heyrick1973 -at- yahoo -dot- co -dot uk

Getting ADSL

So I went to our nearby large town to sign up for a phone line and ADSL. I said I was mainly interested in Internet, and that I didn't want a phone line if it was not available.
So the man said 'fine, we can do internet without a phone subscription', and I get a phone number that runs through the LiveBox (instead of an analogue phone). Apparently calls to landline phones in France are 'illimites', which I'm not entirely sure how that works - I think you might pay a connection fee and from then it is unmetered? I'll need to look. For an extra seven euros a month, this would appear to be available to UK landlines as well. Could be useful. We have a telephone line, as in the physical device, but it hasn't been connected in 17(ish) years. Using our nearest neighbour, the top of our 1/2km driveway, it is okay for 2Mbit broadband. I will be taking the 2Mbit service as apparently they don't really bother with 1Mbit tarifs any more - he said the price was the same.

All was going well until the sales bloke went to sign us up. There was a set of codes to enter, a code for the location (INSEE, I think it was called) and a code for the property. Only part of their techie network objected. I think they were called the FTA? Something like that. It objected on account of our address not existing.
So he called them to get this unblocked, and I heard him say "yes, the address does exist... I know because I am looking at an electricity bill". But they didn't unblock it, probably a jobsworth on the other end of the phone.
The way it rests right now is the man has scheduled a "Quality Of Service" test. This should tell if the line can cater for ADSL and - most importantly - tell the wallies that, um, you know, we bl**dy-well DO exist! Not just that, but there IS a phone line here and it HAS had new poles erected in the past couple of years, plus about six years ago somebody came by and changed one of the junction boxes. The cheek of maintaining an inactive line and then saying "your address doesn't exist"!!!!

 

Creative Zen - a review

Originally written 2008/11/30 and revised 2008/12/06.
I don't revise older b.log entries, but given I wanted to extend
this review, placing the newer stuff in a different place seemed messy.
Product photographs updated 2009/03/09; some text revised then as well, mostly to clarify points.

After the disappointment that was the mpman media player (the screen was just too icky to watch for too long), I decided to purchase a Creative Zen, 4Gb model.
Europe version, firmware 1.12.01e.

Introduction
If I had to sum it up in a line, I would say "brilliant potential, but more work needed". Read on to see why.

From a "e.leclerc" supermarket, this media player (priced there at €89.99, RRP €99.99) caught my eye for two reasons. Firstly, it claimed to play DivX/XviD (yes, it actually mentioned XviD!), and secondly it had a built-in SD card reader, so while the fairly large 4Gb internal memory is nice, it is possible to go a step further and put content onto removable cards.

Remember, all that you can see this player doing is for only ~€25 more than the mpman MP4Fiesta, I'm sure you'll agree it's something of a leap and in comparison the MP4Fiesta might be better priced in the <€30 bracket!

I was deciding between a Philips media player and this, both about the same price. After downloading the user guides for both, I decided the Zen had more potential, plus twice as much memory - for a video playback device, 4Gb is an absolute minimum (that's only six or seven films; less if you have music albums alongside), and 2Gb is just underspecified. Given you can pick up 4Gb memory sticks for around €20, there's no excuse for tiny amounts of memory nowadays.

First power-up
I unwrapped it in the car and flicked the power switch. I wasn't expecting much as these LiIon battery devices are sold mostly discharged, but often there's enough power in the cell to eke out a few minutes of use.

Upon switch-on, the display had immediate "wow factor". I've had colour LCDs on things in the past - my video camera (old, imagine a tiny telly with fishnet tights over the screen), the MP4Fiesta, my digital camera... and the display is always "could have been better", either through aliasing effects of colour deficiencies or the ability to see each pixel all too clearly. Not with Zen. The start-up logo was only a taste of what the display is capable of. Despite the bugs (sorry, quirks), I am pleased with the Zen because the picture is just so nice to look at. It's only 320×240 and about 2.5", but it feels like more, and given the 'quality' of my MPman player at only twenty-odd euros less, this (quirks and all) ups the ante for budget media players.

Presentation
The Zen was packaged in a box containing, additionally, a CD-ROM, three quick-start guides (different languages), fairly rudimentary earphones, and possibly one of the shortest USB-to-miniUSB leads possible.
A pamphlet explains additional things you can get for your Zen such as carry cases and the like, however I think I'd have been prepared to pay at least a couple of euros extra for a basic (plasticy) carry case to at least protect the screen.

