Creative Labs Zen Neeon 2
- Lots of personalisation options, lightweight, excellent battery life, FM tuner, line-in and voice recording, picture and video playback
- Poor user interface, music organised by filenames rather than tags, limited audio codec support, fiddly controls, no FM recording, average sound quality
Video playback gives the Zen Neeon 2 an edge over many other small music players, and the Stik-On skins will certainly appeal to the younger demographic. However, the menu system and fiddly controls make the player less than perfect.
Price$ 199.95 (AUD)
The Zen Neeon 2 is a small, compact music player that feels reassuringly robust in your hand. Capacities of 1GB, 2GB and 4GB are available, and we tested the 1GB version. All models feature a glossy black front, but the anodised aluminium back plate comes in a variety of colours including orange, light blue, white, pink and black.
The sheen on the player's face gives it an eye-catching glimmer, but this appeal quickly wears off when your fingerprints leave marks all over the surface - not unusual for high-gloss finishes.
Included in the box is a brightly-coloured set of Stik-On skins, making it clear what market this player is aimed at: teenagers, or the otherwise young at heart that desire to "constantly express [their] individuality". This particular unit came with a Punk Rock skin, but you can also take your pick from Hip Hop, Classical and J-Pop Stik-Ons. If you've outgrown stickers, however, the Neeon 2 is still a good-looking player without them.
Compared to its predecessor, the Zen Neeon, it's 15g lighter at 50g. It's fractionally longer, but it's also narrower and thinner, with a footprint of 81mm x 42mm x 12.5mm.
Other improvements over the first Neeon include a colour screen, picture and video playback and improved battery life. The micro hard drive has also been replaced by flash memory, which helps increase battery life. However key shortcomings we found in the previous player - namely a poor user interface and fiddly controls - haven't seen as much improvement in the Neeon 2 as we would've liked.
The higher-resolution colour display is certainly a welcome change. This makes it much easier to browse through long lists of music and lets you customise the player's appearance with wallpaper and themes. The refresh lag that plagued the first Neeon is also thankfully absent, but browsing through music is still harder than it should be. This is partly to do with the small controls and callus-inducing rocker switch, but a poorly-thought-out interface plays a major part.
Music is arranged by filenames and folders rather than logically grouped by ID3 tags, so it's a struggle to find songs quickly if you don't load albums into separate folders. And heaven forbid if your tracks aren't properly labelled, as the Neeon 2 lists all music by filename rather than tagged song name. Switching between folders is a painful procedure that requires lots of jumping around the menu structure. Worse, selecting a new folder causes the song currently playing to skip a beat.
Creative doesn't skimp on choice when it comes to transferring media to the Neeon 2. On a PC, you don't need to install any drivers as it's automatically recognised as a removable hard drive. Using Windows Explorer, files can be dropped into the appropriate folders: music, pictures, playlist, recorded and video.
For ripping CDs and creating playlists, the bundled software CD installs Zen Neeon 2 Media Explorer and Windows Media Player 10. Both programs offer similar functions, but the simple, task-based approach of the Creative software is more likely to appeal to beginners. Audio codec support is fairly limited at MP3, WMA and WAV - if you have music in the iTunes format, you're out of luck. Transferring a mixed collection of music, photos and videos totalling 490MB over a USB 2.0 connection took four minutes and 30 seconds at a rate of roughly 1.8MB/s.
As expected, the bundled earbuds are mediocre at best, but things didn't improve much when we plugged high-end Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 Pro earphones into the 3.5mm jack; mid-range levels are slightly muddy, and while the bass is certainly noticeable, it lacks punch. On the plus side, eight equaliser presets are on-board for tweaking the audio levels, as well as a five-band custom equaliser. Surprisingly, album art isn't supported.
The 1.5in CSTN display is reasonably bright, though colours aren't as vivid as they are on a transreflective screen - the type commonly used on high-end MP3 players and mobile phones. Photo display is limited to JPEGs, while video clips have to be converted to the proprietary DIB format using the Media Explorer program. This worked well for QuickTime, DivX and Windows Media files. Videos play at 15 frames per second (fps) - not completely smooth (you'd need a minimum of 25fps for that), but the dropped frames aren't as noticeable on a screen this small.
The FM tuner is a nice extra, with a reception indicator on the screen and an autoscan feature that populates the presets with available radio stations. As the antenna is located in the player (rather in than the bundled earbuds), you can use your own headphones for listening to the radio. One omission is the lack of FM recording - a feature present in the previous Neeon. You can, however, make voice recordings with the built-in microphone, as well as line-in recordings from other audio sources using the supplied cable.
The box comes with earphones, one set of Stik-Ons, a USB cable that doubles as a charger, a line-in cable, a lanyard and a soft drawstring pouch. While most players at this end of the market don't come with a dedicated AC charger, having to charge the Neeon 2 via PC can be bothersome if you're away from a computer for extended periods (say, while you're on holiday). At least the long battery life should minimise inconvenience, with Creative quoting 20 hours of music playback and eight hours of video playback.
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