferred to the device automatically with ZENCast Organizer. The software is still in beta, but I have had no problems with it so far, as it is still very basic.
All navigational buttons are located on the face of the player. The vertical touch pad is located in the center with small forward and back buttons located on the edges of the touchpad. Additionally, the pause/play, menu, back, and short cut buttons surround the touch pad. The shortcut button is a new edition to the Zen player line up. This is a nice feature that can be programmed to jump to any menu item, whether it is the EQ, Volume, Now Playing, or any menu item for that matter.
By brushing up and down on the touch pad, it allows you to scroll through tracks and menu items. By tapping on the center of the touch pad, it selects the current item. Also, by pressing and holding the top or bottom of the touch pad, it will rapidly scroll through the several hundred songs you may have on the player. The touch pad sensitivity can be set just like in previous Zen models, but even at the lowest setting I find it to be still too sensitive.
I never liked any of the “touch” interfaces- not on the iPod and not on the Zen Vision:M either. I would much prefer to have something that has tactile feedback, not just a clicking sound. With the iPod’s click wheel and the Zen Vision:M’s touch pad you often miss select menu items or accidentally adjust the volume. However, if I had to choose one over the other, the iPod’s click wheel is more accurate and less likely to miss select menu items. Most manufacturers share a common myopic view on touch interfaces. They assume that the touch interface is the best interface but in most cases it may not be. Tactile interfaces are much more user friendly.
Graphical User Interface
The graphical user interface is very familiar to anyone who has used one of Creative’s Zen players. Even those who have never touched a Zen player will easily be able to navigate their way through Creative’s very intuitive and easy to use hierarchical navigation. The menu is highly configurable, allowing you to change the order, move, remove, and add menu items pretty much wherever you want.
One of the problems with earlier Zen models had to do with the repetitious navigation of hundreds of tracks with the brushing up and down of the touch pad. This has been fixed in two ways. The first, as discussed earlier, was rapid scroll by pressing and holding the top and bottom of the touch pad. The second is the alphabetical sidebar. When browsing your media, if you press the forward button on the side of the touch pad it will jump to the alphabetical bar on the right side. By selecting a letter automatically jumps your selection to the corresponding item with the same starting character. You then press back or tap on the touch pad and it will return you to the left column with the media.
The only complaint I have about the GUI is that it can be a bit sluggish at times, especially when dealing with video and photos. It is not horrible but it can be a minor annoyance.
The rated battery time for the Zen Vision:M is 14 hours of audio or 4 hours of video playback. The battery times are dependant on how you use your MP3 player- how much you skip or scan songs, how bright the LCD is set at, what volume it is at, if you use the EQ. These are all variables that will effect the battery time. The battery time that manufactures give are times at optimal use. I found that under everyday operation, you will get between 10-13 hours of audio only playback. I could easily watch an average length movie or two shorter movies, both with a few hours of audio playback. Under several tests I continually got a little over 3 hours of video playback.
The battery charges with the USB cable or the AC power adapter. The AC adapter takes 2.5 hours to charge it completely, where as the USB adapter plugged into your computer will take 6.5 hours to charge completely.
The FM radio is there for those who still use it and it is also rich in features. The player uses any headphone plugged into the jack as an antenna so the reception is very good. A unique feature of the FM radio is a signal strength indicator that shows you how strong the FM station is coming in, much like your cell phone signal indicator. With this player you will not run out of FM presets, as there are 32 of them which can be named and not just given a number. Additionally, the stations can be auto programmed and simply flipped through like TV. The Vi
sion:M will also record radio in IMA ADPCM 22kHz stereo WAV format. It is not the best quality but is good enough to record radio. Recording the radio is very straight forward, but also has a feature that lets you split the recordings on the fly. The recorded files get dumped into the radio folder and are available for immediate playback.
The Vision:M’s voice recorder is very straight forward and the recordings sound good. The recording screen shows the levels before and during recording. In the middle of a recording session the track can be split into two files with the track split feature. It would have been nice to be able to choose the recording format other than the only option, IMA ADPCM 16kHz mono WAV format.
Zen Vision:M Media Explorer will let you sync your Outlook contacts, calendar, and to do list to your player so that you can view them on the go. However, you cannot edit this information from the player. If you do not use Outlook you can edit this information with the Zen Media Explorer software on your computer. How useful this feature is would be up to the user. For me this feature is useless due to the fact that if I have my digital audio player, I almost always have my mobile phone with me which has everything I need. On the flip side other people may find this useful.
