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Creative Labs, manufacturer of the venerable Soundblaster series of PC soundcards and the Nomad portable MP3 player series, have released their latest “innovation” -- the Nomad Jukebox Zen for both Windows and Macintosh.

Obviously patterned after the Apple iPod, the Zen is a small portable hard drive MP3 player which currently has a 20 GB storage capacity (up to 8,000 WMA files, or 5,000 MP3 files). Unlike Apple’s player, however, the Zen allows for both Firewire (that’s IEEE 1394, or SB1394 as Creative calls their version of it) and USB connections. Since USB has been standard on most PC’s and Mac’s for several years, this is definitely a good thing for people left out of the Firewire revolution. In 2003, Creative released a USB 2.0 version of the player that is cheaper ($299 without a rebate). However, the USB 2.0 version does not support a Firewire connection.

The player includes a rechargeable lithium ion battery that boasts a 12-hour lifespan. Conveniently, the battery is rechargeable via USB port (though strangely, not by Firewire).

Unlike its Jukebox predecessors, the Zen is a mere 75.9 mm wide X 112.6 high X 24.5 mm deep. Its sleek aluminum case is reminiscent of the iPod’s, but lacks its competitor’s elegant design and is slightly larger. Though to its credit, it is much smaller than its Jukebox predecessors, and is much more manageable than the brick-like first generation of hard drive MP3 players.

Priced at $299 (after mail-in rebate), the Zen is a competitive compact player. It stores considerably more songs than the comparably priced 5GB iPod, but lacks some of the iPod’s innovative user interface features.

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