Zen Sleek MP3 player

14 Jul 2005

Product: MP3 player
Price: €288
When Apple threw down the gauntlet for personal music systems with the iPod, few companies picked it up with as much enthusiasm as Creative Labs. A company that has happily traded on sound cards and computer peripherals saw an opportunity to grab a slice of the burgeoning gadget market and grabbed it with both hands, clocking up some two million sales of its MP3 players in the quarter before
last Christmas.

The latest addition to its Zen range unashamedly takes its lead from Apple. The white and aluminium livery of the Sleek (pictured) echoes the design ethos that has played its part in podmania, but it lacks the aesthetic style of Apple. The controls, however, offer a pleasing variant on the touch-sensitive iPod click-wheel. Here we have a vertical touch pad for speedy scrolling that becomes the volume control when the music starts. Very effective and intuitive.

The rest of the navigation keys are tidily positioned around the touch pad and below the LCD. Power and a sliding lock switch — to avoid accidentally activating buttons when the music starts — are located on the top side next to the headphone jack. The USB/mains port is on the bottom edge. Bundled software is easy to install offering the complete ‘rip and manage’ functionality on your desktop or simply the tools to copy music on to the Sleek if you’d prefer to stick with other software.

So much for the bread and butter, what about the meat? The Sleek steals a lead over similarly priced competitors with an impressive 20GB of storage. This equates to 10,000 tunes based on four-minute songs at 64Kbps in WMA or 128Kbps in MP3. Creative’s generosity extends further, bundling an FM radio tuner with 32 presets and a built-in mic.

Less valuable extras include nine equalisation options. Basically you get more bass for ‘disco’, more treble for ‘acoustic’ and on it goes through a range of spurious settings. Worse still you can wreak havoc with a virtual graphic equaliser. My top tip is to stay well clear. When these options are switched off the audio performance is bright and breezy, pin sharp at the top and nicely rounded at the bottom. Genuinely useful is a range of song management functions. Playlists and random modes are all present and correct.

With its 20GB hard disk and FM radio, Sleek represents excellent value for anyone shopping for a state-of-the-art personal music player. If you prefer to pay a premium for designer chic, you better get back to your iPod.

By Ian Campbell