Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Creative Zen Micro vs. iPod Mini


The recent launch of Napster To Go (a £14.95 a month music subscription service, which enables you to download an unlimited number of tracks from the 1 million strong Napster catalogue to a compatible portable device and listen to them for as long as you maintain your subscription) persuaded me to splash out on a Creative Zen Micro (one of the few compatible devices available). I already own an iPod mini but was frustrated by the difficultly of sampling new music (beyond iTunes Music Store's unsatisfying 30 second clips) without forking out £7.99 for an album I might not like or resorting to less legal means of acquiring music (heaven forefend). Napster To Go promised a veritable smorgasboard of new music for the cost of less than two albums a month so I decided to take the plunge.

Out of the box, I was immediately impressed by the size of the Zen Micro - the same width as the iPod mini and a fraction shorter, the only trade off was an extra half centimetre in depth, making it about the same thickness as the 4th generation 40GB iPod. The automatic backlight and the way in which the controls and the perimeter of the player glow a cool blue when touched was also a pleasant surprise.

Less pleasant was getting used to life without a Click Wheel. Whilst the creatives at Creative deserve marks for effort for their vertical variation on Apple's legendary touch sensitive scroller, its far too easy to accidentally depress the button whilst trying to scroll up or down resulting in all kinds of menu mayhem. The addition of a right-click context menu complicates matters further and makes you yearn for the simplicity of the iPod interface. It also serves to remind you that this is essentially a Windows product - an impression reinforced by the Micro's frequent delays and lock-ups, reminiscent of Windows at its most obstinate.

Fortunately, things improve immeasurably once the audio actually starts playing. The sound quality of the 128-bit WMA files downloaded from Napster was impressive, even when listening through the bundled headphones (they're noticeably superior to the iPod's 'earbuds'). Which brings me to the real selling point of the Micro for me: its compatibility with Napster To Go. Whilst setting up the Micro to work with NTG was no picnic (requiring an upgrade to the player's firmware which proved to be a long-winded process involving numerous reboots) I wasn't disappointed with the reality of an 'all you can eat' music proposition. Within the hour I had loaded up my Zen with a dozen new albums and was congratulating myself on the £100 I'd just 'saved'. Predictably, my jubilation was shortlived as I was brought crashing back down to earth with some classic error messages (mercifully all surmountable).

There's very little to choose between the iPod Mini and the Zen Micro on price, size or weight (Creative has clearly learnt from past experience how importance a pocketable device is to consumers). What separates the two is their interfaces and compatibility. Were Creative able to more successfully emulate the iPod's intuitive and reliable interface (without getting sued by Apple, of course) they'd be on to a winner. Likewise, if Apple were to open the iPod mini up to work with WMA and the plethora of associated download services they'd have a world beater. As it is, neither device is able to offer everything I want from a portable music player and I suspect I'll continue using the two in tandem until a player is released which combines the interface of the iPod with a music consumption model similar to Napster To Go. The smart money's on Apple...

2 comments:

pikesville said...

cnet have posted an article that looks at this from a financial POV: comparing Napster's subscription service to Apple's pay per download iTunes model. The article favours subscription but more interestingly hints that Apple are likely to launch a monthly "all you can eat" service themselves in the near future ...

Djuri Baars said...

Very interesting article, I came by via a comment on flickr.com (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dantaylor/5256889/). I also have difficulties with the interface of other MP3 players since i'm using my iPod (Mini). I always want to spin my thumb on round surfaces now to scroll to numbers on my friends MP3 player (For example around the play butotn of a Sony Walkman MP3 Player from a friend). :) But indeed, hopefully Apple will be compatble with more Music buying stores in the future, it's one of the only disadvantages I can think of, using my iPod Mini for a Year (and no iTunes doesnt suck at all when you are using a Mac OS X :) )