Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra

27 May 2004

Product: MP3 Player
Price: €399

“Oh God! Not another damned MP3 player…” were the thoughts that screamed through my anguished mind when I discovered that I was the person charged with reviewing the Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra from Creative Labs. Okay, there’re worse jobs in the world and the barely disguised jealousy on the face of one of my colleagues (you know who you are) convinced me to plod on – I haven’t looked back since.

My reluctance for reviewing music players is born out of my experiences of some of the first MP3 players to come on the market. An aficionado of digital music and an early convert to Napster 1.0, the temptation to download or rip music and then throw it onto a digital device was overwhelming. Unfortunately, what seemed like a lesson in thrift soon degenerated into a battle of patience after I’d torn open the packaging, uploaded the software and connected the device to my PC.

My first device was one of the early MP3 player phones that at most contained about three or four songs at a time and took about 20 minutes to transfer a song (if it worked). Barely contained enthusiasm flowed neatly into barely concealed rage. Thankfully, the Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra that I spent most of last week playing with burst many bubbles and has reprieved the reputation of digital music players in my jaundiced eyes.

First of all, with 40Gb of hard disk space, this baby can hold something like 10,000 songs (apart from Larry Gogan, who the hell would have so many songs?). Alternatively, it also doubles up as an external hard drive for storing photos, videos and other data files. Also available in 30Gb and 60Gb flavours, the Zen is meant to be Creative Labs’ answer to Apple’s iPod.

The device features a removable high capacity Li-ion battery that allows up to 14 hours of playback, and because its removable (just like a mobile phone battery) it should allow Creative Labs to sidestep some of the legal headaches that have dogged Apple over a failure to make installing and removing batteries simple.

Apart from a mild likeness to the iPod in terms of looking like an extremely large packet of cigarettes, it is there that the similarities end. Unlike the iPod, the Zen device doesn’t feature the soft featured, red scrolling mechanism that designers wax lyrical about. It does, however, come with a high resolution backlit LCD screen. Controlling the device is quite simple.

The device also managed to kill any reservations that I had about transferring music. Proprietary software for managing playlists and ripping music from CDs was loaded onto my PC in seconds. The Zen’s USB2.0 cable is supposed to be capable of loading a song a second – it was actually a few seconds, but it worked well and in no time I had transferred several albums worth of material onto the device and was humming along to everything from The Kinks to Badly Drawn Boy.

And, in a very strange way, the device managed to do in one afternoon what my girlfriend has been trying to do for months: convert me to classical music. Someone at Creative Labs had put the definitive guide to classical music onto the device – everything from Beethoven, Bizet and Chopin to Debussy, Haydn and Mozart – and, in the absence of the usual fare, an educational afternoon in the office was had while working away to the precise rhythms of the Beijing Central Philharmonic Orchestra.

The 40Gb Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra device is available in Ireland under an exclusive agreement with Dixons, while a 30Gb device can be bought at Compustore. At €399 including Vat, the 40Gb Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra is on average 30pc cheaper than its iPod equivalent, according to Creative Labs; but I’m sure Apple would have something to say about that.

By John Kennedy