The Zen 2/4/8/16/32GB and Zen X-Fi 16/32GB are nice & small. They support both MP3 and video files. The MP3 part of loading the devices is pretty simple. Just drag and drop/ copy and paste the files onto the device. The video portion is a bit trickier, still copy paste, but the format is far pickier. Not only do you have to have encoders but the sub version/media headers have to be just right.
Update 6 Jan. 2009 - I have recently gotten a Zen X-Fi 32. It works pretty much the same as the Zen 16 but with a few extra features, such as WiFi and chat capabilities. I was able to transfer all Zen 16 files to the Zen X-Fi 32 and all files played with no issues. I agree with the features and findings of the new Zen in the review at Anything But iPod. The X-Fi audio features cause the audio to muddy up and the SD slot still has poor integration. Files on the card are treated differently than those loaded directly into the onboard memory.
My old Sansa e140 had great integration of MP3s from the SD card within the device's library, though it did sometimes get confused as to the actual contents in the device library if too many files were deleted and added between sessions. Audio and video on the SD card are treated the same on both the new and old Zens, bookmarks cannot be set, resume memory is not present. Say play and then stop a media file from the SD card, stop playback and turn off device, then turn on device, the last played file is now reset to the zero time index). Nor is continuous album available. Play track one of an album residing on the SD card, when done, device stops, it does not treat as part of an album the way it would have been if it was played from the the device's internal memory.
The device is roughly the size of an Altoids tin, though about half the thickness. It's also about the size of my Sansa e140. It is also small enough that a business card holder is an excellent (and cheaper) alternative to the stands sold specifically for the device.
The device has mini-USB, SDHC expansion slot, and headphone jack. I have found that both my wall charger and car charger for my Motorola K1 cell phone work with the Zen. This is really nice as this means I can hook it into the car stereo and not run down the battery on long trips. This is great when I have loaded an entire season of a TV show on it for a long trip. The battery life isn't so good with video, so being able to recharge away from a computer is a wonderful thing.
Update 6 Jan. 2009 - The Zen X-Fi will charge using non-Creative Labs chargers, despite some of the online documentation which indicate it will not. However, the device may not indicate it is charging. If the device is on, but not playing anything, a green LED will pulse slowly on and off, much the same as the older Zen did with its blue LED when charging. The lightning bolt will not appear on the on-screen battery meter except when docked with a computer. Also, if the device is off, the older Zen's blue LED would remain on in addition to the battery meter on the screen to indicate the device is connected to the charger. When the Zen X-Fi goes to sleep, the LED also turns off and so does the charging process. During playback the new Zen may not appear to be charging as the green LED does not pulse on and off. Upon pausing the playback and going to the main menu where the battery meter is shown, the battery may show increased charge, provided it has been plugged in for 10-15 minutes. To test the battery charging process, I played several 1.5 hour movies back to back until the battery level redlined (very low battery) then connected to the Motorola USB charger, the device was then able to increase battery charge and then play another few hours videos without any other power assistance. Not once during this test did I connect to a computer or to a Creative Labs charger.
As Removable Device
The device's SD slot will act as a removable drive and SD reader. The device's internal memory is only accessible through the Creative Media Explorer or through the MTP Device Explorer.
Video Encoding Findings
In all cases I used the same master source file, a homemade recording of an episode of "Good Eats" recorded to MPEG-2 at 5.5 MBit 29.970 fps at DVD quality with a Hauppauge 250 PVR card. The file was commercial trimmed and then QuickStream fixed with VideoRedo. This yields approximately 23 minutes of footage and an 820 MB file.
In each conversion test I used the same basic settings:
Video: frame dimension 320x240; CBR bit rates between 512Kbps and 640kbps; and frame rates of 29.97, 25, or 30 fps
Audio: preserve original sample rate (if avail) or 44100; 192kbps; stereo
The product website lists these video formats: "MJPEG, WMV9 and (with transcoding - MPEG1 and 2, MPEG4-SP, DivX 4 and 5 and XviD)". There is even a tech article on the creative website. Of the formats listed, only WMV9, DivX, and XviD load. MJPEG does not load and the DivX/XviD formats load without transcoding. The package says that XviD will play as long as it is standard MPEG-4 with SP or ASP encoding. Go figure!
Other formats such as MJPEG and MPEG4-SP4 which are listed as supported formats will not load. I created several MJPEG AVIs and several MP4 files which played fine in either WMP or QuickTime. I may be missing a setting and therefore the files aren't quite right for the Zen. Files which end in something other than AVI or WMV will not even appear in the list when browsing the movie files.
Total Video Converter [link]
A friend had a copy of this app. It's advertised as supporting XviD and DivX, both of which are listed as a codec which the Zen supports. I attempted to encode the episode.
I first encoded using the MS AVI DivX encoding and then changed to the XviD encoding. I then placed the two files on the Zen. Guess what, neither played. I got an error from the Zen saying that the video format was not supported.
