Music Plus: two new audio/video players duke it out

Two new audio/video players duke it out

Apple recently introduced a new version of its hugely popular hard-disk-based iPod media player, one that not only plays digital music and displays photos on a colour LCD screen, but also plays video. On the same day, Creative Labs, the perennial challenger, launched Zen Vision, which also plays audio and video files and displays photos. Zen Vision ups the ante, though, by incorporating a much bigger screen, an FM radio, camera card reader, personal organizer software and voice recorder.

The new video iPod comes in two models, one with a 30 gigabyte hard drive for $379, the other with a 60 GB drive for $499. Zen Vision, with a 30 GB drive, sells for between $500 and $600.

While Apple stuck with its stylish, deck-of-cards size (104.1-by-61-by-10.9 millimetres and 136 grams for the 30 GB model), the Zen Vision is a relative porker at 124.2-by-74.4-by-20.1 mm and 239 g. The increased size is mainly to make room for its larger screen–9.4 centimetres compared with 6.35 cm for the iPod–and CompactFlash (CF) card slot. The chassis is also made of durable magnesium alloy; the iPod uses more plastic, which is lighter. Either will fit in a purse. The iPod fits comfortably in a shirt pocket; Zen Vision needs a jacket pocket.

Is one better than the other? It depends how and where you use a media player–and what you consider important. If you never listen to radio, never record voice notes and never organize your life on a laptop, Zen Vision's extra functions offer no big advantage.

But for watching ripped movies or digitally recorded reruns of Friends practically anywhere, Zen Vision has a definite edge. Its bigger, higher-resolution screen makes a significant difference in watchability. Zen Vision video is in fact surprisingly watchable, iPod less so.

The Creative product also makes it easier to directly transfer photos from digital camera to media player–at least with some cameras. Apple requires you to purchase a $39 photo transfer accessory for the iPod. But if your camera uses a CF card, you can stick the card in the Zen Vision card slot and transfer pictures in a flash. (If your digicam uses a different format card, you'll have to buy an adapter, such as the $50 Jobo 6-in-1 CF Adapter.)

At the end of the day, people use these things mostly to play music. In my listening tests–the same music ripped at the same bit rate (320 kilobits per second), over the same audiophile headset–Zen Vision sounded better: more realistic and cleaner. The iPod did have slightly better bass response, which is important to some. Copying media from PC to player is lightning fast with both devices, thanks to USB2 connections–no advantage either way. Battery life is also a wash: 13 hours of music listening for Zen Vision, 14 for iPod.

Bottom line: if money were no object, Zen Vision would have an edge. But money usually is an object. Plus, there's the cool factor. The iPod looks sexier, it's easier to tote and its unique click-wheel interface is slicker than Zen Vision's clunkier multi-button controls. The whole iPod package is simply more elegant. And that's definitely worth something.