For those of us who don't think we spend enough time in front of a screen, Creative (CREAF) has introduced the Zen Vision W. This is the company's latest attempt to scale Mount St. iPod, and it has a certain appeal. Available in 30 GB ($299.99) and 60 GB ($399.99) models, the Vision W plays music, organizes photos and has an FM radio. But more than anything, it is a delivery vehicle for a really big small-screen. Its whopping 4.3-inch diagonal display produces bright, clear pictures, and blows away the iPod's 2.5-inch screen.
A preinstalled video of a tropical paradise looked fantastic, capturing the pinks of an island sunset and the greens of a lush but unthreatening jungle. I also liked the look of the few clips that I downloaded straight off the Comedy Central Web site. The three clips had a total run time of less than 10 minutes so I'll have to take the company's word that the battery supports four and a half hours of video (or 13 hours of music). In a feature that might excite some cinephiles, the Vision W can show movies in a miniature widescreen format.
For the most part, the Vision W was a pleasure to use. The transfer speed from computer to device was plenty fast, taking just a few seconds to move a three-minute clip. In addition to the comedy, I moved a Johnny Cash CD and a song I bought off the Yahoo! (YHOO) music store, which installs automatically with the Vision W software. For all the media I tried, the Vision W's interface was very easy to use. Too easy, really, to describe.
I had less luck trying to watch longer fare. The Vision W is supposed to be compatible with several types of video files but a Creative spokesman recommended using the device with Amazon's (AMZN) new Unbox video downloading service (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/7/06, "Unpacking Amazon's Unbox Video Service").
Unbox offers an appealing selection of movies and TV shows, but I couldn't get it working. At first I tried to install it on my work computer (where I had used the Yahoo music program), but the installation failed. Then I tried it on a computer in the IT department. The program installed, but it couldn't download the purchased videos. An Amazon technician, summoned especially for me, pinned the blame on an overzealous firewall.
After work, I tried it on a friend's computer, where the Unbox installation failed again. I didn't call Amazon this time. Maybe I just had bad luck, but consumers thinking about ponying up for a Vision W might want to test Unbox first.
Oh, yeah, and don't try this on a Mac. Neither the Zen Vision W nor the Unbox can talk to Apple (AAPL).
BIG BUT FRAGILE.
Nobody will fall in love with the Vision W's design. With a couple of small buttons on the side of a big screen, the Vision W resembles a shrunken TV. And like a larger TV, or anything with a screen taking up so much of its surface area, it looks and feels fragile. Even when it was in the box in my bag, I was afraid that it would scratch or crack. It didn't. But carrying it around in its faux-velvet pouch presents a dilemma. The Vision W is far too big for a pants pocket and there's no way I'd trust it in the bag without a thick layer of Styrofoam to protect it.
At a time when most other portable devices are getting smaller, the Vision W seems unwieldy. The 30 GB version that I tested weighs in at more than nine ounces, about twice what a 30 GB iPod weighs. The 60 GB Vision W tops 10 ounces. Though its storage capacity is ample, for most users it will be a supplement to, not a replacement for, their primary music player.
NOT A MUST-HAVE.
I've never owned an iPod, but it seems clear enough that its blockbuster success stems from the way Apple took an activity that could be awkward—listening to music on the move—and made it convenient, even elegant. While iPods have now tiptoed into video, the focus remains on music.
Strictly for video watching, the Vision W's big screen makes it a good option. But for most consumers, it seems unlikely that portable video would take priority over portable audio in a pocket device. Along with its competitors, the Vision W could also face a demand problem: How often are people in situations where they want to watch video but are reluctant to pull out their bigger-screened laptops? For me, the only answer is a crowded subway. What about you, non-subway riding readers?Music lovers have had more than 20 years since the advent of the Sony (SNE) Walkman to develop a taste for carrying their own soundtrack. On the other hand, personal video has nothing like that kind of track record. In the emerging field of portable video, the Vision W might be a pioneering, even a habit-forming device, but it won't be the one that hooks me.