For Geeks on the Go

Mobility rules! From a GPS that includes directory assistance and Yellow Pages to a multifunction media player, you won't want to leave home without these goodies.

Ratings (out of 5): Coolness: 4; Price: 3

Why settle for playing only music on a portable device? Creative's new Zen Portable Media Center lets you store and play back pictures, movies, recorded television shows and music. With its 3.8-inch color LCD screen, removable battery and 20 GB of storage, the Zen Media Center does a good job transporting all those important files you need while on the road.

The Zen ships with a USB transfer cable, headphones, an AC adapter, an audio/video output cable and a carrying case that also doubles as a stand. It runs Microsoft's Media Player for Mobile Devices and can auto-synchronize with Windows Media Player 10.

I hooked the Zen up to my PC for the first time and Windows automatically detected the device and installed the necessary drivers. The player then showed up in Windows Explorer as a drive, complete with a folder for data storage. I could synchronize files over Windows Explorer or use Windows Media Player 10. Both transfers are performed using the USB 2.0 interface. And while the device is connected to the USB port, the replaceable battery on the Zen charges.

Navigation on the Zen is easy and well-thought-out. Anyone who has used one of the newer handheld video games will adapt to the controls within minutes. The green Windows button in the upper left corner opens the navigation menus and four "preset" buttons let you jump directly to a specific file or play list.

The Zen supports a large range of audio and video formats, including JPG, MP3, ASF, WMA, MPEG1, MPEG2, MPG, AVI, WAV and AU--though I did miss being able to upload additional codecs to the player as they become available, as is possible with iRiver America's PMP-120 (reviewed at ID# 1524f3). Video playback on the Zen is smooth and jitter free, even when the unit's hard drive is caching information when first opening a file. You can assign a soundtrack to a group of pictures while viewing them. This would make a useful addition to a PowerPoint presentation for sales personnel. Video playback can be done on the built-in screen or by using the included audio/video cable to attach the Zen to any device that accepts RCA inputs.

The Zen Media Center does have a few flaws, however. The single built-in speaker's volume is very soft, even at full tilt. Audio was much better after switching to the included headphones, and there is also an A/V output jack for connecting to a stereo system. Other small irritations: The USB connector is not accessible when the unit is in its case, and the case doesn't have any kind of clips or loops for securing the player.

Overall, the Zen is intuitive and a solid performer. It may be a bit hard to justify to your boss, but for the frequent traveler it sure beats an in-flight movie.

Creative Zen Portable Media Center, $499.99. Creative Technology Ltd., (405) 742-6655.

--Eric Fleming

Editor's Choice
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Terry White, Associate Chief Analyst, Omdia
John Abel, Technical Director, Google Cloud
Richard Pallardy, Freelance Writer
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Pam Baker, Contributing Writer