The unit itself is roughly the size of a bank card and the thickness of a DVD case. The back is this awesome textured material that is like black anodised metal with a sort of graphite effect. I think it is actually plastic, but whatever, it looks good. The front is this icky overly-shiny plastic that makes every fingerprint highly evident, plus is rather poor with respect to reflections (look again at the picture above, you can see my finger holding the camera!). On the plus side, it appears to be pretty solid. I've wiped it off with my T-shirt lots of times and it doesn't appear to be scratching. If it is, the display shines right through. Sadly the shiny plastic gives the Zen a rather gimmicky kind of appearance, but hey - if others want to believe it is just a toy, let them. We'll know the truth, huh? ☺

Installing the driver
Installing the driver is a long and tedious process. You don't have to do any work other than click the mouse a few times... a 450MHz machine and a 1GHz machine both took ages (and I am talking about eight or so minutes) to install the driver and bundled software. It says you need to reboot, but I didn't on Aiko and it worked okay. Upon a reboot a Sync manager will appear on the system tray (that's the bit bottom-right with the clock and icons), and a registration wizard will pop up. As I don't have Internet, I cancelled it and used MSConfig to make it not bother me again.

Potential warning: This may be totally unrelated, but two days after installing the Zen software, Windows Explorer would hang after copying large AVI files around. The "End task now" would get rid of Explorer (and the file would have copied okay), but happening every time, it was seriously annoying.
I used MSConfig to get rid of CTCheck and CTSyncU (under startup) and Creative service for CDROM access (under services) and did a power cycle.
Everything appears to be working correctly again, so fingers crossed. I'll report if this crops up again as it might rule out the Creative software, but given the proximity and nothing else being installed on the system recently...
I didn't use System Restore as I wanted to keep the low-level drivers unless this wasn't possible. I rule out this being a quirk specific to my system as I've just had to do the same to the faster computer. - and there's no glyph for an unhappy face -

Getting content onto the Zen
There's a fancy integrated set of utilities, which are mostly provided for making content compatible with the player, including functions like "Rip a CD".

Copying MP3s worked quickly as the software decided all it needed to do was copy the files across. There was some function about checking ID3 tags and converting to Unicode, but I didn't bother as I'm not aware of anything that isn't able to be shown in the standard Latin1 (ISO 8859/1) character set.

Copying video... well... that was a whole different matter. The convertor software loaded. I fed it a selection of XviD files (mostly 352×288) and it said it would convert them to WMV/WMA and let me choose between small size, average, or quality with an estimation of the completed size of the files. There was no AVI option!
I let it roll and that's as far as it ever got.
Ever had a Windows program go braindead on you? It hasn't crashed exactly, it doesn't use any CPU time and it just doesn't respond to Windows. You can't move the window, or close it, or anything at all. It's like the lights are on and nobody is home. The Creative video convertor did this on Aiko (P3 450MHz 128Mb XP SP2) and on the newer box (AMD 1.1GHz 1Gb XP SP3) on a variety of different MPEG4 input files. The video convertor software doesn't work, at all.

What was nice is that it is possible to configure the Zen to appear as a sort of removable drive so you can access the filesystem directly. It isn't integrated in having a drive letter, so there is no direct drive access plus the file menus will appear a little bit different plus it seems the filesystem cannot multitask (you can't delete files while copying a large file, for instance). In addition this means there's no "Disc Check", though I don't entirely trust the XP disc checker as it runs about twenty times faster on FAT removable media than ScanDisk used to, so I rather suspect it is skipping a few things...
At any rate, direct access allows you to set up your player in a way that suits you, rather than what the Zen Media Explorer thinks is suitable.

You can also use your Zen to stash non-media files (.EXEs and such), though while the Zen is capable of storing data files, the interface doesn't really lend itself to this; note again that it doesn't appear as a removable drive with a letter (like 'F:').
However... when you insert an SD card and switch to memory card mode, that does appear as a removable device with a drive letter!

I have read that the Zen uses a different protocol (i.e. not the UMS that removable flash drives use (though the SD slot appears as a UMS device)) so it really only works on XP-SP2 or later, or a Mac-hack. Keep this in mind as a possible problem if you have an older machine, like W98SE or WME.

User friendliness

Above is an actual digital photograph of the display. Because we're using a digital camera, the patterning is fairly obvious. In reality, you will only see something like this if you're extremely myopic or you use a magnifying glass. For normal use (and I am short-sighted), the display looks really good. You'll notice me complimenting the display... a lot...
The 'wallpaper' can be chosen from one of the numerous 'supplied' photos (some of which are lovely), or one of your own pictures. The it-might-be-in-Canada-in-Autumn wallpaper (filename is "guilin.jpg", does that help?) you'll see in the pictures here is one of the supplied examples.

