Portable Audio: Creative Falters as Apple Surges

In November 2001, I got one of the first Apple Computer iPod devices--a 5GB model with the old-style "moving-parts" scroll wheel--and I love it. My iPod has accompanied me on every business trip since then and has traveled with me across the world. I also take it in the car on long trips (with a cassette adapter) and use it on the treadmill on those rare occasions when I work out. From what I can tell, the iPod is as close to perfect as technology can get.

Since I got my iPod, however, times have changed. Apple has released newer, larger-capacity models and added Windows compatibility (although I use and recommend Mediafour's excellent XPlay shareware application to use the iPod with Windows). And earlier this year, the company unveiled the iPod 3G line, devices that feature a new, smaller, rounder form factor and a no-moving-parts scroll wheel. The new iPods make my model--which was the definition of excellent high-tech design when Apple released it--look big, blocky, and old-fashioned by comparison. More alarming, the 5GB hard disk in my device is now woefully inadequate. My music library occupies more than 18GB of space, and I started spending a lot of time deleting music from my iPod when I wanted to add new tracks. I needed to make a change.

Surveying the field in mid-2003, the hard disk-based portable digital-audio market came down to two major players: Apple and Creative Labs. At the time, iPods came in 30GB, 15GB, and 10GB sizes, and the two upper-end models included the improved ear-bud headphones, wired remote control, and a carrying case with a belt clip that I purchased separately for my iPod. They also included a new dock, which lets users switch between FireWire (for Apple Macintoshes) and USB 2.0 (for Windows) connectivity (no more separate models for each system). Since then, Apple has updated the iPod line to 40GB, 20GB, and 10GB models. As before, however, the weak link is cost: The Apple devices are expensive, coming in at $500, $400, and $300, respectively.

Despite the iPod's popularity, I should note that Creative entered the hard disk-based portable audio market first with a large device it called the NOMAD Jukebox. Since then, Creative has released a variety of NOMAD Jukebox devices, and in late July, the company announced the impending availability of what looked like an iPod-killer, the NOMAD Jukebox Zen NX, which offers 30GB of storage for just $300 (or 20GB for $250), compatibility with the superior Windows Media Audio (WMA) format (the iPod supports only MP3 and the proprietary Advanced Audio Coding--AAC--and Audible.com's audio book formats), and USB 2.0 connectivity. I ordered one immediately.

After an interminable wait and some snitty email replies from Creative's support department, my Zen NX arrived about the delay. And, sadly, the disappointment began the second I opened the box. The Zen NX is much larger than my iPod, which is larger than the iPod 3G models, and sports a confusing array of buttons--nine in all--on the outside edges of the device as well as three ports on the top. The iPod doesn't have any buttons on the sides and just one hold button and two ports on its top. But I figured I could get used to the design, so I set about charging the device and examining the software that came with the system.

The iPod uses Apple's excellent iTunes software to manage and transfer music, although Windows users are temporarily stuck with the lackluster MUSICMATCH Jukebox software (an iTunes version for Windows is in the works). So for the Zen NX, I recommend and use XPlay, which lets you access the iPod directly from the Windows shell or through Microsoft's decent Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 software. By comparison, Creative's software is a joke, so enterprising third parties, such as Red Chair Software with its Notmad Explorer software, have released shareware applications that make using Creative's devices less painful. Microsoft also has a free utility called Microsoft Plus! Portable Audio Devices (it's also sold as part of Plus! Digital Media Edition) that works, although this application is difficult to use with devices as capacious as the Zen MX.

After I figured out the software, I started copying my music library to the device and I immediately ran into problems. (I've never had problems transferring music with the iPod.) The Zen NX apparently stores all its files in a flat folder, so if any filename duplicates exist, the software displays an error message. I'm not sure how the iPod handles file layout, but I'm positive you'd never see such an error on the device. Here's an example: I name my media files with an \[artist name\]--\[track number\]--\[song title\] format. Consider a music group with a song that's track one on both a typical album and a greatest-hits album. Such a song generates an error message on the Zen NX, and your only option is not to copy the second instance of the file or overwrite the first instance; in either case, one of the albums will be incomplete on the device. That solution is ridiculous and, at the very least, Creative Labs should give you the option of renaming the offending file on the fly or even do it for you transparently. Why would I care how the files are named on the device?

To be fair, I could live with these problems. But the Zen NX also suffers from a variety of other concerns. You use the side-mounted scroll wheel to both navigate and select items on the device's onscreen UI, but the wheel is difficult to press and because it's made of cheap plastic, it's destined for failure. The device's software, in sharp contrast to the iPod's, is confusing and convoluted. On a recent business trip, I struggled for an hour trying to get the device to simply shuffle all the songs by a particular group. I then handed it to Keith Furman, a digital-media expert; he couldn't figure it out, either, and gave up in disgust (not surprisingly, Keith owns a 20GB iPod). On the iPod, completing such a task is simple, straightforward, and obvious, so much so that my wife, who had never even picked up the iPod before, figured it out in just minutes when I recently asked her to try it. The Zen NX's software is so bad that it's almost laughable: It has pop-up menus on top of pop-up menus, and it won't show the Now Playing view unless you explicitly select it in the menu.

On that trip, I decided that the Zen NX was going back to Creative, thanks to the company's 30-day, no-questions-asked return policy. But that decision left me with my previous problem: The high-end iPods were too expensive for my tastes, but I wanted something small, portable, and with a higher capacity than the 5GB iPod I was using. Then Apple came to the rescue by releasing new iPod models, bumping the 30GB and 15GB models to 40GB and 20GB, respectively. So I headed over to the Special Deals section of Apple's online store and ordered a suddenly obsolete, refurbished 30GB model for just $380--$120 less than the cost of a new device a week earlier and $80 more than the unbelievably unsatisfactory Zen NX. I thought that price difference was worthwhile, although I could see that even that price could be a bit much for many people. I travel frequently, however, and have used and abused my original iPod in ways I suspect most owners wouldn't, and the device has always worked--and worked well. I suspect and hope that the new version will work just as well. Ultimately, I'm sorry I ever strayed.

Apple's iPod

Creative's NOMAD Jukebox Zen NX

Mediafour's XPlay

Red Chair Software's Notmad Explorer

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.