Reg review Some market watchers say that mobile phones will eventually supersede standalone MP3 players. Creative's latest device certainly anticipates such a move, in design if not functionality. If ever there was a digital music player that looks and feels like a handset, it's the Zen Micro (ZM). With it's compact size, gently curvaceous casing and one-thumb operation, it's hard not to bring the ZM up to your ear and start nattering.
It's all about competing with Apple's iPod Mini, rather than phones, of course. While Creative hardware developers have focused solely on technology, they've come up with good but by and large plain devices. The Zen Touch was the company's first attempt the iPod's savoir faire, but lacked the looks and inflicted a complex, 11-button control system on anyone who tried to use it. The ZM is a big step forward. Not only is it something of a looker, it's far easier to use than past Zens.
For starters, it feels very comfortable in your hand. At 8.3 x 5 x 1.8, it lacks the cigarette-lighter slimness of the iPod Mini, but feels more solid, less flimsy. The screen's a small 1.4in white-backlit LCD - Creative's traditional blue backlight being reserved for the buttons beneath the display and the rim around the fascia. The display itself presents an almost but not quite an exact copy of the iPod UI. Another similarity is the ZM's ability to sync up with PIM software - Microsoft Outlook in this case - to hold your contacts and diary entries, ready for on-the-move access, PDA-fashion.
The buttons - play/pause, track skip forward and backward, plus Menu, Back a step and a Zen Touch-esque central virtual jog-dial - are carved out of a single touch-sensitive panel that responds with a click and is far more responsive than the Touch's version. The ZM uses a simple select and click approach to menu navigation, with the aforementioned Back button taking you up the hierarchy one step at a time. It's a more intuitive system than those Creative players have offered and undoubtedly iPod-inspired.
The Menu button doesn't take you straight to the top of the sequence of commands. Instead, it pops up a context-sensitive menu of options relevant to what's on the screen at that time. It's a nice idea spoiled by Creative's attempt to make the pop-up panel look like a desktop OS' right-click menu. Taking up a large portion of the bottom right of the screen, it looks kludgy - since it only appears for a moment, why not just fill the whole screen? But it does provide quick access to features like the ZM's list search system, its bookmark facility and on-the-fly playlist creation.
On top of the ZM you'll find the power key, a spring-loaded slider that's moved one way to turn the player on and off and the other to lock the controls. Alongside it is the earphone socket - without an obvious remote control connector - the USB 2.0 port and the tiny hole that's the ZM's microphone. Yes, it provides the obligatory (apparently) voice recording facility, activated through the Extras menu. If you're into using your MP3 player as a Dictaphone too, the ZM is as good as any, providing up to ten hours' continuous recording, though there's a convenient context-sensitive menu option, Split, to break the recording into manageable chunks while you're taping.