The user guide (supplied as a CHM file, you can also download it from the Creative website) is fairly terse when you get down to it. This can make things that should be easy not quite so obvious. Thankfully, when you get the hang of it, the menu system is really quite simple.

For example, when configuring the menu (keys in brackets are little pictograms):

To add/remove menu items:
  1. Press and hold [back] to enter the main menu.
  2. Press [menu], and select Configure Menu.
  3. To add menu items, select the check boxes next to the menu items you want.
    To remove menu items, clear the check boxes.
This is for setting up the top level menu. If I go into, say, the Video menu, I still see "ZENcast" and "TV" options. It would have been nice to have a secondary option to hide sub-options you don't want to see; such as "Purchase this" which will try to get your computer to purchase a subscription-based track when you next sync the player and computer.

What it lacks here is almost made up for by the ability to set the order of the main menu items, and - as in "Configure Menu", you can bring sub-menu items into the main menu; so instead of "Music -> Now playing" you could have "Now playing" right there in the main menu. You can set up your preferred 'wallpaper', with lots of options available.

The picture below is me, watching an episode of Nihongo Quick Lesson from NHK World TV. The odd-looking bit that looks broken is actually a stick-on screen 'protector'. It was designed to fit some sort of games console. I trimmed it at 4am while half asleep, hence the uneven appearance. Not that that really matters...


[if your Windows display is 1152×764 at normal (100%) scaling, this will be about actual size]

The user interface comprises nine buttons and a slider-switch, diagram on the right. The nine buttons are arranged as three groups. At the top, a button that calls up menus and one that steps back. Actually, it is a double-button, the action being dependent on which side you press. It is a bit tidier looking doing it that way. At the bottom, a play/pause button that is doubled with a customisable button. And in the middle, a four-way selector square with a 'select' button in the middle.
On the side, flick the slider down to power up (or switch off) and latch it up to put the player in 'Lock' mode.
It seems some people (on-line) have complained about the position of the headphone socket, saying it interferes with using the unit. Maybe this is a right-handed issue? The picture above is how I hold my player and the jack is placed in the position of minimum hassle.
And as for the guy that said there wasn't a dedicated volume button... I'll let you know that using Up/Down while video is playing will adjust the volume immediately. While music is playing, you will need to be in the "Now playing" display, or call up the Volume from the pop-up menu. This extra step may be necessary because the buttons obviously work with menus when you are in menus. However, I leave the player in the "Now playing" screen while music is playing (which is logical enough, no?) and the Up/Down controls the volume instantly. No need to have an extra two buttons...

Starting the player 'from cold' (when you see the "Creative" logo) is fairly lengthy, I counted 16 seconds. I presume it is reading ID3 information or something? If you switch off and come back presently, the start-up is much quicker (4 seconds), the player resuming where it left off - even if this is in the middle of a song.

Playing music
Playing music is simplicity itself. You can have MP3, WMA (with DRM), or M4A files arranged as you wish, perhaps different albums in different folders? The help file states "Any Album Art you have is displayed on the screen.", with no other information. Do I scan CD covers? How to I create and use album art?
iTunes Plus Music (DRM-free) music plays as well, in fact this is indicted with a holographic label on the front of the box.

There are numerous options for playlisting and music selection - custom playlists, by genre, by album, by artists... ID3 tags are used extensively. You can also select 'all tracks' and use a little alphabet bar on the right of the screen to quickly navigate, which is a really cool feature and saved holding down a button as your player crawls through 100 songs. It makes larger music collections a breeze to navigate.
Within your selected playlist, you can play normally or repeating tracks, my preferred is "Shuffle Repeat" which will play all in a random order.
You can choose from a selection of equaliser settings, and if nothing sounds quite right, you can define your own equaliser options in five bands (80Hz, 250Hz, 1kHz, 4kHz, 13kHz). This may not be necessary as there is also a bass boost setting.
A "Smart volume" option tries to keep the volume level of your music fairly constant, which may be useful if you are shuffling in music that either has, or appears to have, different volume levels. No more fiddling with the volume up and down.
In addition, it is possible to define a volume restriction level that the player won't permit you to exceed (and you can password it). Very useful for those times - and we've all done it - when you've been doing something like carrying a box that pressed on the volume up. With no hands free, your favourite song is now splitting a hole in your brain. Not pleasant. And, with Zen, no longer an issue.

Doesn't end there. If you are listening to long 'music' files, perhaps an audio book or language course, you can define up to ten bookmarks to make returning to where you left off real easy.

Oh, and it doesn't end there! We've not even mentioned your personal DJ yet. Zen can select tracks to play based upon: An album of the day, your most popular, those you don't listen to much, ones you rate highly, or ones you've not rated at all.

