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.
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.