First Look Creative went ahead with its Zen Vision:M launch today, despite the player's appearance on the company's Japanese website yesterday. Cock-up or conspiracy? We'll leave that to others to decide, but we can say the Vision:M itself is no cock-up - it's an impressively engineered top-of-the-line music and movie player.
A glance at the spec. sheet shows it's functional superiority over the fifth-generation iPod, which Apple launched back in October. As the tide of the Apple-Creative "war" - Creative's word, not mine - has shown over the last few years, technological superiority doesn't always guarantee success. Creative says it shipped 8m MP3 players this year - Apple's tally is more than double that. Apple has the edge on storage capacity: it offers 30GB and 60GB iPods; the Vision:M only runs to 30GB.
Still, the Vision:M leads its arch-rival in so many other ways: its display can show 262,144 colours to the iPod's 65,536. Both are 2.5in in the diameter, and have a 320 x 240 resolution. Alas, I didn't have a video iPod with me to compare directly with the Vision:M, but the latter's screen is clear and crisp, with more vivid, richer colours. The mixture of pop videos and recorded TV shows on the device I played with looked just fine. Whether anyone really wants video on the move, particularly on such a small screen, is open to question, but if they do, their content will look good on the Vision:M. Not that it looks bad on the Apple product, mind...
The Vision:M feels well made, and solid in your hand. It's rather thicker than the video iPod, and at first the near-2cm depth seems overly large. But it doesn't feel large when you hold it. The back panel is smaller than the front, so the sides slope back, which diminishes the apparent thickness. The bottom of the player is host, as per the iPod, to a dock connector that can feed the player with power, audio and USB 2.0 connectivity through the optional dock. There's also a recessed reset button, something you really shouldn't need on a consumer electronics product.
On the left-hand side is a microphone, while the top is home to the 3.5mm earphone-jack socket and the dual-purpose power/hold slider. Slide it one way to turn the machine on and off, the other way to lock the controls.