A nice touch is the "Now playing" display will show you the progress as a slidey-bar kind of thing along with the time played, and in addition it shows a negative time, that's how long there is remaining. The display also shows the ID3 tag information (scrolling long stuff), it's all quite pretty to look at.

Something of an important limitation is that you apparently cannot place and play music outside of the music folder, so if you have other MP3 content, say a language course or podcast, it needs to be included in the playlist or be inaccessible.
A work-around that often worked was to place these sorts of files into wherever audio recordings go, however the Zen does not recognise MP3s in this location.
Note, though, that it will try to play recorded audio if you play your music with the 'all tracks' option, which is a bit strange - you'd surely want to keep the two separate?

Audio quality
Your first thought is "it isn't very good, is it?". After ditching the supplied earphones for JVC earphones, there's a bass response and it's a whole lot better. I don't understand why companies supply such crap earphones with their products. Of all the music players I have had, only the Tecknika MP-2 came with decent earphones. Everything else, without exception, has come with earphones ranging from bad to terrible.
I also tried a pair of big chunky Ross earphones. I had to remove the audio level restriction before I could set the player to a reasonable volume, the output power is a big weak, but - hot damn - it sounded awesome. As I write this, I am listening to Dido's "Sand In My Shoes" (random play selection) and I think I can hear little things that I've missed before. I don't know if this is a difference between earphones and headphones or if this player is just better than the rest, however I encourange you to experience your favourite songs with a combination of good headphones and a good player. I think I'll unplug these from the computer and go to bed tonight with them and my music...

Playing video
My first attempts to play video failed. A 352×288 XviD (my normal resolution) caused the player to report that it cannot play that resolution. Trying to play 720×576 (full screen PAL) caused the player to hang, requiring me to poke a paperclip into the reset hole.
The display itself is 320×240, so I tried a simple XviD conversion to that size and it worked.
It's slightly annoying to have to convert everything to the player's resolution, but it isn't the end of the world and the tedious manual way (with VirtualDub) offers me full control over the quality and image placement...
This, latter option, is important for if you divide a PAL picture's dimensions (720÷576) you arrive at the magic number 1.25. NTSC is 720×480 (magic 1.5). The Zen? Half of 640×480, half of VGA - 320×240, with a magic number of 1.33'.
All this dopey maths and magic numbers proves one thing - a broadcast television or DVD picture (PAL or NTSC) will not completely fit the Zen display. You'll may to either crop off a bit on the top and bottom (and we're talking about 15% for PAL), or frame it to leave margins - this is all possible using VirtualDub.

It seems bizarre to me that the display doesn't match a broadcast resolution size, given the capabilities as a video player. That said, there is a lot of difference between PAL aspect and NTSC aspect. It is possible that Zen decided to pick a ratio in between so everybody loses a little rather than any one standard being punished.

Personally, as I record most of my material in anamorphic mode (that means a 16:9 image 'stretched' to full a full frame), I need to manually alter the image size to 320×180. For some material, it is easily possible to cut off a little of each side to permit us to keep the videoscreen style and most of the picture, yet increase our vertical dimensions to around 200 pixels.
By way of example, the picture below left is the Famous Grouse grouse, taken from their winter advert. On the right, a still from the film "Tamara". I ripped this from the original DVD so I can watch it during my work breaktimes, but I did a straight 16:9 conversion without any cropping or framing...

 

From what I've read on-line, the player only works with video files that are 320×240 (or less), thus it is incredible that the user guide does not mention this. On the subject of video compatibility, it says:

Video playback formats: MJPEG, WMV9, MPEG4, XviD, DivX 4.x and DivX 5.x.
(XviD encoded files are playable if they are encoded as standard MPEG-4 Simple (SP) or Advanced Simple Profile (ASP) without GMC and QPEL support. This product is not certified by DivX Inc. and may not play all DivX 4 and DivX 5 files. Other formats, for example MPEG-1 and MPEG-2, may be transcoded with the bundled software. Appropriate codecs must be preinstalled.)
Nowhere does it say that the files are limited to the resolution of the display.

The picture? Outstanding! Clear, bright, good to look at. You can control the sound when watching a video. Play, pause, you can even stop playing, go around the menu, then resume playing from where you left off (but only for one video file at a time). The display is so nice it was not a problem watching a subtitled Japanese film in parts while on my breaktime at work - the subtitles were clear, likewise the subtitles for Ando and Hiro in Heroes (which is more than I can say for the MP4Fiesta!). Below is an example of the resolution that the Zen offers. It is not a photo of the display - those are available elsewhere in this document. See? Even at these limited resolutions, subtitling is clear.

