Creative's been at this MP3 game for some time now. Longer than its vaguely successful competitor, Apple, even. It's had hits and misses, but mostly hits, and its latest iPod Nano rival, the Zen X-Fi, looks like it could be the best yet.
The Zen X-Fi is the same form factor as the Zen of last year – small, flash-based, with a relatively big screen. But this one is far smarter. The big news from Creative's perspective is the inclusion of X-Fi sound enhancement technology, the same used in Creative's high-end PC soundcards. With the 16GB (tested here) and 32GB models there's also Wi-Fi media streaming.
Out-of-box impressions are good. The glass-like plastic front is rimmed by metal and punctuated by four slightly raised buttons and nine spun metallic soft keys to the right of the 2.5in screen. Round the (all plastic) sides there’s headphone, standard USB, SD card slot, microphone hole and built-in speaker. It's rotund compared to the iPod Nano and a bit lightweight, but well finished.
That unique key layout makes more sense when you consider the Zen X-Fi’s extra functionality. Built-in Wi-Fi allows the Zen X-Fi to connect to your home network and stream the music and video stored thereon.
Presumably as something of an afterthought, it also provides access to instant messaging via Windows Live! Messenger and Yahoo! Accounts, as well as its own client. In these modes the nine-key arrangement allows you to navigate an on-screen phone keypad layout for swift word input.
It works, but it's far from an ergonomic treat – why not add another line of keys, some T9 software and turn it into a proper texter? That said, it's a neat idea and achieves exactly what it sets out to, so if it's functionality you think you may use in public hotspots, it could be a deal-maker.
Loading media on to the Zen X-Fi is ably handled by Creative Centrale, which doubles as a decent media organiser and deals with media streaming duties. Windows Media Player also works, though we prefer Centrale for its ability to transcode video files to formats suitable for the Zen X-Fi on the fly. It’s a very neat solution, but sadly Macs aren’t supported.
The supplied headphones are a joy. They're weighty, detailed and have excellent sound isolation characteristics. This makes a hell of a difference as it renders the X-Fi a value-for-money proposition – it's not as cute as the iPod Nano 8GB but for £20 more it gives you twice the storage, more screen real estate and you don't need to spend another £30 on upgrade cans.
The built-in speaker is nowhere near as bad as you might expect, either. It's more powerful than one you'd find in a phone and is clearly audible in the quiet of an office. There are few situations where it's going to be useful, but for occasionally sharing movie clips with mates it’s just fine.
Die, X-Fi , die
Unfortunately the X-Fi sound rejuvenation technology is a disappointment. The Crystalizer, which promises to put the life back into compressed music files, makes anything busy sound constipated with a clear but shrill top-end. With sparser acoustic-based stuff it adds clarity to vocals, but it's often at the expense of something else in the mix.
As for X-Fi Expand, sure, it alters the sound stage so that the voice is dead central, but it sounds like the phantom speakers it generates have been plunged into water. Avoid.
Thankfully, with X-Fi off the Zen X-Fi sounds ace anyway. Attached to a pair of Sennheiser CX 95s it's spacious, rich, detailed and articulate. It possibly edges the iPod Classic in dynamics and comes close with detail, and isn't clearly outdone in any field. It’s definitely one of the best-sounding players available.
Video performance is similarly impressive. The screen is bigger than that of either iPod Nano or Classic with the same resolution, and as a result it's not quite so crisp, but colours are vibrant and playback is smooth as warm margarine.
Media streaming is a neat but somewhat confusing feature. Watching your PC’s movies in the kitchen on a 2.5in screen is fun but a bit pointless. Creative promises more is to come with future firmware updates, however.
The FM radio is another excellent feature. It grabs a signal and keeps hold of it, and sounds superb. There's also a voice recorder. If you want one, you'll like that.
Sadly the SD card slot doesn’t quite deliver its promise. It’s useful if you want to copy recently taken photos to the player but doesn’t integrate with built-in memory, so it’s a bit of a pain to navigate any music or movie files you may have stored.
But that’s a niggle. Even without the Wi-Fi, X-Fi and SD card tech, the Zen X-Fi 16GB would be superb value for money and a five-star performer.