Zen fans have been looking forward to the next big thing from Creative. These fans clamored for a Zen Vision:M replacement which is, in my opinion, the best blend of MP3 players and PMPs to date. Creative’s last biggest release, the Zen, didn’t seem to hush this cry for something new, because it couldn’t yet natively play high resolution XviD/DivX files, failed at integrating the SD slot, and had cost-prohibitive 30GB+ capacities.
The brand new Zen X-Fi is basically a refreshed version of the Zen, but with added wireless features and X-Fi sound enhancement. Will this be enough, though, to satisfy the Zen fans who have been patiently waiting for Creative’s latest addition to the family?
- Quick Look
- Size: 83mm x 55mm x 12.8mm
- Weight: 68g
- Capacities: 8GB (no Wi-fi), 16GB, 32GB
- Screen: 2.5”, 320×240 pixel, 16.7m colors
- Rated Battery Life: 36 hours audio, 5 hours video
- Transfer Protocol: MTP
- Video Formats: WMV, MPEG4-SP, Divx 4/5, Xvid, and MJPEG
- Audio Formats: MP3, WMA, AAC, WAV, and Audible 2,3,4
- Photo Formats: JPG (Software will transcode BMP, GIF, PNG, and TIFF)
- Wireless: IEEE 802.11 b/g with WEP, WPA-PSK, or WPA2-PSK security
- Other Features: Built-In Speaker, X-Fi Sound Enhancement, FM Radio, Calendar, Contact, Task List
- Full Specs
Like many players today, the X-Fi comes with the basics: USB cable, EP-830 Headphones, Zen X-Fi Install disk, and quick start guide. However, the headphones included are not so basic; they recently were selling for roughly $60 USD in Singapore.
I think a lot of people will be happy with the supplied headphones since the set is many times better than typical earbuds. While these phones are an improvement over nearly all supplied headphones, they don’t quite match up to those that come with Zune 80 or some of the new Sony players. The EP-830s will appeal to the bass heads since it’s really heavy on the low end of the spectrum. The highs, however, are not as clean as they should be.
Creative also has released some official accessories including a screen protector, arm band, silicon case, leather case, and speaker dock. Iif you’re after some accessories, most of these should cover your needs.
Design / Build Quality
The X-Fi is one of the best built Zens to date; it’s very sturdy with button tolerances that are on point. It feels better than the Zen and is much less “toy like.” With a chrome rim and a metallic-looking backing, Creative has done a good job making it look a little bit more substantial rather than like something a toddler pulled out of his toy box. However, the looks are a bit deceiving since no metal is actually found on any of the exterior parts –all of which are some version of plastic. The screen, although plastic, is harder and smoother than what is found on the Zen; additionally, the butto
ns are raised, helping to keep the screen from getting scratched when placed face down.
Even though there are some cutbacks in materials, I really don’t have any complaints about how the Zen X-Fi is built, especially at its price point.
The 2.5” 320×240 pixel, 16.7m color screen is the same as what is found in the Zen: overall great looking with rich and accurate colors. There are nearly full viewing angles for left, right, and bottom angles, but the top angle is really bad. Tilting the player towards you only a few degrees washes out the screen.
I always like the Zen UI since it’s an easy “pick up and use” interface. If you have used nearly any other player in the Zen family, you will feel right at home. It is not much of a deviation from the Zen, but just has more menu options for the additional features.
On the other hand, the interface has become quite cluttered from the new features, but the saving grace of this interface – and one thing I really appreciate – is the user’s ability to configure the entire menu system. This allows you to completely remove some features from the home screen or bring sub menu times to the front. For instance, if I find “Chat” to be useless I can take that away from the main menu and insert “Media Server.” I will only ever see “Chat” if I add it back under the settings menu.
While the buttons feel very solid and have a nice click to them, the inclusion of nine buttons is four too many. My hands are about average size for a male, and I find the nine button layout to be way too cramped. It’s pretty easy to use in your pocket with a little feeling around, but it becomes more of an issue when you are holding it viewing the screen. Ditching the Chat feature (more on why I hate this later) and putting a 5-way D-pad would have made the experience many times better.
The Zen X-Fi is an MTP device. Anyone with Vista or an updated XP computer will be able to drag and drop. Linux and Mac are not officially supported, but they will work if the right hacks and libraries are installed. Otherwise any media player will do the trick for transferring content to your player: Windows Media Player, Napster, etc.
Creative has included a new media player which is not too different from their last one, but is now called Creative Centrale. It will manage your media like any other player and offers extended features like firmware updating and Outlook syncing for contacts and such. This media player will also allow you to convert video for the Zen X-Fi much better than Windows Media Player.
I’m not going to tip toe around this one: like the Zen, the Zen X-Fi’s memory slot’s integration is simply terrible. It does not integrate with the main memory so you can’t really call it an expansion slot. While you still can access media from the card, nearly all media features are absent. For example, you cannot use bookmarks, add to playlists, view details, remove file, or look up artists- all of which are available when playing from the internal memory. Additionally, you are confined to the current menu position when playing media from the card. If you back out, the media stops playing. Also, unlike any other MP3 player with a memory slot, both sets of memory do not show up on your computer at the same time; you need to set the card to “removable disk” then plug it into your computer.