Some people have reported random freezes and glitches in the video. I've not experienced any on my Zen (so far), but I will point out that my Neon DVD player sometimes has hiccups when playing XviD from a USB stick - I think hardware-based MPEG(2/3/4) players are less able to cope with oddities and minor faults than software-based players. By faults I don't mean failing memory, I mean something unusual in the encoding. I did like to use 3ivX which seemed to me to give nice results, but my DVD player would randomly skip chunks of the video; yet two different computers played the video without a problem - go figure!

Converting video
Don't simply scale to fit the 320×240 display. Some cropping or reframing will be required. This, of course, is when I'm glad I like widescreen, as whacking off some of the letterboxing is no loss. ☺
The supplied demo video files are a variety of sizes, so you can letterbox so long as the width doesn't exceed 320.
You can pick DivX or XviD, to a bitrate that you like (I tend to aim for 550ish to keep sizes down, you might want to go up to ~850 or so if you don't like artefacts). Set to basic options - just stay away from extended options such as QPEL (quarter pixel) or GMC (isn't that the A-Team's truck?!).
The display is clear, bright, a full 16 million colours (instead of the more common 200-odd-thousand) and the quality of the display matrix is such that you'd have to look closely to see the pixels - therefore a subtitled widescreen film is tolerable (disclaimer: I am short sighted, if you are the opposite it might be more problematic!).

You can also use WMV video, but given that this is a proprietary format, I have very little support for WMV on my computer - this is what happens if I try to load WMV into VirtualDub:

If Microsoft want to get all protectionist, I simply won't use the WMV format, at all - life's too short for dicking around with pointless restrictions.

When your video conversion is complete, simply copy to your Zen and enjoy...

Positions
There's a menu option "seek", which is odd given that pressing and holding the Left/Right buttons do the same thing. Don't panic if you start seeking into a file and find it crawling along slowly, your Zen will speed up the seek the longer you hold down the button, so navigating a long video file isn't a problem.
Actually, if you come out of watching a video and don't watch another, the Zen will remember where you were if you go back to watching.

Something of an oddity is that there are ten "bookmarks" available, which may be placed in music files (where you probably won't need them much) but not in video files (where they'd be useful).

I have no experience of "Audible" audio books, but apparently you can not only bookmark these, but you can also hold down a button to break the length bar into sections for chapter skipping. I think it's a nice idea to support audio books, but the Zen would definitely benefit from wider support instead of what seems to be a rather obvious partnership with the "Audible" company (there's an icon on my backdrop saying I can get a FREE audiobook); there are projects out there where people read books (especially old books for licencing reasons) into their computers and make the MP3s available on-line for others, especially partially sighted and blind. It may be that a partially sighted person could use a Zen to select a book (with somebody else putting the books onto the device, obviously) and can obtain many hours of enjoyment listening to the books.

Viewing photos
Zen claims to support JPEG photos up to 16-odd megapixel. Photos are shown with previews, in a folder view or list view. Select the one you want, and it will be displayed. The Zen recognises both .jpg and .jpeg.
You can rate photos, show ones you've rated, and also password-protect (and hide) folders of photos. You can set up slideshows using the PC software, or you can slideshow entire folders on the Zen itself.
For actual viewing options, pressing Up or Down will rotate the photo, Left/Right going to the next. You can also zoom in (and use the direction keys to move around). The zoom appears to be 2×. Not bad, but it'd have been nice to be able to zoom in further.

If you think you are going to use Zen for a presentation (not sure exactly how or why, but...) then it may be useful to know you can set up a specific playlist (using PC software) and a specific slideshow (also using PC software). Then, on the Zen, start playing the playlist, then fire up your slideshow...

The radio
Forget it. Maybe if you live in a city or urban area the radio will work for you. Out here in the sticks, I get nothing whatsoever. You might say that's what I get for living rural, however my Nokia mobile phone can receive some radio channels so the Zen really doesn't have an excuse. The Zen has a snazzy little signal strength meter like something off a mobile phone, but the sensitivity of the tuner is woeful.
In addition, and unusually from what I've seen, you cannot record from the radio.

Things were marginally better using the headphones. Rigging up a two metre length of solder and wrapping that around the end of the headphone plug was better yet.
The Autoscan feature found exactly zero stations, but filled 11 presets with assorted static. Stepping through manually found three stations with acceptable signals - one on the signal meter, stereo, no obvious static in the audio; plus another three stations with lesser quality; not quite as good as my Nokia, but better than nothing at all.
There is no RDS so you have to name the radio presets yourself. There are 32 presets available. A peculiar limitation is radio station names are limited to nine characters - so you have to devise abbreviations for channels like "France Inter". On a 4Gb device with full support for ID3 tags in music files, why such an idiotic limitation for radio stations? I suspect it comes from the American habit of using callsigns as channel identifiers, so while we may have Alouette and Fox FM and County Sound, they'd be stuck with names like WBAL and WMAR...