I used 512Kbps video rate & 30 fps and 192kbps audio rate with 44100 sample rate.
SUPER © [link]
Nice free tool. It's a little clunky but it works. I selected the DivX codec, 29.97fps, 528Kbps, and 44100 audio. Upon clicking the encode button, I was asked which DivX codec to use. On first run, I chose the "All DivX" option. On second run, I chose XviD. When both were finished, I dropped the files on the device. I was able to successfully play both files.
There was one problem though, after 8 only minutes, the audio began to have noticeable sync issues. By 18 minutes you were hearing one thing and seeing something else. I wondered if there was something wrong with the encoding, so I played them back on the computer. The audio matched up just fine – on several systems. Oh, well, at least it would play.
Another nice free tool. This one is a little more intuitive; however, it almost has too many features which, if you are not familiar with the codec in question, you could quickly go wrong. I selected the XviD encoding with AVI container with 640K bit rate, LAME MP3 encoding at CBR 192, and picture rate of 300000/1001 or 29.97 (on another test, I unchecked this field – I assume this means it would use the same frame rate as the source file).
Again, the files played, and again, audio sync issues appeared.
Windows Media Encoder 9 [link]
Free tool from Microsoft. Easy to use & the SDK provides a batcher app which you can customize. I used the same settings as Media Coder, but using the relevant MS WMP 9 codecs for CBR.
The files loaded just fine, though the device did gripe about trying to files outside of the supported parameters when I initially tried to copy the files onto the device. If you try to load an unsupported file, try using the "Storage Media" instance rather than the Media Explorer instance.
The audio was well in synch, however, the audio quality stunk. There was lots of background crackle and if there was high motion in the video, there was noticeable pause and stutter in the video. It was like watching TV over an antenna during a thunderstorm and the local stations satellite feed was getting occasional stutters along with a snowy picture. Funny thing is, playback on a PC was fine.
Well now I was in a quandary, accept audio drift or something with lots of snow and possible stutters in high activity areas in the playback. Neither seemed like a good compromise.
I did a lot of searching – a lot of people were saying to use 25 fps. So I went back into the MediaCoder and re-encoded. Guess what, the audio stayed in synch, even in a file which was nearly an hour an a half in length. There was a catch – this frame rate was nearly 5 fps shorter than the original. As a result, in higher motion scenes, there were noticeable video stutters where those frames were removed sometimes looking like those interviews where the video has been trimmed in the interest of time and the person is in a different pose without having seen the person transition to that pose. For you musicians out there, this would be like playing something in 6/8 with dotted quarter = 120 but you were losing the last eighth note of every measure. This was almost acceptable, but not quite.
I then got to thinking, 29.97 isn't actually the frame rate, but an average for 30 drop frames. Most of the time, the footage really was 30fps. The MPEG video I was using was encoded in drop frame, not a literal 29.97fps.
This is a little like when you were in grade school and learning fractions and 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3 = 3/3 which was 1, but in decimal 0.33333 + 0.33333 + 0.33333 = 0 99999 and so 0.99999= 1 – something that never made sense until I took calculus in HS and learned the limit theorem.
The videos drop frame was being converted as though it were a literal 29.97fps or the Zen was treating it as such. This means that the video was shorting itself 0.03 frames for every second of footage. Which by the end of the episode, the audio stream had a second or two more data than the video. It was really strange hearing a gun fire and a second later you'd see the smoke.
So I decided to try 30 fps on a lark since drop frame video was really 99.9% 30 fps, only periodically dropping a frame. Guess what, perfect synch in the audio and no weird jerks in the video. In the locations where the frame was dropped a copy of the adjacent frame was used (I assume). Also there will be fewer insertions for 30fps than the removals made when lowering to 25fps.
So ultimately I'm using MediaCoder with these settings:
Video: 320x240 (for widescreen I use 320x160), 30 fps, bitrate 640Kbps (depending on source, I sometimes use 512kbps), XviD encoding.
Audio: MP3 with LAME at 192bps (again, depending on source, I sometimes use 128bps) with original sample rate and stereo sound.
All tests in the grid below use 320x240 as the frame dimensions.
|Y||Y||Y||29.97||640K||WMV 9||192k||WMA 9.1|
|Y||Y||Y||30||640K||WMV 9||192k||WMA 9.1|
|Y||Y||Y||29.97||512K||WMV 9||128k||WMA 9.1|
|Y||Y||Y||30||512K||WMV 9||128k||WMA 9.1|
Creative Tech Support
It's a joke. I successfully installed the device on two XPSP2 systems which had WMP9. I went to another system which had WMP10. Software installed OK, but the hardware wizard kept popping up asking for the drivers & the device appeared under "Other Devices". So I wrote support to ask what was going wrong.
I told them I'd already done the permissions changes as outlined in their KB article. They wrote back saying my cable may be bad or I need to upgrade to the latest firmware and/or reformat the device. Well, the device shipped with the latest firmware and the USB cable was the same one I used on the systems that were OK. It was also the same cable I'd used successfully with other devices (Sansa e140 and Motorola K1) on the same computer.
