"You Want This Device"4.5 starson by The Mish
Pros: Unsurpassed build quality and feature set. Best-in-class screen. Excellent video performance and superb photo displays.
Cons: Sound quality very good, but probably not class-leading. Color saturation could be better for some content. Reflective screen surface requires viewing adjustments in bright light.
Summary: For those of you, like me, who have been struggling to make a PMP purchase decision, this Zen Vision review's for you.
I've read all the hype, studied the formal product reviews and the user reviews. And I've listened closely to the complaints. But the Vision has so much going for it on paper, I had to see it for myself.
Well, I ordered one (from B&H, a solid on-line retailer) and got the package on Friday. And having just spent the weekend with it, perhaps an account of my first-hand experience will be useful to others.
Let me start with the physical esthetics. Hands down, this is the best-designed product in the PMP category, and it's the first I've seen that looks good in a head-to-head comparison with the iPod Video. I mean, real good. All the reviewers have noted the great build quality, but they don't convey how beautiful it actually looks and feels. The white magnesium case has a soft pearlescent finish, and the blue backlit controls really create a warm gadget. I've held all of them in my hands --a few Archos, the Samsung, the Epson, iRivers, even the new Nokia wireless tablet. None of them comes close to this beauty. Perfect 10.
Now for the screen. This is where I suspect most would-be buyers have major concerns based on user feedback. We all read about interference patterns, narrow viewing angles, difficulty with adjustments. I certainly was concerned.
All of these comments are not without basis. But they need to be taken in perspective: except for the Epson, there's no other screen like the Vision's. Detail is amazing, and overall graphics quality is superb. The iPod? Not even close when the source content is 640X480 MPG4.
But the screen's not perfect. It is highly reflective. When viewing dark material, and you happen to brightly lit, it will be a challenge to manage your reflection to avoid wash-out. That said, reflections are much less of an issue when viewing photos than when viewing videos. Photos are much brighter than video.
As to the viewing angle, the screen delivers on the personal in personal media player. A slight shift to the left or right wipes out the image. There's a bit more latitude in the vertical plane. The bottom line is that the device is not intended for group viewing. But there are comfortable viewing angles for a single user. And I think the best results will come from slight angular adjustments in response to different image attributes.
I've come to conclude that the screen viewing angle limitations are not the result of Creative's decision to buy cheap components. There's nothing cheap about the device, and it doesn't make much sense to go cheap on a display in a product where the display quality is the major selling point. Instead, in my unscientific opinion, I think it's related to the transreflective nature of the display.
Which is a nice touch, by the way, because you can easily see the screen when not backlit in just about any lighting. You don't want to view video or photos this way, but when listening to music it avoids the need to fire up the backlight to see what's happening.
The display also suffers a bit from Creative's failure to include a color saturation control in the firmware. As bright as the photos are, at least the ones I transferred to the device (taken by a Canon Digital Rebel XT, no less) tend to look undersatured. Creative's demo photos don't have the same problem. They've probably been tuned for the display, but the point is, they look great -- well-saturated and balanced. So the screen is plainly capable of doing a better job of displaying photos. A simple saturation tweak would cure the problem. Most viewers will be blown away by the crispness of the photos, and they won't notice the under-saturation.
Do these screen issues take something away from the Vision? Yes, they do. I give the screen an 8. But they aren't serious enough to turn thumbs down on the device. All things considered, there's just nothing else on the market comparable right now. Next week, of course, who knows?
Otherwise, my experience with the player has been very positive. I spent most of the weekend experimenting with different ways of transfering content to the Vision. Zen Vision Media Explorer makes it a snap to import photos. Photos should be scaled down to 640X native display resolution (Picasa makes this easy) so the pixels map to the display.
Video Vault (the updated on-line version) does an excellent job converting video to 640X480 MPG4 for transfer to the player. I used it without cracking the user guide for a ripped DVD, for captured home video, and for TV shows recorded by XP MCE2005. All worked perfectly.
The 640X480 res MPG4 option in Video Vault makes a big difference in the quality of the video. MCE2005 syncs quickly and nicely with the Vision, but it outputs only in 320X240 WMA format, with lower bandwidth as well as resolution. THe files are smaller, but quality is what counts here.
Music sounds good to me, but at the very end of certain songs, as the song finally fades out, I can hear very faint electronic artifacts. I find that the EQ settings affect this. Let's face it, though. If you're a music purist, you probably shouldn't be looking at the Vision.
The FM tuner works well, but it's a bit finicky with static in weak-reception areas. Compact flash functionality is intended to support file transfers as an adjunct to photography, not for photo-browsing. Again, it works perfectly well. Transfers are a bit slow with large (>5MB) files.
So there you have it: the definitive Vision review. I think most buyers will love this device and can feel comfortable owning the first really high-quality video PMP on the market. There will certainly be others, and perhaps their quality will surpass the Vision. But I can recommend it as worth owning now.
Hope this helps you decide.