The main down fall of the Zen Vision:M is that it is not UMS (Universal Mass Storage) compliant. You cannot simply plug and play then drag and drop files to the player on any operating system without additional installation of drivers. However, you can partition a section of the 30GB drive in order to use it for universal mass storage. But the catch is that all you can use it for is storing data and not playing music. The storage partition is only recognized by the computer you plug it into, weather it be Linux, Mac OSX, or Windows XP, but will not be recognized by the Vision:M’s own operating system. None the less it is a good feature for those who use removable storage devices for anything from office documents to school projects. Either way, you can allocate 512MB, 1GB, 1.5GB, 2GB, 4GB, 8GB, or 16GB on this player.
The content protections feature allows you to lock or hide individual folders with a password so that you can hide your
porn highly classified photos from prying eyes. Date and time are also an available option along with an alarm function.
With the Vision:M you can easily carry around every photograph you have ever taken with more than enough room for music and video. I have about 5,500 personal photos and they take up almost 4GB of storage space on the player with plenty of room left over. Not bad for every photo you have ever taken, but if you really wanted to get crazy, when you transfer photos to the player you can automatically have them resized to the Vision:M’s native resolution to save space. The player only supports JPEG format, but when being transferred over, the software will automatically convert GIF, TIFF, PNG and BMP to the supported JPEG format.
There are two different views while browsing the photographs. The list view shows a thumbnail on the left, the file name on the right and the folder in the top bar. When browsing a folder in the list view, it will show folder thumbnails with the folder name to the right and the parent folder name on the top bar. The thumbnail view shows 5 x 4 thumbnail matrix on the screen with the file name at the top bar. When browsing the photos in thumbnail view it will show the same matrix with folder icons with the name of the selected folder on the top bar. To select just tap the touch pad and it will go to full screen mode and the pictures can be flipped through with the forward and back arrows.
There are a few different things you can do with the pictures when you are looking at them full screen. You can rotate, zoom in, rate it, delete, view the details, and set it as wall paper. The rating system is a 5 star system which just basically allows you to mark your favorites and not so favorites. The player can read a select amount of the pictures EXIF meta data, showing the image size, file size, date taken, lenses speed, and whether or not the flash was fired. The last feature worth discussing is the wall paper option. Creative has done a fine job with this one. When you select a photo to be set as wall paper it will take you to an editing screen where you can set the brightness from 10% to 100% so that the wallpaper can be more subtle and not wash out the menus. In this editing screen it also gives the option to change the colors to original, warm (redish), cool (blueish), grayscale, and sepia.
The Zen Vision:M has a slide show option where you can simply play an entire folder or create your own slide show by making a photo playlist with the Zen Media Explorer software. Also, on the upside you can listen to music while the slide show plays. This would be a nice feature to have while playing a slideshow with music in the background at a party piped in thought your TV. The options for the playlist allow you to set the intervals between the slides as well as the type of transitions.
The Zen Vision:M does fall short for supported audio file types. MP3, WMA, and WAV are the only audio file types supported. Granted they covered the majority of codecs and most consumers will be just fine, but there are quite a few hardcore users that would appreciate FLAC, OGG, or AAC.
Despite the lack of codec support the audio play back from this player will not disappoint, even with the use of higher quality headphones. The :M plays loud and clear even at high volumes. I could only get it to distort if I really boosted the low end and turned the bass boost on. I like that Creative kept the audio setting to the essentials. They did not include the extraneous and unnatural sounding audio tweaks like WoW SRS, 3DSound or any of the other synthetic “audio enhancements”.
EQ and Sound Options
The custom 5 band EQ is very responsive and works well, but I would have liked to have been able to save more than one custom EQ setting. The other EQ settings are pre programmed into the player at acoustic, classical, disco, jazz, new age, pop, rock and vocal, which are actually useful and not just another feature.
The “Bass Boost” works very well for some music, but not for all. When the bass boost is tuned on it boosts the low end but at the same time it boosts the lower-midrange in cases, which makes it sound “muddy”.
Many times you will turn up a track that was recorded with a lower volume, then the next track comes along and plays twice as loud, thus scaring the hell out of you and damaging your ears. Well this moment of terror is over thanks to the Vision:M’s “Smart Volume” feature. This normalizes the volume of every track played, so that each plays at the same volume. This is a really nice feature which all MP3 players should have.
The question that the hardcore digital audio player enthusiasts want to know is: Does it do gapless playback? Sorry, it does not. The gap between tracks is very slight; better than a lot of players that have a second or two pause between tracks. Gapless has been a feature that DAP enthusiasts have been requesting since they got a taste of gapless on two gapless players, the Rio Karma and the Sony HD5 (but the latter only plays gapless in ATRAC format). Gapless is great for continuous DJ mixes when the mix is broken up into individual tracks. Are you listening Creative? We want gapless playback!