There is a transfer memory card to internal memory feature. This may be useful for dumping your digital camera’s memory, but it’s not too helpful for other media because when you transfer the files, they go to the “transferred files” folder on the Zen X-Fi. Only photos can be viewed from this folder.
Overall, the SD slot gets a big “FAIL”.
Connecting to a wireless access point is straight forward and allows connections to encrypted networks. The X-Fi will let you choose up to 10 access points ordered by connecting preferences. This is nice for using your player in different locations.
Wi-Fi streaming of an entire library is one of the most useful Wi-Fi features. The set up was – well there was no set up, really. The Zen X-Fi immediately picked up all my computers on the network that were sharing media, including my Windows Home Server.
Keep in mind that it does work much like the SD memory card slot, missing most of the functionality, but you are able to download the media directly to your player. Unlike the SD card transfer, the media will go in the respective folder and be integrated into your main memory when downloaded. It is very slow on the download side taking around 3 min per album transferred.
Creative MediaBox is a way to get pre-populated content from Creative’s servers. At this time it is really just a podcast repository, but it only contains major podcast content. For instance, CNet is one of two tech listings in the tech section. I do not know if Creative is planning on expanding this or is perhaps taking it to a different level to get quality music content. Even though it lacks in content, I think it’s in the right direction.
Much like the SD card slot, any kind of additional features are lost, and you cannot leave the current media since it will stop. The media is streamed directly from the server and cannot be downloaded. The absurdity of this, however, is that you cannot fast forward, reverse or bookmark anything from Creative’s MediaBox
Friends / Chat
When I first heard that Creative was including a chat feature, I thought that it was superfluous, but then considered that some might find it useful as a quick way to communicate with friends. Actually getting it in my hands and trying to operate it, I can’t help but call it a complete failure for anyone. Strong words I know, but let me break it down.
First off, you can only connect to Creative’s own chat network; you cannot connect to Yahoo!, MSN, or Gtalk. Creative is probably trying to roll out compatibility with other chat networks, but that still won’t fix the major concerns. Read on for the second, but biggest, issue.
I think the major chat killer here is the text input. Many have thought that it would be like a numeric input pad on a cell phone where you’d use a single button many times to select a letter. The Zen X-Fi works nothing like that. The directional keypad is used to move to each letter, and then the center button is used to toggle between the available letters. For instance if you want a capital “F” you must highlight the top right onscreen number then press the center button 6 times. On top of this there is no predictive text feature. Everything has to be spelled out.
The third issue is the fact that you cannot have a presence, meaning you cannot just be online for friends to send you a message. You can only be online while you are in the friends menu, and while there you can’t listen to music or use any of the other part of the player.
Last but not least, your real name, first and last, is displayed and is browse-able to the entire world. There is no way to avoid this other than to input fake information.
What really bothers me is that the hardware UI was sacrificed in order to implement this feature, which would have been changed very little if implemented with a 5 way D-pad.
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Nothing has changed from the previous Zen players on the photo viewing side. You can easily browse photos in folders, lists, and thumbnails. You are also able to create and view slide shows to music.
Radio reception is poor. The autoscan feature is great, but it only picks up three stations where other players will pick up more than eight. A radio station I am only a few miles away from has static at times, which is totally unacceptable.
Voice recording is the same as what is found on the Zen; files are saved as low quality WAV files. To use this as a voice note taker, you can easily map the short cut button to record quickly.
The organizer feature remains the same as the previous Zen organizers. Using the Creative’s media player you can sync your contacts, calendar, and to-do list with Outlook or Windows Contacts.
Battery life is rated at 35 hours audio and five hours video. I tried to simulate average use by operating all of the Zen X-Fi features throughout the day and came up with 18.5 hours on a full charge. This was mostly audio, a little wi-fi and a little video. This might mean nothing, because there will be such a big swing in each person’s battery time due to the wi-fi and X-Fi sound enhancement features involved. Video ran to be a little over four hours.
Battery time for streaming from your computer is pathetic. It was right around three hours, so forget trying to stream video. [Update: I ran this test not knowing the hold switch will shut the screen off. I'm running another test for having the hold switch on and screen off] [Update2: The battery still only lasted between 4-5 hours doing strictly wi-fi music streaming with the screen off.]
Playlists / Bookmarks
Playlisting on the Zen X-Fi is the same as what you would find on most of the other players in the Zen family. This is good thing since it’s much more flexible than most players, allowing you to name and save many playlists on the go. Of course, as with any other player, you can manipulate and create playlists from any MTP based media player like Windows Media Player, Napster, Funky Monkey Media Player, and a hand full of others out there.
Bookmarks are always a welcome addition for long mixes and audio books. You can save up to ten bookmarks.
