The Creative Zen X-Fi offers a stunning array of features, especially given the price, so it's easiest to start with what it doesn't offer. There's no line-in recording for audio or video (we especially would like the latter), and you don't get Bluetooth, either. The sampling platter does include support for MP3, AAC, WAV, WMA (including subscription), and Audible audio; AVI, MPEG4, and WMV video (transcoding often required); and JPEG photos. There's also a built-in mic for voice recording and an FM radio with autoscan and 32 preset slots. And Creative includes basic PIM functionality -- you can sync contacts, tasks and calendar info from Outlook to the device. Plus, you get the usual shuffle and repeat playback modes, handy contextual menus and the ability to search for artists and songs as well as rate songs on the fly and set up to ten bookmarks. Nine preset EQs, a five-band, user-definable mode and a bass-boost function ensure that you can adjust sound to your liking. There's even a built-in speaker for music sharing.
In addition, Creative includes an SD card expansion slot for adding more memory, although this feature is crippled somewhat by the fact that content on the SD card is not integrated into your main library. Rather, you access it through a separate menu (this will be an issue for some but not for others). Unique to this player is the inclusion of Creative's X-Fi technology, specifically the Crystalizer, which restores sound elements (on the high and low ends) lost during file compression, and Expand, which widens the sound and attempts to bring it out of your head. The 16GB and 32GB models also incorporate 802.11b/g wireless functionality, which lets you stream music from a media server of your choosing from anywhere that you can get on Wi-Fi. This feature also allows users to chat with other users, although we had trouble setting up a profile through the site (you can log on as a guest without doing so). For chatting purposes, the X-Fi includes an app for creating an avatar on the device.
We put the Zen X-Fi through its performance paces and were not disappointed. The only real glitch was when we tried to drag-and-drop a couple videos that we hadn't transcoded and synced through Centrale. One wouldn't play back on the device. We were able to get onto wireless quickly and easily and access Creative's test media server for on-the-go access to a plethora of content. Chatting works fine, though we can't see using this feature much. X-Fi is really a matter of preference, especially since the Zen sounds excellent on its own. For certain songs, such as the Bangles' Hazy Shade of Winter, the Crystalizer offered noticeable improvement. Other tracks, such as Akon's Smack That, sounded way too bright with this feature engaged. We also weren't particular fans of the Expand option, but this is highly subjective.
The Zen X-Fi's screen is lovely. Photos look vibrant and bright, with excellent colour saturation and good detail. Videos are similarly impressive -- clear and bright with no noticeable pixelation (though we did notice the occasional blurring around some sharp edges) -- and the viewing angle from side to side is excellent. Creative includes a set of EP-830 earphones with the Zen X-Fi, and they are certainly an improvement over standard stock 'buds in both sound and fit. However, they tend to sound muddy when the X-Fi is not engaged -- we preferred to use our Shure SE310s. Music sounds rich, clear, detailed and just thumping enough through these test 'buds. The rated battery life of 36 hours for audio is impressive, and the 5-hour score for video ain't half bad, either. Unfortunately, CNET Labs fell way short of the audio rating, squeezing out only 11.11 hours of music -- a dismal number indeed. On the plus side, video came in at a reasonable 5.5 hours.
The Creative Zen X-Fi's plastic design leaves a little to be desired, but we realise it was chosen to enhance wireless capabilities. Overall, that doesn't detract from the fact that the player is an incredible value: for an extremely competitive price you get a boatload of features and great sound quality. However, based on our tests, the audio life leaves something to be desired.