Creative ZiiO 7 review

We’re at a junction in Android tablets, with last year’s announcements coming to market, just we we’re getting excited about the next influx of tablets. The Creative ZiiO 7 is a little late to the party, typical of the types of device we saw towards the end of 2010, offering basic Android functionality in a medium-sized device, but for a tempting price.

The darling of 2010’s Android tablet campaign was the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which, whilst stable and offering the full android experience, was essentially a giant phone. It has been heavily discounted since launch, but the next iteration of Android 3.0 tablets are looking even more expensive, with the Motorola Xoom purported to have a $700 asking price - that’s more than the iPad, a lot more.

Whilst the high-end battles it out, Creative are looking to join the fray with what is essentially a large format media player. Viewed as such (along with the likes of the Advent Vega, the Archos internet tablets and others besides), the ZiiO 7 fares rather well. Expect it to perform most of the tasks that your average Android smartphone will offer and you’ll be disappointed - straight out of the box, at least.

The 7-inch resistive display offers an 800 x 480 pixel resolution, the same as you’ll get on most phones with screen about half the size. The result is a pixel density of 133ppi, so it isn’t sharp. Being a resistive display means it has the pliable surface over the top which soon becomes smeary and isn’t as precise as it perhaps needs to be, but the touch response is good. There is a stylus bundled in the box, which we’re pleased to say makes interaction both faster and more accurate, but at 7-inches, we would rather use our fingers. Perhaps the resistive display was used to hit the affordable £199 price point: it lacks the wow factor, but sticking to the media player remit it is just about acceptable, accepting rather limited viewing angles and rather lacklustre colours.

In the hand the ZiiO 7 feels a little like an ebook reader, both because of the size (207.4 x 133 x 13.7mm) and the plastics used, and particularly when you slip it into the leather accessory case (pictured). The gentle tapering away from the edge of the screen is actually comfortable to grip and the white finish is different from the normal blacks. It is solid enough and although it is basic in construction, at this price point that’s fine with us.

Around the body of the ZiiO 7 you’ll find a microSD card slot that will let you expand the internal memory by another 32GB. The ZiiO 7 comes with internal memory options of 8GB or 16GB, the larger capacity costing you an additional £20 as an online exclusive, so might be worth the punt. We’ve also seen Creative launch and discount fairly quickly in the past, so these prices may come down further. 

On the bottom is a DC input for charging the tablet, a top Mini-USB connection offering a connection to your PC so you can add content, along with a mini HDMI meaning you can pipe-out your content on to a larger display. There is a built-in mic and 3.5mm headphone jack, with a volume rocker on the side.

Power the ZiiO 7 on and you are greeted with a lightly customised Android 2.1 interface. Creative have confirmed to us that Android 2.2 is coming and we’re disappointed to see the ZiiO 7 launch without this update, as at the official launch of the tablet a Creative agent gave us a cast iron guarantee that 2.2 would also bring with it the Android Market. 

As such, you’ll find that the Creative ZiiO 7 is stripped of much of the Android convenience you’ll find in a phone: there is no account syncing, meaning no Gmail (although you do get an email client), contacts or calendars from Google, there is no YouTube app, no Google Maps and critically no Android Market. This is a common move, we’ve criticised it before and it is something you have to be aware of if you intend to buy a cheaper Android tablet. 

We took to the Archos 101 Internet Tablet slightly better because it was so easy to step around this limitation and we know that the likes of the Advent Vega was well received because it offered the potential to mod it to make a powerful tablet. With the Creative ZiiO 7 still being new, you might find it harder to get started and whilst we acknowledge that some will buy this type of device with the intention of modding it, we have to approach it in its out-of-the-box state.

Creative has customised the media experience with their own suite of applications: ZiiMusic, ZiiVideo,  ZiiPhotos, ZiiExplorer, ZiiAcademy, ZiiMicrophone, ZiiStore and ZiiSettings. Ok, they didn’t change the name of settings but you get the point. There is also ZiiO Space.

ZiiO Space is essentially a link to an online portal for the ZiiO line (you can take a look yourself here). This offers some tips and links to applications you can download directly from freewarelovers.com, however you have to be signed into your Creative device to access the microsite.

Confusingly there is also the ZiiStore which also offers a spattering of apps, and again, you need to be signed in (with another account), although the shelves here are rather bare. Adobe offers Photoshop Express and Reader and there is an app for a website called Engadget (?). We couldn’t help but notice ClockworkMod ROM Manager was offered, suggesting that there is some leaning towards customisation. Offering two routes to apps from the outset is a little confusing, but at least once you’ve signed up for ZiiO Space it tells you that this will be the best way to find firmware update for your device.

Of course there are apps you can find and download without the official Android Market and if you are in to reading ebooks we’d recommend OverDrive’s Media Console, which not only offers you Adobe credentials for your DRM’d EPUB files, but also offers free content from many libraries (assuming you are a library member) and can be downloaded directly from then, rather than via the Android Market. 

Control of the action on screen - outside of the display itself - falls to four touch buttons at the bottom of the screen. These need a little more pushing that we liked and we didn’t find them responsive enough. They offer search, home, menu and back, but we often found ourselves jabbing at them trying to return to the homescreen. Holding the home button offers a task swicher, with a task manager so you can kill apps.

