Two and a half years ago, Creative released perhaps its last true competitor to the iPod, the Zen Vision:M, which achieved a modicum of success. But in the time in between, the company's main competitor Apple has not only released the Apple Touch but two generations of the iPhone.
About 12 months ago we heard about Creative's next big thing, the Zen X-Fi, but there was very little information about it and we wondered if it would even get a release. At this year's CES in Las Vegas we asked the staff at the Creative stand about the rumoured player, and the first and only thing they said was: "You must be from the media".
The Creative Zen X-Fi is a compact player — smaller than a deck of cards — and in fact five of them would fit inside the mammoth Zen Vision:W. It also weighs a pocket-friendly 69 grams.
Looking at the new X-Fi, we were reminded of the Sony Ericsson K810i, especially if you hold it on its end. It's the strange mobile-like buttons, you see. The corner buttons are wasted for the most part, but given the right context they do act as Page Up/Down buttons. We would have liked to have seen these buttons incorporate the Play/Back/Menu options around them. The player also features a "My Shortcut" button in the bottom left-hand corner which is set to X-Fi On/Off by default, but can be changed to other settings such as Speaker On/Off, Start Recording or Add to Selected.
The face of the player boasts the de rigueur piano-black finish surrounding a 2.5-inch LCD (320x240) display. Meanwhile the rear has a textured metallic finish — which hides scratches better than most players — and a power/lock switch. Fans of previous Creative players may be disappointed to learn that the X-Fi has gone with the Apple route and uses a non-replaceable Li-ion battery.
Along the bottom sits the small speaker output, while along the right-hand side are a mini-USB port, a reset button (handy!) and the headphones jack. Unfortunately, this puts your headphones in a ridiculous position directly beside the menu buttons — which makes them more difficult to operate with headphones plugged in. Finally, at the top sits the SD-card input and a microphone.
Before the iPod Touch and the iPhone appeared, the Creative Zen family had one of the most complete feature sets available. Of course, with "touch" being the latest technology buzzword, the X-Fi has to make up for not having a touch interface with a bunch of other features.
What the 16GB and 32GB players feature over the 8GB model is the addition of Wi-Fi connectivity. At present, you're able to browse a shared music library and "chat" with other Zen X-Fi users.
The reason it's called the X-Fi, of course, is because it features X-Fi "upscaling" and other trick modes designed to make compressed music sound better. Other features include a voice recorder, a personal organiser, photo viewing and a radio.
Like many recent players from Sony, Creative offers you the choice of drag-and-drop or Windows Media Player for updating your files. The company also has its Centrale player, which looks nice but lacks the power of WMP or iTunes: for example, you can't right-click icons or download missing cover art.
The player will support MP3, WMA, unprotected AAC, Audible, and WAV files. Unfortunately, it won't support Windows Lossless, so if you want a lossless format you'll have to go for WAV files and the significant storage hit they pose. Movie file support is a little more comprehensive with MJPEG, WMV9, MPEG4-SP, DivX 4/5 and XviD.
Despite the number of bolted-on, Frankenstein features an MP3 player might have, it is performance that should be paramount. Thankfully, the X-Fi is a competent, musical performer. The X-Fi has a richer, sprightlier sound than the Vision W which makes it a little more exciting and involving. This also means that you'll need a set of headphones that can tame this forward sound a little to prevent the sound becoming wearing. While the set that ships with the player is one of the better sets we've heard, we think you'd need to go a pair of closed phones to get the best sound. We had great results with a set of Audio Technica ATH-A900s, but we think the cheaper Sony MDR-7506's would also do a good job.
Despite the dubious marketing materials, we don't think the on-board speaker is going to rock any parties. The vocals of Portishead's Silence are clear, but when the track gets more stringent it sounds confused and buzzy. This really is no better than the speakers you'll find on mobiles. Use it if you want to feel like you're listening to ringtones.
The on-board radio was good but reception was really dependent on which direction you faced in. For example, we had some trouble dialling into FBI Radio — and we almost had to resort to waving our trousers around in front of it Mr Bean-style to get it to work.
Video quality was also decent, if not spectacular, due to the small 320x240 resolution. You'll probably also find that Windows will reconvert most files when you drag them via Media Player or the slow-reacting Centrale.
There were a couple of disappointments with this player, and they were in the guise of "add-ons". We're sorry to say that though the Wi-Fi capability sounds cool, it's buggy, prone to crashing (particularly if you have a mixed 802.11n network) and not very useful. For example, after diving through numerous fire-ringed hoops to sign up for instant messaging we found we were the only user in the ENTIRE WORLD available for chat. Streaming from the Creative Centrale server application worked OK after a restart, but we think Creative's own Xdock is a better product if streaming is something you want to do on a regular basis.
Finally, while the SD card slot is great for archiving photos from a camera while on holidays, it can't be used to expand the on-board memory. While the Photos selection gives you an imported photos option, the Music section doesn't. But you can use an SD card to move music and other files from the card to the player — the X-Fi pulls them all into a single "Imported Files" folder. Unfortunately you can't specify where you want files to go — such as music to the Music folder. Drag and drop is still the best option.