The X-Fi sounds quite nice. I have been using it with my Shure SE530s and have no major complaints. Head to head against the Clip, for instance, it is still missing that low-end smoothness and the openness of the highs. Compared to the Cowon player’s they can probably run head to head, with Cowon edging out the Zen X-Fi slightly in general warmness. But if you are a fan of the EQ and sound enhancements, the Cowon players will win hands down against the X-Fi for the inclusion of a great EU and actually useful sound enhancements of BBE.
X-Fi Sound Enhancement
X-Fi is Creative’s sound enhancing technology that reshapes wave forms from lossless music, improving the overall sound quality. I have listened to the X-Fi technology before and found it to be pretty good despite it’s sounding a little bit on the synthetic side, but I could easily place it right behind my favorite BBE.
However, on the Zen X-Fi it sounds terrible, not much unlike other sound enhancement technologies. There are two settings, Crystallize and Expand. Crystallize sounds like an attempt at creating better sound stage. You can hear it trying to open up the music, but it just does a bad job. Instruments will separate and spread out, but they tend to get over exaggerated and polluted with a synthetic haze. I can best describe it as a slight warble. Expand, on the other hand, slightly improves low end response, but it sounds like you threw a towel over your speakers. Testing both of these on the Shure SE530’s and my KRK RP5 studio monitors, these nuances and inaccuracies were very apparent. They were much less apparent on the included headphones, and on these the X-Fi sound enhancement didn’t make it sound bad per se, just different.
Creative recently updated the firmware to improve X-Fi sound enhancement. With the update, I would no longer say that the X-Fi Crystallize and Expand sounds terrible. When I tested crystallize with my Shure SE530s and KRK RP5 monitors I’m not sure i would call the change better, but different- like someone tweaked the EQ in the higher end of the spectrum. I didn’t really feel like it added or took anything away from the music. Now when I tested it again with the supplied headphones (EP-830) it was a slightly different story. I did hear some tracks marginally improved by X-Fi Crystallize. It was hit or miss and depended on the music. The X-Fi Expand was somewhat the same story, I don’t feel like it added anything either set of headphones- it just kind of veiled and shifted some of the lower frequencies.
What it comes down to is, “Does the X-Fi Crystallize and Expand add to the Zen X-Fi?” To me its not. Even if I used the supplied headphones, the improvement is not enough for me to continually adjust the setting for each type of music / track i listen to. Other listeners may find otherwise, however, expect marginal to moderate improvements- don’t expect to be blown away. My advice, leave it off, the Zen X-Fi sounds good without it.
BobbyRS, one of our Creative forum moderators, brought up a good point: X-Fi needs quite a bit of power in order to work properly, and one of Creative’s biggest problems was getting X-Fi to work on a portable device. He suggests that the X-Fi sound enhancement on the Zen X-Fi is likely an emulation or a truncated version of the technology – so you likely are not getting true X-Fi with this player.
For a slot in the bottom of the player, the built-in speaker sounds very good. Granted, filling a room with sound is a stretch, but it will be very useful while holding it in your hand or while sitting at your desk. The speakers play clean and do not easily distort.
You will find the same video experience with the Zen X-Fi as you did with the Zen. Overall it is a good experience. Video playback is smooth, not too different than what you would see on your computer LCD screen.
The X-Fi follows the same video type as the Zen, so most video must be transcoded to one of the accepted video codecs (WMV, MPEG4-SP, Divx 4/5, Xvid, and MJPEG). All of these are of 320×240 resolutions. Converting your videos is pretty easy with Creative Centrale.
Compared to the Zen, the build quality is improved, upgraded headphones are included, and the wireless feature works pretty well even though it really puts a drain on your battery. But that is as far as I will go as calling the new features improvements. X-Fi sound enhancement is not an improvement. Chat and Friends list is not an improvement and has hindered the button UI. These features are just flat-out poorly implemented.
The failure here was Creative tried to jam new “cool” features into the player and completely neglected other issues that have been brought up by Zen users – particularly the SD slot – but even Creative’s resources would have been better spent polishing up what was already there. It’s almost as if Creative just wanted more features to help sell the product.
The bottom line is the Zen X-Fi is a marginal improvement over the Zen. I like it, but I was very disappointed to see the poor implementation of the new features and lack of polish to the old. Putting aside expectations, I can still recommend the Zen X-Fi because despite the issues, it’s at a really
good price point.
- Creative Zen X-Fi vs Creative Zen
- Creative Zen X-Fi vs Zune 30
- Creative Zen X-Fi vs Sansa Fuze
- Creative Zen X-Fi vs Cowon iAudio D2
- Creative Zen X-Fi vs Sony A720
- Upgraded headphones included
- Very good build quality
- Good sound quality
- Wireless Setup and Streaming is Easy
- Weak FM Radio
- Poor SD implementation
- Chat is poorly implemented
- Text input
- Poor top down viewing angle
- Emulated X-Fi
You can pick up the Zen X-Fi at Amazon for the best price where you can usual score free shipping and avoid taxes.