Creative's Zen line of MP3 players is possibly one of the most extensive we've seen, especially if we take the company's Asia-specific devices into account. And Creative shows no signs of deviating from its plan to offer feature-packed players at impressively low price points. Evidence of this is apparent in the Zen X-Fi, a compact multimedia machine that's the first portable device to integrate Creative's X-Fi technology. The 16GB and 32GB versions are also the first Zens to pack in Wi-Fi capability, and without skimping on the usual array of features we've come to expect. Add to that top-notch sound quality and ultracompetitive pricing -- £130 for the 16GB model -- and you've got one of the best values available on the market today.
The Creative Zen X-Fi isn't the coolest-looking player we've seen -- if anything, it has pretty standard looks -- but the understated black face, chrome-coloured accenting and brushed silver backside is sleek and inoffensive, which should give it mass appeal. More of a problem is the fact that the construction has a slightly cheap, unfinished feel, mostly because it is encased entirely in plastic rather than metal. (However, we give a little leeway here, as metal may have caused issues with the wireless.) The four function buttons -- back, contextual menu, shortcut, and play/pause -- have sharp edges, which help with blind navigation but also lend to the unfinished feel, as does the fact that they are not backlit.
In between the function buttons, Creative has included a nine-digit keypad. At first, the inclusion of so many keys seems a bit confusing, but once you learn to ignore the outer four corners, you have a simple four-way directional pad with a centre select button. The extras are an effort to make the Zen X-Fi adaptable to future applications. Sadly, dedicated volume is not part of the setup. The edges of the player feature a speaker on bottom, a standard mini USB port and 3.5mm headphone jack on the right, and a pinhole mic and SD card slot on the top. The power/hold switch is located on the backside of the player -- kind of an odd placement, but not a big deal.
Getting content onto the Zen X-Fi is a mostly simple task (except when it comes to video). If you're already running Windows Media Player or Rhapsody, you don't even need to install any software to start syncing content to the player -- in fact, you can even use drag-and-drop if you prefer. However, the included Creative Centrale software is a worthwhile install if you're going to be putting a lot of video on the player -- it can be finicky about format, size, and frame rate. ZenCast, a program that offers a one-stop spot for subscribing to, organising, and transferring podcasts, is not included on the disc but can be downloaded. It would have been nice if Creative had folded this into Centrale to offer a more seamless experience. We'd also love to have seen Mac support but unfortunately, the X-Fi uses MTP, so you won't be able to sync it with any machines that aren't running Windows XP or Vista.
Once you pack the player with media, you can take advantage of the Zen X-Fi's fantastic onscreen interface. As per usual, Creative includes various themes for interface customisation, and you can set any image on the player as wallpaper. All menus are straightforward, and you have the option to customise menu selections to your liking. Music is sorted by playlist, album, artist, and so on, while photos are conveniently sorted into folders. Open these folders and you're greeted with an attractive thumbnail grid of your pictures. The photo-viewing experience is great -- the thumbnails magnify as you scroll through them, and once you select a photo, you are given various options including zoom and rotate. Naturally, you can view photos and slide shows while listening to music. There's even a nifty, semi-split-screen deal on the main menu that cycles through album art, photos, or video image clips, depending on which media type you are browsing.