Creative Zen Micro vs. Apple iPod Mini

Creative Labs wants its Zen Micro player to be the PlaysForSure compatible alternative to the iPod Mini. The Zen Micro comes in numerous color choices, it's smaller than the iPod Mini, the battery offers 12 hours of playback and easily swaps out with a spare. Built-in microphone and FM radio features mean no pricey upgrades to add to the cost of the unit. With 4GB, 5GB and 6GB sizes all priced competitively with the iPod Mini, it would seem the Zen Micro is a better alternative. After living with my Zen Micro since November, progressing through 3 firmware updates to the one released just after the Super Bowl, I've got some strong opinions about the good and bad points of owning a Zen Micro.

At first blush any flavor of Zen Micro looks like a winner over the iPod Mini in the features department. Both come in multiple drive sizes at comparable price points. The iPod Mini is available in a 4GB version for $199 or 6GB for $249. The Creative Zen Micro has three sizes: 4GB for $199, 5GB for $229 and 6GB for $249. The 5GB model was the original Micro and now looks strangely positioned between the two other models. Who wouldn't spend the extra $20 for 20% more space? Obviously Creative introduced the 4GB and 6GB models to make it easier for buyers to compare these two products more directly.

Here's a side by side comparison of features to show how closely they match up:

FeatureiPod MiniZen Micro
Available Colors410
Sync ConnectionUSB/FireWireUSB
FM TunerNoYes
Battery Life1812
Battery ReplacementNoYes
Charge Time4hrs.4-5hrs.
Included AccessoriesBelt Clip, USB cable, headphonesUSB cable, headphones

User Experience

The interface on the iPod mini is the same scrolling wheel seen on other versions of the iPod. While I personally found the generation 2 version (the controls that came after the mechanical version in the original and before the current click wheel with simulated mechanics) of the interface to be way too touchy, it's a reliable navigation experience. Touchy doesn't begin to describe my experience with the Zen Micro. The controls jump all over the place, even after modifying the sensitivity level. Attempting to be more careful results in an even more frustrating experience. Maybe my skin type doesn't react well to touch sensitive devices, because the 2rd generation iPod controls seem to react poorly when I use them to (just not as poorly). I'm giving the iPod mini the win here.

Battery Life

The iPod mini beats the Zen Micro in battery life, but the extra money you might spend on an FM tuner and/or microphone attachment for your iPod mini could go toward a backup battery with an additional 12 hours of battery life. This is one of the few times Apple gets the upper hand in battery life. With an already longer life spec'd for the battery, combined with Creative's notorious problem with battery drain while the Zen Micro sits idle, the iPod mini is a clear winner on battery life from where I sit. The firmware upgrades to the Zen Micro seemed to slightly improve phantom battery drain but a few days without use still results in a dead Micro. I'm not an isolated case here either. I know a handful of other people with similar experiences using Creative products. The 4GB and 6GB versions of the Micro may have solved this problem, but at the moment, the 5GB version only stays reliably charged if the battery is removed during low usage times or if docked continuously when not in use. 12 or 18 hours wouldn't really matter if the Zen Micro didn't mysteriously lose battery power. The iPod mini gets the win in battery life.

Audio Recording

If voice recording is important to you, the Zen Micro come with a built-in microphone. In theory, the microphone will record until the drive fills up or the battery dies, whichever comes first. The quality is not bad in a quiet room, but predictably poor in a loud room. The 16kHz mono WAV files are definitely acceptable for recording spoken word. The iPod mini doesn't come with a microphone but plenty of 3rd party options offer voice recording, ranging in price from $20-60. The recorders barely produce passable audio, recording 8kHz mono which is good enough for a voice memo, but not acceptable for anything beyond that. There is a known hack for installing linux on an iPod and improving the sound quality, but I'm sure it voids the warranty and is certainly more work than it's worth. The Zen Micro wins here.

FM Tuner

Like audio recording, tuning in FM radio on an iPod mini requires an optional component. In some ways, this feature is one that I don't really care about, but can be nice on occasion, especially if you want a news update or sports scores while you're out and about. Creative includes this feature in the Zen Micro, giving it the edge in this particular feature area.

Color Choices

While I personally don't find any of the color choices for iPod mini or Creative Zen Micro to be exciting, the number of people I've seen with colored players and decorative face plates on their phones certainly suggests color matters. iPod mini comes in 4 colors, the Zen Micro offers 10 different options. Presumably the Zen Micro gets the win here because more is better.

Music Store Options

Apple makes it very clear that only one music store is compatible with the entire iPod line. Of course, eMusic and Amazon Music both offer DRM-free tracks compatible with any device capable of playing an MP3, but the selection is vastly different than the stores offering major label offerings desired by most of the portable music player market. Having numerous stores to choose from for the Zen Micro doesn't really matter from where I sit. Consumer choice is good, but choosing between 2 stores or 100 stores selling the same thing doesn't really matter. The thing that gives any of the PlaysForSure devices an edge in my book is the opportunity to subscribe to a service like Napster and take any song with in the library with me. Yes, if I stop paying for the service, I don't have access to the song anymore, but so what? The option to download every new album released on any given Tuesday and listen to them in their entirety for $15/month beats $0.99 tracks in my book. I listen to a ton of music, but most of it cycles through my consciousness for a few weeks and then disappears because it wasn't that great. If I really like an artist, I'll spend money and buy the album anyway. The $15/month is a sampler pack that saves me a ton of money because I get a smorgasbord of choices instead of having to take my chances on liking something. The 'but you don't own it' argument doesn't work for me because if you download a song and accidentally delete it, you're out the money anyway. $15/month gets you the ultimate mainstream music collection with a backup solution to boot. I'm giving the win here to the Zen Micro only because stores like Napster offer a library of over a million songs playable on the Micro for only $15/month.

Bottom line, either player has tradeoffs. If you want a portable music player with a rock-solid user interface the iPod mini is the winner. If you want a music player that records audio, plays FM radio and is compatible with a massive subscription music library at the price of a more cumbersome user interface, the Creative Zen Micro wins.