When theCreative Xmodwas released two years ago, we praised its audio-enhancing X-Fi Crystalizer and CMSS 3D technologies and hoped they would eventually make its way into one of the company's music players. With the Zen X-Fi, Creative's latest portable media player, they finally have, and with a new X-Fi Expand technology and a bundled pair of quality EP-830 earbuds, this is one of the better-sounding players on the market. Unfortunately, the X-Fi's counterintuitive control scheme and underwhelming Wi-Fi functionality hold this device back.
Basic Design, Polarizing Button Layout
Measuring 3.3 x 2.2 x 0.5 inches and weighing 2.5 ounces, the Windows-only Creative Zen X-Fi is a small, lightweight media player that fits well in hand and slides easily into your pocket. The simple black and silver look won't win any design awards, but it isn't hard on the eyes, either. The perimeter of the device houses a USB 2.0 port, headphone jack, mic, speaker, and an SD/SDHC Card for loading up to 32GB of additional content. The back of the unit features the power/hold button.
On the front of the device is a bright 2.5-inch (320 x 240-pixel resolution) LCD. Creative eschews the traditional scroll wheel and 5-way direction pad typically found on portable media players for a unique, and infinitely frustrating 9-button, 3-row layout. The center button lets you confirm selections; the buttons immediately above and below it raise and lower the volume or navigate up and down through menus; the buttons to the left and right of the center button let you navigate forward or back through tracks or menus. The four corner keys are for instant messaging and to ensure that the player is future-proofed against downloadable applications that would require extra buttons.
But wait--there's more: Above these nine buttons are separate keys for Play/Pause, Menu/Back, Option, and a user-definable My Shortcut button. With a total of 13 buttons on its face, the Creative Zen X-Fi is quite difficult to operate by touch.
X-Fi Crystalizer and X-Fi Expand Technologies
The Creative Zen X-Fi contains two technologies designed to improve the listening experience: X-Fi Crystalizer and X-Fi Expand. X-Fi Crystalizer analyzes a digital audio track and restores the details that were lost during the compression process. When we activated the X-Fi Crystalizer, we heard a slight improvement to The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" and other tracks in our library. The arrangements became a hair crisper, but the average ear may not pick up the subtle changes.
X-Fi Expand offers a far more obvious audio change--but not for the better. It attempts to create a more robust soundscape, but audio became somewhat muddy when we turned it on. We experienced the same audio quality even after exchanging the default earbuds for a pair of Sony MDR-V150 headphones.
The X-Fi player is compatible with MP3, WMA, AAC (unprotected), WAV, and Audible formats, and it has 8 equalizer presets. The included EP-830 earbuds finely blocked external noise, and provided plenty of audio punch when we listened to Panic! At the Disco's A Fever You Can't Sweat Out album; the volume was crisp, loud, and the low-end sounds were replicated nicely. The rubber tips were surprisingly soft and comfortable, and fit our ears perfectly (two pairs of smaller and larger tips are also included). However, playing music through the X-Fi's built-in speaker proved disappointing, as the volume wasn't enough to satisfy listeners in a very small room.
Creative includes an FM Tuner in the X-Fi; although we were unable to maintain a strong signal inside of our Manhattan offices, we enjoyed very clear and static-free programming when we ventured outside into Times Square. You can save up to 32 stations as presets. A built-in voice recorder allowed us to make crystal clear audio notes, and the player also supports audiobooks.
A WMV file (the X-Fi is also compatible with MPEG-4, DivX, XviD, and MJPEG video files) looked bright and colorful on the display, but fast on-screen movement would produce a slight blurring effect. Unfortunately the Creative Zen X-Fi is compatible only with JPEG photos; BMP, GIF, PNG, and TIFF files have to be transcoded using the bundled Creative Centrale software.
Many portable media players utilize 802.11b/g Wi-Fi to either surf the Web or download content over the air, but the Zen X-Fi goes its own way by allowing users to stream and download music and videos from a networked computer that has media-sharing enabled. Set-up was simple: all we had to do was turn on the wireless streaming in the bundled software, connect the player to a hotspot, and select a file to play. Streaming audio sounded surprisingly good, although we'd occasionally experience a very brief audio drop. On our tests, downloading The Dirtbombs' We Have You Surrounded album took just over 5 minutes.
The Creative Zen X-Fi also leverages its Wi-Fi connectivity to let users chat it up with others using a built-in instant messenger--unfortunately, it's very poorly implemented. Currently, the chat client is compatible only with Yahoo Messenger and Windows Live Messenger, but the device froze on occasion when we attempted to log into either service. Even worse, the IM client doesn't use predictive text, so you have to cycle through a series of letters and numbers to find the appropriate alpha or numeric symbol.
Staying connected to Wi-Fi takes a heavy toll on battery life (half an hour of wireless use drained a freshly charged player by 25 percent), but you can turn it off in the system settings. Creative rates the Zen X-Fi's battery life at 36 hours for audio (13 when using the speakers), 20 hours for radio, and 5 hours for video (4 hours when using the speakers). In our time with the device, which included playing back audio, watching video, chatting and streaming media, we saw close to 6 hours of battery life.
The Creative Zen X-Fi provides excellent sound quality (with the X-Fi Expand turned off) and support for multiple audio and video formats at a very reasonable price. It offers a larger screen and capacity than the similarly pricedSony Walkman NWZ-S718F, but we prefer its rival's Mac compatibility and noise-cancellation technology. The Zen X-Fi is an intriguing, but flawed, portable media player.