The Creative Zen X-Fi is beyond question a better all-around digital music player than any of Apple's current iPods. The X-Fi has better sound, superb headphones, an amazing feature set, expandable storage via an SD card slot, an easy-to-use interface that will please users who don't want to work with a touch screen, and--here's the kicker--the ability to stream and download music from your PC wirelessly. It looks great, too, and it costs about half as much as Apple's current Wi-Fi-enabled iPod Touch players.
The 16GB X-Fi sells for US$200, and the 32GB model sells for $280, versus $400 for the 16GB iPod Touch and $500 for the 32GB version of Apple's touch-screen media player. And if that sounds like a bargain, consider that you can also expand the X-Fi player's storage capacity by up to 32GB, thanks to its SD Card slot.
A few features differentiate this player from the competition. Not only can you download music, video, and images wirelessly from your home computer to the player, but you can also stream media from your computer, from Creative's servers (which offer podcasts and free music), or from a computer on an open network. Plus, you can fine-tune the already superb sound with the player's five-band EQ settings; save voice recordings; listen to FM radio; and enjoy the listening experience right out of the box without buying new headphones, thanks to the surprisingly good-sounding Creative EP-830 earbuds included with the unit. The earbuds, which Creative sells separately for $80, fit snugly in the listeners' ears, and provide clear low-end audio, with midrange treble that aren't tinny.
Creative's highly touted X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity Audio playback goes far in helping this player sound amazing. Its signal-to-noise ratio of 83 dB is second only to the SanDisk Sansa Connect's 84 dB in our tests. And the X-Fi earned the best rating of any player we've tested in terms of harmonic distortion and noise--at a barely registering 0.01 percent.
What does that mean for your ears? Creative's X-Fi technology, coupled with the great out-of-the-box earbuds, delivered very deep, clean, well-defined audio. The player supports AAC, MP3, WAV, and WMA formats, as well as Audible audiobooks. You get an on-board speaker as well, but it pumps tinny, clock-radio-quality sound out of its single, small speaker.
As much as I found to like about the X-Fi, it does have some limitations when matched head-to-head against the iPod Touch. It doesn't work with Mac OS X (only with XP and Vista); its online chat application doesn't work well; and you won't find the same degree of integration with third-party speaker systems, car stereos, and accessories that you'll find with the near-ubiquitous iPod. Also, the X-Fi unit seems a bit small (3.3 inches by 2.2 inches by 0.5 inches) next to the iPod Touch and its generous screen.
The X-Fi makes it a lot harder to create playlists without the help of a computer, too. I still haven't gotten the hang of Creative's on-player playlist creator, even after years of using it with the Zen VisionM. But creating a playlist with the Creative Centrale desktop software (included with the player) is much easier than doing so in-unit: Just drag and drop music from your library into a new playlist.
The X-Fi connects to your PC via USB 2.0, but loading songs onto the player by this route is slow going. (It took me more than an hour to load 10GB of songs onto the player's flash drive via the USB cable.) Downloading songs wirelessly went much faster. The USB port doubles as the unit's power port; however, it includes only a USB cable, not a wall adapter.
Though the Zen X-Fi supports video playback, watching video on the smallish 2.5-inch-diagonal, 16.7-million color screen falls far short of an IMAX experience. Nevertheless, the vibrant 320-by-240 pixel screen provides a sharp, crisp display, and the player supports DivX, MJPEG, MPEG-4, WMV, and XviD movies, all of which must be encoded by the included Creative Centrale desktop software before being loaded onto the player. Image support includes JPEGs natively, while BMP, GIF, PNG, and TIFF photos must be converted by the Creative Centrale software before they can be viewed on the player.
A quick aside about the Creative Centrale software: it comes as a mini CD, which may cause problems if you have a slot-loading optical drive on your PC. Fortunately, Creative Centrale is also available as a download, as part of the Zen X-Fi Starter Pack.
People who are already familiar with Creative's players should get the hang of the X-Fi's design and interface right away. It does have a few notable changes from earlier Creative models, however. The touch strip present on the Zen VisionM and the directional pad featured on the newer Creative Zen have been supplanted by nine buttons arranged in a three-by-three grid.
These spaced-out buttons simplify navigating the player by feel, even while it's still in your pocket. And they double as a phonelike alphanumeric pad for entering network passwords or chatting online. Flanking the nine buttons are four dedicated navigation buttons that should be familiar to owners of other Creative player: the back button, a contextual menu button, a user-customizable button, and the play/pause button. Despite the X-Fi''s small size, all of the buttons are well spaced and easy to use. The power switch is on the back of the player and can be "locked" on; the SD Card slot and the single speaker occupy the sides of the unit.
Mere mention of the X-Fi's wireless connectivity doesn't do the feature justice. Much of the X-Fi's appeal comes from its 802.11b/g networking, downloading, and streaming capabilities. The 'Online' menu setting lets you connect to your own computer--or any computer on a network--provided that it is a PC set up as a media server. This arrangement lets you download and stream tracks from your own computer without having to load them onto the player. In addition, Creative makes its own servers accessible via the Online interface, giving you access to numerous music channels and podcasts, organized by category. Streaming worked without a hitch in my testing, delivering clear and uninterrupted audio that sounded great.
The networking capabilities allow you to chat using your Yahoo Messenger or Windows Live Messenger accounts, but I ran into problems using this feature. The log-in to Yahoo Messenger hung for minutes at the "sign-in" stage, and I had to power the machine off to get it going again. I also found the alphanumeric keypad frustrating to use for extended chatting--in much the same way that using the nine buttons on a cell phone for texting is. Expect to put your patience to the test, with lots of repeated button pushing. Ultimately the chat feature is no reason to buy this player, though it's a nice extra to have (when it works).
Minor issues like the chat malfunctions can't take the shine off of the Creative X-Fi. It's an outstanding digital music player that rises to the top with ease. The masses may continue to think iPod first when they need a new MP3 player--but it will be a shame if they do. The X-Fi is arguably the most innovative, feature-packed player on the market, and it's an absolute steal for the price.