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YClick to enlargeou may have seen Lawrence’s news post on the front page regarding Creative’s Zen Vision: M which was launched on 8th December. We got to play with one them at the obligatory after-launch drinks session and while we’re far from familiar with full gamut of options it seemed appropriate to share with you what we know.

Creative sold a fairly incredible 8 million MP3 players last year, second only to a certain fruit-themed company with a strangely cult-like “core” branding. Their only significant addition to the Zen brand this year thus far though was the Zen Micro Photo back in January and the Zen Vision in September.

Driven by their enigmatic founder, chairman and CEO Sim Wong Hoo, who built Creative off the back of a $6000 capital investment back in 1981, Creative now have their fingers in a variety of audio-related pies.

Click to enlargeSo what’s so special about the Zen Vision: M that it can bring the founder all the way from Singapore to face a gnarly selection of the British press?

Looking at pictures of the Zen Vision: M then I’d imagine one of the things that flashed through your mind was the word "iPod". I’ll forgive you this in much the same way that I’ll forgive you for calling a Dyson a Hoover, but there are differences are they're not entirely minor ones.

To his credit, Mr Hoo made it through the entire presentation only mentioning the iPod once, and even this was only used in relation to its size.

The Vision: M is what Hoo calls an “SLR” personal media player (or PMP), a camera analogy he uses to suggests that while not as tiny as some devices on the market, it offers features and performance simply not possible on anything smaller. Miniaturisation is great in some situations but do you really want to be watching movies on a 1” screen?

The Vision: M packs a vibrant 2.5” screen with 320x240 native resolution and is capable of handling 262,144 colours. Even more impressive is its ability to output video at 640x480 which on the plasma screens being used for the demonstrations looked genuinely tidy.

The bulk of the navigation tasks will be handled using the Vision:M’s 4-way touch pad, which in addition making general navigation tasks easier, becomes increasingly vital as you get into the array of PIM functionality. Features such as a calendar, task manager, contacts list, date and time function and more are only usable through the touch pad. I’m interested to see if Creative did the sensible thing and added an alarm and reminder function which I’ll verify when we get our hands on one properly. Synchronisation with Outlook is always a feature to watch for on any PIM and the Vision: M includes it in its list of functions.

Speaking of synchronization, this can be done in a variety of ways using the supplied Zen Media Explorer which can be made to autosync all your media files or if you prefer, used to manually drag and drop selected files. You can also just use good ole’ Windows Explorer if you prefer which, coupled with the Vision:M’s removable hard disk lets you use it as a portable storage device. The hard disk is also removable from the unit itself.

A feature I found strangely attractive is the ability to rate each of your tracks using an iTunes-esque star rating system. This can then be used to list all your favourites, least favourites and so on and with a little imagination you could also use the star system to subdivide certain genres, moods or tempos of songs for example.

Though not a new idea, the Vision:M also sports a programmable “My Shortcut” button which could, for example, be set to activate the FM record function. So you’re listening to the integrated FM radio, something you need to record comes on so you just hit a single button to activate recording. Let’s hope the next version has a small audio buffer so you don’t miss the beginning of that favourite….errm…political debate.

The radio comes with thirty presets available and full auto-scan and auto-store and there’s no additional hardware required to make use of it.

In addition to FM recording, the microphone can also be used for voice recording/memos and there’s even a graphical recording level meter displayed on the screen while you do it.

On the Video front the Vision:M handles a fairly broad range of formats with support for MPEG1, 2 and 4, WMV9, DivX4 and 5 and xVid. I’m certain you’ll also be thrilled with the DRM 10 support too, right? A far more meaningful security feature, is the ability to password protect your files, essential when storing files of a, shall we say, sensitive nature.

We were given slightly less detailed info on the image handling capabilities of the Vision:M, for instance I’m not aware if you can listen to music while viewing image files or even set them to display as a slide show, both of which I consider quite important. I do know that full image meta-data can be displayed (date, shutter speed, flash use etc.), and that a full 8 Megapixel image can be stored natively without being scaled. Naturally an 8MP image can’t be displayed on the Vision:M’s 320x240 screen, and even the 640x480 video-out doesn’t come close, but what it does give you is the ability to zoom right in to the image without it degrading it if it were resized. You can pan around the image once zoomed in much the same way as you can when viewing captured images on most digital cameras.

With a claimed battery life of 4 hours for video and 14 hours for sound, the Vision:M deserves serious consideration as a multi-talented travel companion and fully featured PIM. From initial handling, an important part of buying this type of device, it has to be said, my instincts much tell me that this is every bit as sexy to fondle as its biggest rival in this space. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be what counts any more.

Apple’s range of products are undoubtedly not be the best built, the best sounding, the best looking, the best performing or the cheapest on the market, not any more at least, so then why do they sell by the barrow load? Answers on a postcard please to Creative Labs...