Zen V Plus

Say what you will about the patent dispute between Creative and Apple, both companies make some darned good MP3 players. Creative's latest effort--the Zen V line of flash-based player--is aimed right at Apple's popular iPod Nano line. And judging by the 2GB, US$170 Zen V Plus I tested, it offers some serious competition to the Nano.

The Zen V and Zen V Plus come in 1GB, 2GB, and 4GB capacities. In both lines, each model includes a voice recorder, a line-in jack, and a 1.5-inch organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screen that displays photos with great clarity indoors but doesn't offer the best outdoor visibility. The V Plus also plays video and has an FM tuner. Both the Zen V and the Zen V Plus work with Plays For Sure subscription content and handle the standard complement of MP3, WMA, and Audible files.

Like Creative's other MP3 players, the Zen V Plus offers impressive sound quality. In PC World's audio tests, it ranked slightly below but within range of Apple's iPod Nano and Creative's Zen Nano Plus. It posted the best score in our cross-talk test, which measures whether sound from one channel leaks into the other. With a five-band equalizer for tweaking audio, the Zen V Plus also sounded great in my listening tests playing a variety of high-bit-rate MP3 files.

The V Plus can play video clips, but the viewing experience was less than impressive. Though the device ships with Creative's Video Converter application for downsampling clips to the right format, watching anything that runs more than a minute or so on the V Plus's 128-by-128-pixel, 1.5-inch screen just seems silly.

While the Zen V models are about twice as thick as the iPod Nano, they are also shorter, just as light, and very comfortable to use. A small joystick and several hard buttons control most navigation. The extremely responsive interface lets you quickly move through stored tracks, photos, and video clips. In addition, you can customize menus, build and save playlists on the fly, choose from among several built-in color schemes, and set a stored photo as a background image.

The V Plus is a little light on bundled accessories, coming with just a line-in cable, a very short USB cable, and an oddly mismatched carrying pouch. (It looks like the same carrying case that came with the much larger Zen Vision M.) Protective cases are available from Creative's Web site.

The V Plus includes a standard mini-USB port on top of the device--a nice design choice in a world where so many manufacturers use proprietary connectors. Unfortunately, sync speed isn't the greatest. Filling my 2GB test unit took approximately 40 minutes using a USB 2.0 connection. With its integrated battery, the Zen V is rated for a respectable 20 hours of audio playback.

Overall, the 2GB Zen V Plus offers impressive sound quality and useful customization options. It's a more than worthy competitor to Apple's pricier iPod Nano.

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Eric Dahl

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