Recording
The audio recorder is clear and concise, with the format being IMA ADPCM, 16 bit, 16kHz, mono (which works out to be about 6K/sec, or 360K/min). There's a little VU meter to show how loud the input is, though it cheats slightly when it shows a double VU bar - for recording is (obviously) mono.

Personal Information Manager
Under the "Extras" menu you can see an analogue or digital clock, plus the option to display a small time in the title banner - useful. There is an alarm function which I find bizarre given that the Zen has no speaker, not even a piezo beeper!

Under Organizer (with a 'z'...), you can access a calendar for events and a list of tasks. This is set up on the PC, or synced with some sort of PIM software.
There is also a contacts list which is a useful touch - sync to your addressbook and have a list of your contacts to hand. It would have been nice if there was some sort of method of adding/editing contacts on the Zen, it'd be clumsy with no keypad, but I once owned a watch with a 64-number phonebook and it had only about four buttons, so something ought to be possible - certainly it'd be useful to add phone numbers of people 'on the fly' as it were.

Foreigners...
If English is not your first language, you can get your Zen to talk to you in: Brazilian/Portuguese, Danish, German, Spanish, Cesky (Czech?), Greek, French, Italian, Magyar (Hungarian?), Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Finnish (Suomi), Swedish, Turkish, some sort of scrolly language that looks a bit like Hebrew crossed with Indian, Chinese (both simplified and traditional), Japanese, and Korean.

Memory card
Pitiful. It isn't of great concern to me, and I will explain why later - but I can fully understand why some are extremely upset that their Zen cannot be memory-extended using an SD card. I guess for some with big music libraries, the SD slot is pretty useless...
...especially given that the box proclaims:

This isn't exactly a lie, but it isn't exactly the truth either. It more has the ability to access content on SD cards, the player's own memory can't be extended with a card.

You see, the problem is this - there is no integration of the memory card into the player. There is a separate memory item "Memory card" and from there you can "Browse", by file name (no ID3 tags). You can access any media the Zen recognises: JPEG images, MP3s, and video. You can't bookmark, you can't playlist... essentially the memory card appears as a list of objects that you can play; it would have been so much better had the Zen detected the memory card and integrated its contents into the main media library and offered the same functionality to those, even if it required the same sort of directory structuring (i.e. \Music, \Pictures, and \Video, etc...).

You can copy pictures from an SD card into the Zen, however these remain still distinct as "Photos -> Imported files". It doesn't appear that you can copy video and MP3s, and certainly you can't copy/move stuff from your Zen to a memory card.

Why this is not a problem for me is because I use my player's internal memory for my music files. I only have around 250 songs that I want to keep to hand - some of the lesser listened to are on CD-R and don't justify taking space on the player's flash; just because you have twenty thousand songs doesn't necessarily mean you should keep them in your pocket!
And, so, the SD card. That's mostly used for video files. For times when I have recorded something, transcoded it to an XviD, then put it on the SD card for viewing. Take Heroes for example. It is on 9pm British time, 10pm French time. I work 5am-2pm or 2pm-11pm (alternate weeks). I usually tape it as it's either too late to watch, or too early and I'm working. I can then record into the computer, make an AVI, and drop this onto my SD card. Pop it into the Zen, I can catch up on missed episodes while at work (and given my break works out to be around 20 minutes between changing out of uniform and back into it again...) a bookmark feature on video would be very much appreciated! Anyway, once watched, there's no need to clog up the SD card with ~250Mb of video. I can delete it, use the space for... well, maybe the following episode(s). So in this way, the SD slot is quite useful. We mustn't forget also the lifespan of flash memory. Sure, it might be tens or hundreds of thousands of erase/program cycles, it will add up - and don't forget that we don't just count the number of times files are written, for I bet Windows updates file metadata (timestamp, size, position, that sort of stuff) half a dozen times in the course of writing a file. Even reading a file (under Windows) updates the metadata! Why wear out your Zen's memory when you can wear out a disposable €7 SD card?!?

I can see why people are disappointed, it would have been really good to have the memory card integrated into the player, as the label on the box suggests.

Now for the buglist
These bugs are repeatable, and according to a five minute Google search, fairly widespread.

