Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. Make no mistake: The Creative Zen Touch isn't your daddy's tired, old Nomad Jukebox. Encased in a tight metallic-alloy and glossy white body, the device is smooth to the touch and easy on the eyes. At 4.1 by 2.7 by 0.9 inches and 7.1 ounces, it's definitely larger and heavier than the latest Apple iPod. Yet its overall look and feel is balanced, ergonomic, and durable--much like its second cousin, the Dell DJ. And the Zen Touch doesn't scratch as easily as the iPod does.
The primary feature that ushers the Zen franchise into the 21st century is the touch-sensitive Touch Pad, which drastically improves scrolling and navigating through songs and menu options when compared to previous Zen models. Sliding your thumb upward or downward on the slick pad (the manual actually suggests that you gently rub it) moves the onscreen cursor accordingly. As with any good touchpad, the farther your finger wanders from the center, the faster you scroll. Pressing the physical OK button at the top of the pad makes a selection. Furthermore, the pad can be set up for tap selection, meaning you don't ever have to use the OK button.
Although it takes a few minutes to get used to the feeling--the pad's sensitivity can be adjusted in three steps--it beats the tar out of using the annoying little jog dial on previous Zen editions. We do wish Creative had placed the selector button above the Touch Pad rather than within the pad area or, better yet, recessed to the level of the pad. As it stands, the button gets in the way of the natural scrolling motion. We would also appreciate a tap-to-page-up and -down feature, as thumbing through thousands of songs can get tiring--at least you're going in circles with the iPod.
The combination of the Touch Pad and the larger display make navigating the Zen Touch interface a breeze when compared to earlier Zen models. The 160x104-pixel display is easy to read, but because of low contrast between the black text and the blue backlight (and lower resolution overall), the menus don't pop off the screen as the iPod's do. Alas, tweaking the contrast level in Settings doesn't help. Still, plenty of data, such as the track title, artist and album info, the EQ setting, the play mode, and an elapsed time bar, is elegantly displayed.
The majority of control buttons line either side of the Touch Pad. These include player controls and Menu, Back, and Random buttons. Creative has dedicated a button to Random, which immediately shuffles and plays all songs in the library. This oft-used instant-shuffle feature reminds us of the iPod's top-menu Shuffle Songs. We did note that one-handed operation of the Zen Touch can be a strain on the hand as primary buttons are located close to the edge, requiring a bit of thumb acrobatics.
The left side of the Zen Touch includes the power button and convenient, dedicated volume controls. The top of the device includes a headphone jack with integrated remote-control support, a USB 2.0 jack (the Zen Touch can be recharged via USB), and a Hold switch. The only thing located on the unit's right side is a power-adapter connector, which further emphasizes this player's minimalist nature.
Creative also throws in a USB cable, some decent earbud headphones, and a fake leather carrying case. Two minor design miscues: the lithium-ion battery can't be swapped by the user, and the power adapter (consisting of two cables and a brick) is bulky and inconvenient. Despite the fact it isn't loaded with extra features such as a recording function or an FM radio, the Creative Zen Touch is a top-notch digital audio player compatible with MP3, protected WMA, and WAV files. You can get an optional wired remote with a built-in FM tuner and FM/voice recorder for $50.
Some despise the Creative interface while others swear by it. It's now much cleaner, and the Touch Pad actually makes it usable. The Main Menu options, accessed by hitting the Menu key, include Music Library, Now Playing, Play Mode, Settings, and Information. Music Library allows you to select tracks by playlists, album, artist, genre, or recordings, as well as all tracks. Creative players were among the first to use a playlist-centric interface, in which selected or played tracks are automatically added to the current playlist (called Selected Music). For example, if you select All Tracks, all tracks are added to your playlist, which then can be saved or deleted on the player itself. Unlike on the iPod, these playlists can be named.
As always, Creative employs a Windows-like, right-click style of selecting and deleting songs and for building playlists. In other words, when you select a song (or an album or artist), a pull-down menu displays a wealth of options. These include Play, Add to Selected, View Details, Delete Track (or Album or Artist), with each set of options slightly different for songs, albums, playlists, and so on. The new Touch Pad helps this two-click process immeasurably, though you can simply click the Play button once to start a track. Searching for specific tracks, artists, or albums is a breeze thanks to the Zen Touch's alphabetical Find feature. One more useful tidbit: touching the pad in the Now Playing mode will display Selected Music, so it's easy to find another song.
All these options can be useful to those who really like to manage their playlists, but these choices can be confusing to some users as well. To simplify, Creative has removed some old options, including reordering songs in a playlist and bookmarking a track.
Those who download music can be assured that the Zen Touch will be compatible with virtually all WMA-based online music stores and services. Sometime in October, Creative plans to release a firmware upgrade that will make the Zen Touch both MTP and Janus-compatible. Among other things, the former will permit autosyncing with Windows Media Player 10, while the latter will allow for subscription-based downloads that time out when the user is no longer a paying subscriber.
Unfortunately, the Zen Touch will not show up as a drive in Windows, so you'll have to use the included Nomad Explorer software to transfer personal data files. Next month, Creative hopes to release a firmware upgrade that will bring up the Zen Touch as a drive letter. While Creative's bundled MediaSource software will allow you to encode and organize music, burn tracks, and transfer tracks to the player, most users will find Windows Media Player more convenient for this function. The sound quality of the Creative Zen Touch impressed us, thanks in part to its signal-to-noise ratio of less than 97dB. We hooked it up to a quality home stereo and enjoyed rich, powerful sound. We recommend a good pair of headphones to take advantage of the warm sound, as the included earbuds don't do the Zen Touch justice. If you wish, you can employ a four-band custom parametric equalizer with eight presets to fine-tune your audio. To little fanfare or concern, Creative has done away with EAX environmental effects presets in this version of the Zen.
Creative boasts that the Zen Touch has "the longest battery life ever for a digital audio jukebox." Managing 24 hours would double the rated battery life for a new iPod, an amazing and useful performance spec, indeed. The patient CNET Labs was able to squeeze an ear-popping 26 hours out of the Zen Touch. Unlike the Zen Xtra before it, the Zen Touch doesn't have a handy removable battery. Nevertheless, on an extended trip away from civilization, the Zen Touch, with its remarkable battery life, would be our first choice. It does take about 4 hours for a complete recharge using the power adapter. Transfer of files took a modest 2.7MB per second over USB 2.0.