Audio Playback Options
Under the Music Library menu item there is a selection called DJ which gives you the options to play the most popular, rarely heard, all tracks random, or album of the day, which is nothing more than a random album selection. While listening to a song you can rate it by tapping on the touch pad while the track is playing and give it a one to five star rating. A re
ally nice option is the “seek to” option. Rather than scanning through the entire track, this allows you to stop the music and scroll to the part of the track you want. This works well for very long single track DJ mixes. Oddly, there is a “Purchase This” option. There is not an explanation for this anywhere, but I am assuming it will be an integrated feature in upcoming media players or online stores.
Playlists & Bookmarks
The Vision:M on the go playlist management is very nice, and it is vastly improved from previous Zen models. Playlists are created by adding all the tracks you want to the now playing queue then saving that queue as a playlist. The playlists can be named by using the on screen virtual keyboard.
Bookmarks on the other hand, will keep your exact place in the middle of a track. This feature is great to use with audio books which can be really long audio files.
Video support is one of the Vision:M’s fortes. It will play MPEG1/2/4-SP, WMV9, Motion-JPEG, DivX, and XviD (ASP without GMC) video formats. So what does that mean to you? Almost every DivX or XviD file you can download from P2P or Bittorrent site can be played on the Zen Vision:M. If the file type is not supported, Zen Media Explorer will convert it.
I would have liked to see native support for MP4 due to the mass amount of video out there supported by the PSP and iPod. The MP4 is convertible by the supplied software but takes a very long time even on a fast PC.
If the video is less than the supported screen or a different aspect ratio there are two options that will allow you to enlarge it. The first “fit to screen” will enlarge it to fit the screen keeping the aspect ratio. The second option “stretch to screen” will fit it to the screen but will distort the aspect ratio.
The quality of the video playback is superb in all the formats. The frame rates are smooth and the video has no artifacts. The video also scales down nicely if the video is larger then the screen real estate of 320 x 240 pixels.
There were some earlier reports that the DivX and XviD video would freeze for a second due to a buffer problem. I found that the problem only exists in earlier firmware versions and the problem has since been fixed in the latest firmware that can be downloaded from the Creative web site.
The video out is handled by a 3.5mm plug on the bottom of the USB sync adapter that connects to the bottom of player. It appears that it is a common 3.5mm to RCA “camcorder” cable that will simply then plug into your TV. It is a standard “camcorder” cable but Creative has made it proprietary by switching a few of the contacts in the cable. If you want video out you are now forced to purchase a Creative $20 video cable from their website as apposed to an off the shelf cable for a third of that price. It is extremely frustrating.
At the time of testing this, Creative did not have these cables in stock on their website nor did they sell them in stores. However I was able to test the video out by cutting up a standard camcorder cable and switching the connectors inside. The video out is just what you see on the LCD screen outputted to 640 x 480 on the TV screen and it looks great. It is just as smooth and clean as if you were watching it on the LCD screen.
I have one major problem with the Zen Vision:M. It is not the proprietary dock connection, nor is it the non-removable battery. I can live with that. It is, however, the fact that I am not able to simply plug it in without drivers and drop music onto it. In other words, it is not UMS compliant. I am forced to install software and I am restricted to using Windows XP. By making an MP3 player UMS compliant, you open it up to all operating systems and you give the user the freedom and ease of transferring and managing their media. Update: Drag and drop has become hassle free with Vista and much better with XP SP2. This is not longer much of an issue.
The Zen Vision:M is an impressive personal media player. It is well deserving of the Best of Show and Best Portable Audio & Video device awards it recently won at 2006 CES. The greatest appeal of the Vision:M is its ability to playback the majority of popular video files (especially DivX and XviD), which saves you a lot of time by not having to convert all of your video. Audio and video is top notch on the player as well as on the TV. The battery allows you to get in a full movie or two while on the go. Even though the user interface can be a bit slow at times it is still extremely easy to navigate. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who is looking for a hard drive based digital audio player. The Zen Vision:M is everything the video iPod is and then some.
Update: The Zen Vision:M A/V cable is not really proprietary, it is just uncommon. Here is a post on the pinouts and places to get a Zen Vision:M A/V cable.
- Video Codec Support
- Bright Screen
- Video Out Quality
- Sound Quality
- User Interface
- Many Content Providers
- Battery Time
- No UMS Support
- Proprietary Video Cable
- Windows XP Only
- Non-Removable Battery
- Sometimes Sluggish UI
- Scratches Easily