Like other Android devices the homescreen offers up a customisable space where you can drop widgets and shortcuts. The mainstay of weather and music are covered by Creative’s widgets and as you download apps you’ll probably find you adopt some more. Across the bottom of the screen Creative have placed a dock so you can always access music, movies, photos and the browser.

The browser is the standard Android browser, although alternatives are easy enough to come across, the likes of Skyfire offering more features, like Flash video support that the Creative ZiiO otherwise lacks. There is also no multitouch support in the device, which means that any zooming you want to do in the browser needs to be done via the controls on-screen.

Moving aside from apps per se and returning to core media support, you’ll find that the Creative ZiiO 7 is rather well stocked. Coming from a company that has released a number of impressive media players and pushes some innovative audio products, the ZiiO 7 really sells itself as an enhanced media player.

Supporting the audio credentials you’ll find that the ZiiO 7 is apt-X compatible, meaning that if you have apt-X speakers or headphones, you’ll enjoy low latency high quality wireless audio which beats the standard Bluetooth 2.1 offering. We tested the ZiiO with Creative’s new WP-300 headphones; Sennheiser also make apt-X compatible headsets and there are a range of speakers from Creative too. Pairing a Bluetooth device is simple through the Pure Android Audio area.

In terms of audio codec support, the ZiiO offers a healthy covering of MP3, AAC, WMA9, FLAC, OGG, MIDI, WAV and Audible Format. The music player itself will let you sort your music by song, artist, album or playlist, with album art picked up and displayed. From any area in the music player you can access Pure Android Audio, which offers audio "enhancements". With a pair of decent headphones, the ZiiO 7 sounds excellent, the digital enhancements letting you refine audio to your liking, notionally enhancing the detail and widening the sound stage.

One area that Creative seem to have overlooked is in control of the music when using the 3.5mm jack. Once the screen is in standby you don’t get any control (except the volume), so you’ll have to unlock the screen and return to the ZiiMusic player to make changes. Also, annoyingly, the music pauses briefly when you press the standby button to wake the screen up, which takes the shine off things slightly (we’ve seen mention of this in a firmware update, but we couldn’t apply that update to our device for reasons unknown). When using Bluetooth headphones the screen wake-up blip doesn’t seem to happen, and with Creative’s WP-300 headphones you have controls on the ear cup to change tracks, so control is less of an issue. 

When it comes to video ZiiVideo offers up a folder-type navigation system, picking out those file types it can play. The selection is good with H.264, MPEG4, WMV9, MOV, AVI and MKV all supported, although notably not DivX. Video playback was impressive from some of our regular test files that often confuse other media players, with nice smooth playback of 720p footage; our 1080p test files did play, but took a while to get running. You also get to play back via HDMI, with up to 720p support output to a larger screen.

Creative’s specs tell us that the ZiiLABS ZMS-08 HD processor sits at the core of the ZiiO 7, which is an ARM A8 1GHz processor along with 512MB RAM. The tech specs tell us that it is capable of 1080p encoding and decoding, as well as 720p video conferencing, however the forward-facing camera only offers 640 x 480 video capture (at 30fps). There is no provision for video calling from the off, so it’s straight video capture of yourself. Performance from the camera is nothing to write home about, giving you the sort of results that you would have got from a mobile phone camera about 3 years ago.

ZiiAcademy is an ebook reader client, which offers some free content (all out of copyright so freely available to download anyway), with extras offered via the ZiiStore. It feels like a bit of a token ebook offering, although the ZiiAcademy will let you import your (non-DRM) EPUB or TXT books and add them to your library.

Once in Creative’s applications things seem to run smoothly enough. Video playback is good and we like the music player for the most part. So the ZiiO 7 plays its part well as a large portable media player. However, we did find ourselves constantly frustrated with Wi-Fi, which would often disconnect and need restoring before we could do anything online. We also found that the portrait keyboard would crash, becoming unresponsive. This was often accompanied by the homescreen crashing and needing to be restarted, and the ZiiStore which is painfully slow to navigate. There are a few bugs lurking that need to be ironed out, hopefully through firmware updates.

We found the battery lasted us through most of a day, plenty of playing around saw the battery complaining after around 8 hours, although this will depend on what you are doing with it. Standby time is cited as 3 days. 

Verdict

Google have repeatedly said that Android 2.x builds are not designed for tablets, with Android 3.0 specifically designed for the larger screen and offering a more complete experience. We’ve been in contact with Creative who have again confirmed that an Android 2.2 update is coming, but they wouldn’t commit to 3.0 – we suspect the resistive screen would be a barrier.

Android 2.2, if it does deliver the Android Market as promised, will certainly make life easier and improve the experience out of the box, although there is no guarantee it will bring the other Google applications with it. It’s also difficult to ignore that fact that many higher-specced Android 3.0 devices are just around the corner, so the ZiiO 7 has to sell itself on media credentials and affordability alone.

If you stick to the remit of a large screen media player, then the Creative ZiiO 7 is worth considering. If you have a selection of videos and music you want to take on your travels, then this will offer you entertainment for half the price you’d pay for an iPad or some rival Android tablets. However, the resistive display will always be a limiting factor, regardless of what updates (official or unofficial) find their way to the device.