Reg review Creative may claim to have introduced the world's first hard drive-based music player, but its efforts have always been undershadowed by Apple's iPod. It's easy to see why. Literally so, in fact. While Creative's Singaporean product designers have focused on functionality, Apple's worked on look and feel. So while the iPod is eye-catching, Creative's Nomad Jukebox family, later dubbed the Zen line, have never looked comfortable alongside consumer electronics kit.
It's a lesson, however, that the company has learned. Witness the upcoming Zen Micro and, to a lesser extent, the Zen Touch, the latest in Creative's long line of iPod alternatives.
Gone, then, is the chunky, clunky metal casing of Zens of old, replaced by a smaller, more curvaceous casing that fits tightly together to give the device a solid, tough feel. It's still bigger than the iPod. They're both 10.3cm high, but the Zen is fatter and thicker - 6.8×2.3cm to 6×1.5cm - and heavier: 201g to 159g. But it feels good in the hand - neither too big nor too heavy. And, crucially, it doesn't look and feel like an internal hard drive, like its predecessors did.
What it does share with previous Jukeboxes is a plethora of buttons and controls. The Zen Micro may narrow them down, iPod-fashion, to five areas of a touch panel, the Touch has 11 buttons and a touch panel. On the top of the device is the hold switch, alongside the USB 2.0 port and earphone/remote control sockets. The left-hand panel sports power, volume up and volume down buttons. On the front are back a screen, Menu and Random play buttons on one side, track skip back, play/pause and track skip forward on the other. Between then sits a round OK button above the oblong touch pad. To complete the Zen's facial features, there's a 2in, 160×104 blue-backlit LCD on the front and the AC adaptor socket on the right-hand panel.
Unless there's something playing, the display defaults to the main Menu, allowing you to choose music from the device's library, select the play mode - repeat tracks or groups of songs, shuffle them all, etc. - change the Zen's settings, and find out how many songs you've copied over and how much disk space they take up.
The Settings sub-menu allows you to choose an EQ pre-set or make up one of your own using the four-band custom equaliser. Crucially, it also allows you to change the touchpad's sensitivity.
Ah, the touchpad. It's what the new Zen is named after, yet it's perhaps the device's weakest feature. It's the equivalent of a jogdial or the iPod's clickwheel, moving the menu cursor up and down, or moving sideways between EQ frequency controls. Tap it to select something.
At first I found it irritatingly difficult to use. Scrolling quickly through a long list of tracks was fine, but attempting to narrow down on a single song proved diffcult - it was too easy to go one or two songs above or below the one I wanted. Move my thumb off the pad and I'd still manage to brush it enough to move cursor up a track. Reducing the trackpad's sensitivity helps, but still requires some concentration to position the cursor precisely.
Alongside the sensitivity adjustment you can turn off the 'tap to click' function. Again, that's essential if you're not to inadvertently make unwanted settings choices or play the wrong song.
I've no doubt Zen Touch users will accustom themselves to the touchpad's quirks, but in the week or so I had the machine to myself I didn't. Some buyers will, I think, spend a short period cursing their purchase before they get the hang of it.