The player's jog dial, menu, volume, forward/rewind, and play/pause buttons are mounted on the player's left and right sides in a slightly different configuration than on last year's model, and the power, USB 1.1/2.0 port, and headphone jack are located along the top. The front face features the same 1.7-by-0.8-inch backlit LCD as the original.
Previous Zen models had a closed-case design that turned the players into paperweights if and when their rechargeable batteries wore out (often, after just 12 months of rigorous use). Thankfully, Creative has added a removable front faceplate that provides easy access to the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, making the Zen NX easier to recommend to long-term users.
Creative bundles the Zen NX with standard earbuds, an AC adapter, a USB cable, and a durable, belt-clip-equipped black carrying case. Once you've pointed the included MediaSource software to your MP3 collection (or allowed it to scour your hard drive for all applicable music files), transferring songs and playlists to the Zen NX is a snap. Users can choose to manually or automatically sync their PC-based music collection with the portable, or they can send songs into folders. MediaSource also handles CD ripping, file conversion, ID3 tag editing, and a host of other handy functions. The USB 2.0 connection provides for fast transfer speeds on computers that are so equipped, but backward compatibility with the older 1.1 standard means the Zen NX model will work with just about any Windows PC.
Like its predecessor, the Zen NX is compatible with MP3, WMA, and WAV files. The jog dial makes browsing the hard drive's massive collection of artists, song titles, genres, and playlists a breeze. And Creative's EAX menu offers a comprehensive set of DSP settings and other useful effects, such as speed control, volume normalization, and five-band equalization.
While you can create playlists on the fly, the Zen NX's Play Any Track menu option adds the instant ability to shuffle among all the songs on the device. This is a marked improvement over the original Zen, which required users to first build an all-track playlist on the computer.
Other onboard features new to the NX model include six different usage profiles (for saving multiple configuration settings), as well as sleep and wake timers.
The player can also be used as a portable hard drive for transporting data files. Unfortunately, Creative's File Manager 2.0 software needs to be installed before the PC can manipulate the files on the Zen NX, so you must keep the installation disc handy if you plan on uploading data to other computers. We'd much prefer that the player use the default Windows drivers to appear as a standard external hard drive. That said, Creative's software includes no digital rights management, so you can freely and easily transfer gigabytes' worth of music from computer to computer--so long as both machines have the software installed.
Another software option worth considering is Red Chair's $25 Notmad Explorer, which has been upgraded to support the Zen NX. With a streamlined interface and a bevy of features, it's a worthy alternative to Creative's bundle. Thanks to the Zen NX's superlative 98dB signal-to-noise ratio, our digital music sounded great. The included earbuds performed adequately, but the player's mighty 50mW output was more than enough to power our beefier reference headphones.
File transfers were a quick 0.81MB per second at USB 1.1 and a considerably faster 2.9MB per second on USB 2.0 connections. That means you can fill the Zen's 30GB hard drive in less than three hours on a USB 2.0 system.
We averaged about 8 hours of playback time on a single charge, with EAX periodically engaged--well shy of the 14 hours claimed by Creative. Recharge time averaged more than 3 hours, with the AC adapter as the only power option; unlike the earlier model, the Zen NX does not allow for charging via USB.