Movies, music and photos in your pocket: Zen portable media center

Handheld Portable Media Center (PMC) devices like Creative's new Zen, that allow you to enjoy pre-recorded TV shows, movies, music and photos on the move, are about to hit Australian shores.

Creative Zen Portable Media Center

Creative, iRiver, Samsung, Sanyo and ViewSonic partnered with Microsoft and Intel to develop PMC devices. They run a portable version of Windows XP Media Center Edition (expected to launch later this year) geared for home entertainment use such as watching/recording TV and downloading pay per view content like movies.

The Zen, to be launched in September, will be the first Microsoft-partnered PMC in Australia and Creative gave us the opportunity to road test an engineering sample. To give you a sense of scale, it's about 144mm wide and weighs 340g; so it's compact enough to be considered portable, but bigger than most PDAs.

It features a backlit 3.8in colour LCD display with resolution of 320x240, built-in mono speaker and 20GB hard disk - enough for roughly 80 hours of video or 5000 songs.

The removable, rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery is claimed to allow seven hours of video or 22 hours of music.

Although Creative hasn't signed off on the final specifications yet, the Zen is likely to feature Intel XScale processor and graphics technology (as will most PMCs).

We can confirm that the Zen supports a wide range of media formats - JPEG and Windows Media Image photos and slideshows, WMA and MP3 music plus low-to-high quality Windows Media Video (WMV) - but we were unable to get the final word on support for TIFF images, MIDI and WAV music, or MPEG, MPEG-2 and DivX video files.

However, Creative's products are usually firmware upgradable, allowing for the addition of future file support.

Our sample Zen used a bundled cradle/stand for connecting to the PC via a supplied USB 2.0 cable. A beta of Windows Media Player 10 is the sole software used for media transfers (the final will be a free download - see page 135 for more details). This new version of Media Player includes updated Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology in addition to a new feature called SmartSync, to make transfers easier. Because Media Player should be the only means for transfers, there's also a disappointing possibility the Zen won't be able to play games or act as a portable hard disk for storing or viewing everyday data such as Word documents.

An extremely useful feature that's likely to be found on all PMCs is video output - implemented here with a composite audio/video jack - allowing you to hook them up to a TV or VCR. The Zen's right-side headphone connection seems to support an on-cable remote control, but at this stage we're simply advised that earbuds will ship in the box.

The Zen has navigation buttons to the left of its screen, playback and volume controls to the right and four preset playlist buttons on the top. A green 'Start' button in the top left corner can be pressed at any time to bring up a media selection menu (shown), similar to the desktop Media Center Edition. Files inside each category can be sorted in a variety of ways, including alphanumerically.

Sound quality was acceptable but more importantly, video quality was high and playback fairly smooth. The bright screen was quite visible front-on, but viewing at angles may prove to be an issue. A bundled protective case is welcomed as the display could easily be fingermarked or worse, scratched.

Sure, we could also wish for wireless networking and built-in A/V recording, but for a first generation sample we're intrigued and keen to test the finished product. - Danny Allen

In brief: Creative Zen Portable Media Center

This 20GB sample device impressed in both design and use. It will also be the first PMC to arrive when launched in September amongst stiff competition from the forthcoming iRiver PMC and rival Archos AV420 Pocket Video Recorder.

Price: $999

Distributor: Creative Labs

Phone: (02) 9021 9800


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Danny Allen

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