Meanwhile, the device was attaching to 3 other systems just fine. It even attached to a Win2k3 server system which had WMP10. It worked as a native MTP Device as the Creative software would not install on the server platform. I even upgraded the XPSP2/WMP10 system to WMP11, didn't help. I backed out the upgrade, that didn't help either...
Finally, I heard back from Creative, they are again saying I should upgrade the firmware (my unit shipped with the latest version - which I had already told them), try another cable, and have I attached it to another system? They also included a long paragraph on what MTP means (useless with regard to solving the problem).
I then listed the steps the hardware wizard took me through when the device was plugged in and was detected and that it could not find the drivers and asked where the drivers were. They wrote back saying my device appeared to be defective since the system wouldn't recognize the device and I should submit for an RMA or exchange at place of purchase. Hello! It was working on other systems, I just needed the drivers. I never said it wouldn't recognize it, I said it couldn't locate the drivers, there's a big difference! So I asked to have a supervisor review. Next response was just asking to confirm I had followed the other techs' suggestions and again the suggestion that the device was defective.
I did try to update the User-Mode Driver Framework files as I had observed that this service was not starting as it was supposed to, however, the system warned me that a newer version was already installed. I then began pawing through system files in search of the drivers. It's supposed to be an "MPT Device" which means WMP provides (or should provide) the drivers. So I pulled up the WMP11 installer package, and extracted all the files using WinZip. I also found several other archives within, which I then extracted. Now, on the working systems, I noted that the drivers that were being loaded were named wpdusb.sys and WudfRd.sys.
Within the wmp11-windowsxp-x86-enu.exe package, extract umdf.exe and wmfdist11.exe. Then extract the contents of these two exe archives. Within wmfdist11, right click on the two INF files and select install (wpdmtphw.inf and wpdmtp.inf). Next go into the umdf folder and right-click install the INF found there as well (wudf_update.inf). When the computer asks for the driver folder, point it to <drive path>wmp11-windowsxp-x86-enu\wmfdist11\update (or wherever it is you extracted the files to). Make sure the add hardware wizard uses this as its search path. After a few moments after clicking next, it should begin copying "MTP Device" drivers and any yellow icon overlays of the portable device should go away.
A similar procedure under WMP10 may also work as the extracted files contain a wpdmtp.inf file. All WMP10 archive files reside at the same level; there are no sub-archives that need to be extracted to obtain the drivers. This is not that far off from what another user describes doing.
On yet another system, I attempted to just cut straight to WMP11 after a fresh install of XP SP2 on a clean hard drive. After getting the hardware drivers for existing hardware loaded, I upgraded from the stock WMP9 to WMP11. I then installed the Creative software. The device would detect just fine, however, I kept getting "This device cannot start. (Code 10)" . I went through permissioning the registry ENUM keys. No dice. The computer kept saying "Found New Hardware MTP Device" and the device manager kept refreshing. Un-installing, rebooting, and re-attaching the device did no good. I even went out and bought a 2 port USB 2.0 PCI card since this was an older system with only 2 USB 1.1 ports. It sounds a lot like the grief this user, this user, this user (creative device), this user, and this user (sansa device) were experiencing. After 2 days, I stumbled across a Zune post, another MTP MP3 device. The resolution was to add the "LOCAL SERVICE" to the administrators group of the computer, while it was intended as a Vista fix, it worked for my WinXP SP2 system. As soon as I made the change, the device immediately docked. Go figure!
It looks like there aren't problems with the devices themselves, but issues with the driver install that goes with WMP where the drivers get funny or the permission needs may vary from one system to another. When troubleshooting the two systems that had issues, I found hundreds of posts for users of many different makes of MTP devices all describing the same issues.
I didn't have to touch security on the other WMP9 systems and they are part of the same domain as the one that had to have the "LOCAL SERVICE" account added to the administrators group. On each of the WMP9 systems, I was logged in as an admin for the local box. The only one that had issues was the one where I tried to upgrade to WMP11 prior to installing the Creative software and the device was stuck in continual attempts to install. Subsequent rollbacks and uninstalls did not get the system all the way back to a clean WMP9 system.
I think MS needs to go back to the drawing board, or at least release an MTP device diagnostic tool which will re-register the drivers and/or patch security issues rather than telling users to go muck in the registry. The manufacturers should push for this, too, though they probably won't. They are telling users to unnecessarily send working devices in for RMAs which they will be charging users for since the device is not malfunctioning, but that the user's computer has mucked up drivers.
Update 6 Jan. 2009 - I have been able to connect both versions of the Zen without having to install any Creative Labs software on systems which are running Vista (because WMP11 is part of the OS) and XP SP3 systems with WMP11 installed. Just plug in the device and the computer will detect an "MTP Device" and the drivers will automatically install.