  1. When you 'lock' the player and then, later, come out of lock mode, the screen is plain white.
    Repeatability: Every single time - how did this pass Q&A?!?
    Workaround: When out of lock mode, in the white screen, use the controls. The easiest is to pause/play, but if you don't want an interruption then try 'menu' followed by 'go back' (to close the menu). This step is very important, you MUST use the controls in some manner. Then lock the player again. When the display goes dark, unlock the player and all will be normal.
  2. When you switch the player on, the screen is overly bright and everything seems washed out.
    Repeatability: Quite common, average perhaps every other switch-on?
    Workaround: None. I don't know if this is just an oddity with initialising the display, or if this is actually capable of damaging the display (like, overloading it or something). So I switch off and switch back on again... but that doesn't always work, it might need a few cycles.
    Untested suggestion: Might be total coincidence, but just after switching off, press and hold Play for a second or two (with the power 'off') and retry. This cleared it for me, but it might have just been serendipity.
    If all else fails: Call up the administrative options and reboot the player. I guess you could 'reset', I think the effect is much the same. It won't get rid of the problem, but your next power up ought to be normal...
If all else fails:
There's a special "Recovery mode" menu:
  • Clean Up
    If your player is misbehaving big-time, this will check the integrity of the internal filesystem (no, you can't run ScanDisk on it, but there's a sort of "Scan disk" built in).
    Security warning: This will reset most of the options of your player - the menus, the EQ/play choices... and it will also reset the status of 'hidden' folders and restore the password to 0000 - so if you think you're going to hide pornographic XviDs where your mom/wife/girlfriend can't find them, just be aware that any such 'protection' is thus remarkably easy to circumvent.
  • Format All
    This will wipe the contents of the internal disc, start again from scratch. Note that this will, most likely, remove the 'value added stuff' that was on the device when you purchased it - the photos and other media.
    I'm not sure about the "All" in that, you might want to eject any SD card during this operation just to be on the safe side!
  • Reload Firmware
    With the assistance of a program running under Windows, you can update the Zen's firmware to the latest version available.
    I recall reading somewhere that invoking this command will clear out the old firmware ready for the new one to be installed. I really hope it doesn't work like this! A meddlesome person could easily muck up your Zen... [I hope the 'recovery' menu is separate to the firmware so that it is always accessible if need be]
    I would imagine that reinstalling the firmware would also clear the contents of the internal disc? Can anybody confirm?
  • Reboot
    If your Zen is playing up or is acting weird for some other unspecified reason, giving it the kick-in-the-ass which is known in technical circles as "reboot" (re as in rear, boot as in what to insert...) will usually fix anything non-serious. If I am experiencing the "bright display" problem and it doesn't seem to want to go away, and I don't feel inclined to perform half a dozen start-ups, a reboot will power-up with a correct-looking display. It takes time to reboot. I suspect it is rebuilding the MP3 tag list? If you frequently add/move/remove songs and your player is getting all in a muddle, a reboot will probably fix it.
    You don't need to know how to get into the recovery menu in order to force a reboot - poking something into the RESET hole to activate the button inside will have the same effect.

What Creative should do...
If you believe various on-line reports, Creative don't acknowledge anything is wrong; however this may be annoyed people throwing daggers. At any case, given the sort of people that will use these kinds of devices are the sorts that will be 'wired', it would be in Creative's best interests to recognise problems and try to fix them - for Google is a powerful tool...

To be honest, if Creative is slow in fixing problems, perhaps the best approach for them would be to Open Source the firmware? That phrase is something of an anathema to some, but when applied correctly can offer the features of a development team without the costs.
The Zen is an impressive bit of hardware, the display is good enough that a mini-PDF viewer (if the processing unit is capable) is not out of the realms of possibility. Certainly, the geekier users who like their Zens would probably be willing to help iron out quirks and add functionality.
If the development suite can run on my computer (450MHz P3, XP, 128Mb /or/ 1GHz AMD, XP, 1Gb) then I'd be willing to dive in...

This concept could, therefore, provide a sort of unofficial after-sales service for Zen owners. It would also make the device desirable to those who like to 'have a fiddle' (you just know this thing would eventually turn up running some sort of webserver under µLinux just because...); and the extended featureset of the open source firmware would make it more desirable to end users. I mean - a display like that, a price tag like that, and a built-in PDF reader? That would be awesome. Just think, if PDF access wasn't clunky, it might even find a niche in tech support where all the docs can be dumped on an SD card and the Zen can fit easily into a pocket, and it is hardwearing - obviously less capable than a PDA or netbook-factor computer, but wins for size and simplicity and I'd bet the battery would outlast the average laptop too, hell you can watch video for around five hours, so we'd ought to see at least that from PDFs if not longer due to only needing to process in bursts (like when viewing something new). I dunno, it's all just random musings, but hopefully it might just open Creative's ideas to some of the possibilities their Zen could be put to. You think some bored lonely girlfriend-less geek is going to sit in bed and watch zombie flicks on it? There are so many other possibilities!

