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.
The front of the device is dominated the display, which stretches almost to the edge of the faceplate. if you're wondering what the line across the middle of the player is, it's a groove that separates the top half of the faceplate from the bottom, which is all control - essentially it's a singe, moving plate that sits above the four key switches. Moving clockwise from the top-left, they are Favourite, Pause/Play, Contextual Menu, and Return, the latter taking you one step back up the familiar hierarchical menu structure. Menus are selected by tapping the central, vertical touchpad. I still prefer Apple's clickwheel - whatever sensitivity setting I applied to the Vision:M's touchpad, I couldn't quickly get to and select the option I wanted - you either overshoot or run just short of the menu option you want. By contrast, the clickwheel feels just right.
Pushing the buttons feels better, but the balance isn't quite right, and it feels slightly uncomfortable. You have to push harder than you expect, and you feel the player's going to tip over the top of your fingers and out of your hand. It's not a design flaw - you'll get used to it, I think - but it makes the player feel odd at first.
The touchpad now has a horizontal action, which works better. It's used to fast-forward or rewind through songs and videos, and makes for a more intuitive experience than past, vertical movement-only touchpads have offered.
The menus look gorgeous, and Creative has used colour sensibly, bringing the UI alive and distinguishing it from the look of the iPod's colour-scheme without going for gross out. The player supports multiple colour schemes, each tuned to the different body colours Creative will ship the device in: white, black, pink, green and blue.
Music sounds as good as it ever did on a Creative player, and album selection is enhanced with an album art view, allowing you to choose what you listen to visually. Playing a video displays a play progress bar, but this quickly fades away, popping back when you press a key. You can tweak the sound with a range of equaliser pre-sets, and there's a bass-boost option, too. A good range of codecs are included: WMA, MP3 and WAV on the audio side, MPEG1,2 and 4-SP, WMV9, Motion-JPEG, DivX 4 and 5, and XviD on the video side, but no H.264, apparently.
In addition to music and video playback, the Vision:M lets you transfer and view photos too, sending them over at full size - the limit's eight megapixels - and allowing you to view them scaled to fit the display or to pan around the picture, looking at the detail. Neatly, Creative has added a tiny on-screen guide frame in the bottom-left of the display to help you navigate around the picture, and it does help. There's the usual slideshow capability, backed with audio, and you can password-protect content folders, allowign you to hide your mobile pr0n away from prying eyes...
The Vision:M has an FM tuner on board, and broadcasts can be recorded to MP3 - with both radio and voice recording, the screen shows a handy level meter, though there's apparently no way to adjust the gain. There are 32 station pre-sets, with an autotune facility that populates them with the 30 strongest stations. The player even displays the signal strength with a mobile phone-style icon. The Vision:M's UI features a neat pop-up virtual QWERTY keypad, allowing you to use the touchpad to change the names of stations - and, indeed, rename recording files.
Like the Zen Micro, the Vision:M will synchronise with Microsoft Outlook so you can take your address book and diary with you. The new machine can also operate as an external hard drive, but again Creative forces you to decide how much space you want to allow for data - you can't simply connect it and use whatever space is available. The player does support dragging and dropping media, but through Windows' Media Transport Protocol (MTP), it seems, rather than USB Mass Storage, though without a PC handy I wasn't able to verify this.
Content can also be transferred using Windows Media Player 10 and Creative's own Media Explorer app, new with the Vision:M.
Curiously, Creative has dropped the removable battery facility of earlier players. We didn't have our hands on the machine long enough to verify the company's play-duration claims, which are four hours for video and 14 hours for music.
On the basis of what I've seen today, the Vision:M is clearly Creative's best video-enabled device yet, and certainly its best high-end music player. It doesn't come cheap, but unlike the iPod, includes a power adaptor and offers more features, in particular a radio. It supports a broader array of video formats, and it doesn't impose a potentially lengthy photo reformatting process on you when you want to copy over pictures - which, like the videos, look great on the 262,000-colour display.
I'm less struck by the Vision:M's looks, though Creative's designs continue to improve. It still feels like a me-too iPod, and I suspect plenty of punters will prefer the genuine icon rather than the immitation. And Apple continues to lead the field on control mechanisms - the clickwheel is just so much easier to use than the Vision:M's buttons-and-touchpad combination.
I like the Vision:M, and while it's probably not going to knock Apple off the top of the MP3 player pile, it's certainly a very worthy competitor to the video iPod.