With its checkered, multihued design, Creative Zen's Mozaic looks pretty slick. Regrettably, this flash-based media player (which is available in black, gray, or pink) is stronger on style than on substance. I found its buttons unintuitive and its menus needlessly complicated.
I tested a 2GB Mozaic ($60); Creative also offers 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB versions that cost $80, $100, and $150, respectively.
The player connects to your PC via an included USB cord, which doubles as the charger; the unit doesn't provide a dedicated charger. I found setup to be fairly easy, though the Creative Centrale software (which the company's new Zen X-Fi MP3 player uses, too) slowed my PC down noticeably--and it automatically and unnecessarily uploaded every item from my Windows Media Player library. Centrale's interface is easy to adapt to, though, and it includes a couple of nice settings; I especially liked the 'One Hour of Random Music' option on the DJ panel and the icon to access Amazon.com downloads.
The Mosaic plays back MP3, WMA, and WAV audio files. Features include an FM radio, an audio recorder, an external speaker, and support for Audible 4 audio book files.
Still, none of these features made as big an impression as I had expected. For example, the external speaker is located on the back of the Mozaic, which makes it difficult to hear when you're looking at the screen. When I cranked the sound up to its top volume, it was impressively loud, but vocals exhibited a tinny quality. Altering the audio settings helped tremendously; but even so, the sound remained a bit fuzzy.
In our PC World Test Center tests, the Zen's audio quality was rated very good. In particular, the sound had very low distortion and an excellent signal-to-noise ratio, meaning that the player introduced very little hiss or hum into its audio. Its frequency response--the deviation between a player's lowest- and highest-level tones across the audible frequency range--was uneven, however.
The player wasn't always as easy to use as it should have been. The Mozaic's buttons were occasionally unresponsive, requiring me to push them multiple times, and a slight lag in the response time made searching through the menus aggravating. The music menu includes an alphabet along the right side of the screen so you can jump to a particular letter. But I often had to flip through several menu screens simply to get a song to play.
The Mozaic can display images in JPEG, BMP, GIF, PNG and TIFF formats. All of the pictures that I looked at were crisp and clear, and the player includes some fun slide-show options. Using the Mozaic's video features wasn't as enjoyable, though. All videos must be transcoded with the bundled Creative Centrale software before they can be played on the Mozaic, which isn't difficult so much as it is be time-consuming. The videos I played were sharp and crisp, but they only play horizontally-which means you have to turn the player on its side to view a video (even though the buttons remain in the vertical setting, which feels awkward).
The Mosaic's support for Audible audio books is a strength--if you're already a fan and user of Audible. If you're not, you may not appreciate the software (and the advertisement for a free audiobook) being added to your PC when you install the Creative Centrale software. In addition, I couldn't get the FM radio to play any of the stations I tried to set it to, and I had to figure out the audio recorder through trial-and-error because no instructions were provided. (I also searched Creative's Web site for the user's manual, but came up empty-handed there as well.)
Overall, the Mozaic is a solid offering at a good price, but you may have to do some fiddling to get its features to operate smoothly.