The original flash memory-based Zen was announced back in 2007. In the same year, Creative grabbed headlines by introducing a 32GB model for the Zen line-up, a record for the largest storage capacity for flash players. Regarding the follow-up Zen MX, Creative says it delivers "the same stylish, feature-rich design and ultraportability with incredible value for money". On paper at least, it looks like a cut-down version of the Zen (that includes the omission of a 32GB model). But is less more?
At first glance, both players do appear to be exactly identical. Both of them feature a 2.5-inch, 320x240 display enclosed in a glossy black plastic body. We have qualms with glossy finishes as they attract fingerprint smudges, but design is subjective.
However, there are some minute detail changes. On the right side of the player, we found that the sliding power/hold switch has been removed and integrated into the main controls.
Like the original Zen, the MX retains the same dimensions — 55mm tall, 83.2mm wide and 11.9mm thick — which is small enough to be easily carried around in a pocket all day long. Weighing 66g, it's light enough as well. Those who are tired of proprietary connectors will be pleased to know that the Zen MX still uses the same standard mini-USB connector as the Zen.
The QVGA screen is capable of displaying 16.7 million colours and produces a pleasantly sharp display. Colour reproduction is decent, although it sometimes appears oversaturated on certain photos. Viewing the screen in bright light was slightly difficult due to the glare-inducing glossy coating, but it was not completely unreadable.
The buttons on the player have a nice solid feel to them. The MX sports the same collection of navigational controls consisting of a four-directional D-pad flanked by Back, Menu and Shortcut buttons. The only difference with the new model is that the play/pause button doubles as a power button.
The interface is pretty much unchanged, which given that it was one of the good points of the Zen, isn't such a bad thing. The Zen MX retains the Zen browsing format, where tapping left and right toggles between searching via names in alphabetical order and names are grouped by the first letter. The Zen MX felt a little slower than the Zen during navigation, and the lack of a dedicated volume control took some time to get used to; we would still have preferred a dedicated solution.
The Zen MX pilfers the old model's 32-station preset FM radio, voice recorder, calendar, contacts, tasklist and alarm features. However, the Zen's SD card slot has been upgraded to accept SDHC cards on the Zen MX. This would be really useful for improving on the built-in 8GB (AU$120) or 16GB (AU$160) of memory.
The MX's battery is built-in, taking about three hours to fully charge via USB. Creative claims 30 hours of audio playback and five hours with video, which is not dazzling, but sufficient.
File format support is what differentiates the Zen and the Zen MX. The Zen MX will take MP3, WMA, WAV and Audible 4 audio formats, while the Zen offers AAC on top of those. The same trend was seen with video formats where the Zen MX plays Creative's proprietary CMV video files only, while the Zen supports MJPEG, WMV9, MPEG4-SP3, DivX3 4/5 and XviD videos.
While format junkies may gripe at the loss, it makes the player cheaper to manufacture, since Creative doesn't have to pay money for the additional format support.
We had to use the Creative Centrale software to convert our videos to the right CMV format as required by the player. Although we could not find third-party apps for the task, the Centrale software is good enough and offers decent file format support and DVD ripping.
There may have been some changes to the audio-processing hardware because while the Zen was capable of producing a smooth frequency response, the Zen MX constantly delivered jagged response lines in the RightMark Audio Analyzer tests.
According to the frequency response chart, both Zens produce crisp-sounding high-end details and an acceptable flat mid and low range. Note how closely the Zen MX's readings follows the Zen.(Credit:CNET Asia)
Despite the slight differences, the Zen MX managed to yield identical sounding tunes to the original when coupled with our Denon C351 in-ear headphones. The supplied earphones are mediocre at best, and it would be the first upgrade to look into should you want some decent audio.
If you need to tweak the music, both Zens offer a five-band user equaliser, bass boost and eight preset equaliser settings.
Battery life was good, with the player averaging about 28 hours of playback. We found that the hold button implementation on the MX was decent. We had to press the shortcut once to lock the player; unlocking required us to press any button and then select "yes" on the screen. While we felt the Zen's sliding lock button was a much better way of stopping unwanted button presses, the Zen MX's lock was still decent enough, although more cumbersome.
Perhaps one of the biggest improvements on the Zen MX is when you plug it to a PC. Unlike the Zen, the MX is immediately recognised as a plug-and-play memory device, and you can drag-and-drop files with abandon; the SD/SDHC card slot shows up as an SDHC card reader as well. While the original Zen allowed for drag-and-drop, it required programs such as Windows Media Player or Winamp. Another plus is that the Zen MX is now easily usable on other platforms other than Windows.
Creative's latest player may have some drawbacks, but it still is a strong contender that provides great value for money.