Fixes required

  • Support for variable-sized video, including broadcast resolutions, downscaling where necessary.
    Is this actually a hardware limitation?
  • Full integration for the SD card contents. I think the best approach is where the SD card directory structure 'mirrors' that of the internal disc, and hence such content is 'merged in'; albeit with the ability to create/discard the SD's contents on the fly - to permit the expansion cards to be hot-swapped with minimal fuss.
  • The 'Lock' white-screen problem.
  • The power-up washed out display problem.
  • Bookmarks in video. This is a must for me, as my break is 45 minutes long. Minus a bit for getting out of/back into uniform. The length of an average movie...? It would be nice to resume where I left of, rather than leaving my crap memory to think "it's 34 minutes and 27 seconds", which I probably won't remember correctly by the end of this sentence, never mind one day to the next!
  • Option to have the display backlight turn off completely when the unit is 'in use' but hasn't had any keys pressed for several minutes - this should further extend battery life.
  • Ability to play MP3s elsewhere than "Music", so you can separate content you don't want in a playlist, like spoken books, podcasts, language courses, and such. And for this content to not appear in the "All Tracks" selection.
  • Related to the above: an "Audiobooks" directory that is accessible but does not appear in the music playlist. For audio books, but I'd put my Japanese course (MP3) here, as well as podcasts, etc.
    This is not the same as the supported "Audible" system. This is for anything that the user would consider listening to that is outside of the realms of "music". If that's a 240Mb MP3 of the "War Of The Worlds" LPs, then so be it...
  • Less anal retentiveness about what it plays and where. I tried to make an IMA ADPCM file to place into "My Recordings", I called it by a similar name to existing files (Mic...) and I set it to 22.5kHz (there is no 16kHz option for the Windows IMA ADPCM codec), and it didn't show up. The Zen should recognise anything it can play, by whatever filename. Oh, and you should be able to rename recordings other than "MIC-2008-12-06_19h28m55s.wav". For example "Meeting with Dave" or something that gives meaning to the recording, like "Bugging my teenage daughter when she's alone with that creep she picked up in the bus stop.wav"...
Summary
PROs
  • Battery life seems to be quite good. Quoted around 5hrs video, 25hrs audio. I don't know if I get 25 hours of audio, never stopped to time it (!), but I can believe the 5 hours of video. Watching an entire movie only took a little bit out of the battery, I then listened to music for ages afterwards. In fact, I have only once had my Zen power down on me, and that's when I put it aside to charge and forgot to plug it in. Serves me right. ☺ I tend to charge when the battery is reading 1/3rd, or when I'm reading/writing the SD card, so it is really hard to provide an estimate of battery life.
    Instead, I will say that - at this time - I have no reason to doubt the estimated battery expectancy. It's a good long time. 25 hours of audio - that would see you on a journey to another country without the need to recharge, buy batteries, etc...
  • Loving the display. Sad it doesn't have CVBS input, I'd watch telly on this thing!
  • Nice form factor.
  • Enough controls to get the job done. Well judged. Not so many it's difficult, not so few it's clumsy. A good compromise.
  • Like the wallpaper feature, it's a nice touch.
  • Native DivX/XviD support. It sucks that I still have to transcode my video to fit the player, but at least we're now using a proper format and not some peculiarity like AMV or MTV; so we can now use decent video software to work with the file, and not whatever the manufacturer put together.
  • Did I mention how much I like the display? It's a real 16 million colours and you need to squint to see the individual pixels. Darkened room, bed for one, good zombie flick... oh, oops, I think I just gave myself away there. But hey, it's a great looking display. Have I already told you that? ☺

CONs

  • Buggy firmware, some bugs are not ones you can overlook. On the other hand, bugs and quirks aside it does work.
  • Weak sound output. You probably won't run any risk of damaging your ears using professional headsets, and I'd be surprised if it can drive non-active speakers (i.e. those without an internal amplifier of its own).
  • Naff radio reception.
  • SD card integration is nonexistant, really needs a rethink. The SD card contents are accessible, but as separate entities, distinct from content held internally...

Overall

  • User interface - 3/5
    (would be 5/5 if SD integrated and no display bugs)
  • Features - 4/5
    (radio poor, no SD slot-in (it stays separate), the need to rescale video; saved by native XviD support)
  • Display quality - 5/5
    (lovely display!!!)
  • General appreciation - 4/5
    (great product, but needs to be finished)

Like I said:

brilliant potential, but more work needed

 

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