The early 2004 arrival of Apple's iPod Mini has spawned a rash of competing micro hard drive players. It was only a matter of time before Creative improved upon its existing 4GB and 5GB MuVo2 line by releasing the $250 Zen Micro, which is available in 10 different colors--twice as many as the iPod Mini's metallic rainbow. As with the Rio Carbon and other market newbies, the Creative Zen Micro boasts 5GB of storage for the same price as the 4GB iPod Mini. In addition, the curvaceous Zen Micro has a fat set of features, including an FM tuner/recorder, a removable battery, a voice recorder, and even synchronization capability with Microsoft Outlook. Although the Micro's touch pad isn't as effortless to use as the Mini's click-wheel and its battery life trails the Carbon's, Creative's player should be high on your list, particularly if you use Windows Media-based download services and you value extra features.Editor's note: We updated the rating of the Zen Micro to take into account new players and feature sets introduced recently to the market. Following in the Technicolor tradition initiated by the original iMac, the Creative Zen Micro's range of 10 color choices includes bright and sassy hues such as purple, red, pink, and orange, and more subtle colors such as silver, black, and dark blue. These colors apply to the face of the Micro; the rest of the body is encased in a white, polished plastic. Creative has started shipping basic colors such as silver and black; other colors are due to launch shortly after press time. In case that's not enough pizzazz for you, a glowing, blue backlight gives the display, the buttons, and a strip that wraps around the perimeter of the front panel a uniquely warm, minimalist vibe, especially in the dark.
Roughly the size of a small Altoids tin at 2.0 by 3.3 by 0.7 inches and weighing 3.8 ounces, the Zen Micro is a tad thicker and heavier than the iPod Mini. It's shorter, though, and actually conforms better to your hand, thanks to its curved, glossy backside. The sturdy, plastic casing withstood a couple of short, accidental drops during testing. A headphone jack, a USB 2.0 port, a tiny microphone (for recording voice notes), and an on/off toggle switch grace the top of the unit. Pushing the toggle switch all the way to the right locks the unit during playback. Unfortunately, as with the Mini, the Micro lacks a dedicated volume control--you must use the touch pad while the unit is displaying the Now Playing screen.
In addition to the blue-backlit display, the front of player features a touch-sensitive interface. There are no buttons in the traditional sense. Rather, the interface has been partitioned into six touch-pad areas: rewind, play, forward, back, options, and a central, vertical touch pad. The center touch pad, like the one found on the Micro's big brother, the Zen Touch, handles the scrolling through the player's menu system: The farther you stray from the center of the pad, the faster you scroll. Simply tap the interface to select a function or a menu item. Unfortunately, while the pad is effective at quickly scrolling up and down, we had trouble getting it to nudge up or down one selection at a time when set to its default sensitivity. You'll need to dig into the player's settings and change the touch pad's sensitivity to High to remedy this. The other touch-sensitive areas also tend not to respond well to light finger taps. In short, while the Zen Micro handles navigation fairly well, particularly after you get accustomed to the interface, it still can't quite match the Mini's ease of use. We predict that some users will love it while others will hate it. We recommend that you definitely give it a test-drive.
The display is easy to read with its blue backlight, and the Micro also ships with a removable lithium-ion battery--a design decision probably influenced by the problems users have had with the iPod's built-in batteries. According to Creative, the "first 35,000 units (worldwide) will ship with an extra battery." If you don't get one of these limited-edition models, an additional power cell will cost you $40.
In addition to the Micro itself, your package will include some nice earbuds, a polished, white wall-wart power adapter, a USB 2.0 cable, a stylized belt clip and stand, a pouch, and an installation CD. For an extra $20, you can add a wired remote control. We recommend this option as it's both well designed and useful, and it includes dedicated volume buttons.
We must emphasize that the overall design of the Zen Micro deserves kudos. Its various zesty colors, its rounded corners, its touch-screen interface, and some uncommon features make the player a breath of fresh air.While the iPod Mini may top the Creative Zen Micro in terms of overall design, Creative trumps Apple in feature-set quality. Similar to the Rio Carbon, the Micro packs 5GB compared to the Mini's 4GB, which works out to a couple hundred more songs that can squeeze onto the Micro's Seagate drive. The Micro supports MP3, WMA (including protected WMAs from download services such as Musicmatch or Napster), and WAV files. Janus compatible, the Zen Micro also works with subscription-based music services such as Napster To Go.