The Creative Zen X-Fi follows on from the original Creative Zen launched at IFA in Germany last year. Almost a year later, can the new MP3 player move the model on or is it the same as before? We get listening to find out.



In principle the Zen X-Fi is very similar to the Creative Zen. They are both palm sized, both sport a 2.5-inch screen and both come with the option to expand the memory further via an SD card slot.

But that's where the similarities stop. It might come in a similar form factor, but there are plenty of differences between the Zen and the Zen X-Fi.

Let’s start with the cosmetics. As we've already mentioned, the Zen X-Fi sports the same 2.5-inch screen, which boasts 16.7 million colours and is good enough to watch movies, albeit with a little squinting. What has changed though is the control mechanism to the right of the screen.

Now instead of the d-pad you’ll find nine keys in a square grid that allow for movement in all directions. The change in input doesn't really make much difference to the general interaction with the device, although we suspect it was a decision to coincide with the new messaging elements added to the player.

Get past those cosmetics and the real changes are in two areas. The first is where the new player gets its name, X-Fi, while the second is adding Wi-Fi.

Referring to Creative's own technology, the slogan promises to improve your MP3, WMA and unprotected iTunes music thanks to the X-Fi "Crystalizer", a Creative technology that claims to restore highs and lows lost with digital music.

Luckily for Creative, in our listening we would have to say it works. Tracks that we listened to on the device were improved, not by much in some cases, but all were noticeably better.

Not content with improving your audio (basically it works like an upscaling DVD player), then you can also opt to have X-Fi Expand on, which is yet another Creative tech that gives you a 3D effect trying to convince you that you are listening to a system that is capable of a lot more than it actually is. From a sound point of view, this is the one that you are going to notice when listening: again at times it can be subtle, but on the whole the improvements are for the better.

The best way we can think to describe it is like a subwoofer for a home cinema system: you might not notice any real difference, but take it away and you'll be complaining the sound isn't as good.

Of course to make sure you benefit from all this "improved" sound Creative have not just bundled your average pair of headphones, but its EP-830 in-ear earphones, a set that's actually very good indeed. The move, which to be honest we are surprised more MP3 makers don't follow, means you'll feel you're getting even better performance from the player. They are comfortable too.

Beyond the "upscaling" improvements, the player is compatible with your current music collection, the wireless LAN capability meaning users can stream and download music, video or photos from a PC to the player over a wireless home network or via any network for that matter.

If that wasn't enough, Creative also offers a stack of global podcasts available via something it calls the Creative MediaBox. It's a strange collection of what seems like random podcasts from American and UK radio stations and websites, but it will get you started.

Interestingly, trying to give you more than just access to your media over the wireless network, you can also use the player as a chat service. The player lets you connect to Yahoo or Microsoft Live Messenger, however inputting text on that keypad as if it's a mobile phone is a bit fiddly and not a service you'd really buy this player for.

Using the accompanying software you will also be able to transfer songs to the device via Wi-Fi, saving the mess of using the USB 2.0 cable.

Aside from X-Fi and Wi-Fi, the Zen X-Fi comes with all the usual toys beyond playing music, watching videos, and viewing photos: FM radio, microphone for recording voice notes, organiser, and clock, and alarm are all present.

All sounds great, so what's the catch? There are a few, but none that are likely to make a difference to the majority of users this player is aimed at.

It's not Mac compatible, which might put some buyers off. Then there is the install CD that comes on a mini CD, which could cause you problems if you've got a slot loading CD player (don't panic too much the software is available as a download for free) and finally we found the slow USB transfer a tad annoying, certainly on the first music install. Finally playlists aren't the easiest things to manage without the computer, but then this is a generic Creative problem rather than one restricted to this device.

Verdict

So should you get one? The Creative Zen X-Fi is a very good sounding MP3 player that comes with the option of expanding it even further beyond its 8GB, 16GB or 32GB models.



In fact if you really wanted to push the boat out you could theoretically expand this up to 64GB, an impressive feat in itself.

With that in mind, like the Creative Zen, this is a cracking player that sounds great. The only thing we can think of that could put you off is that it doesn't come with the massive eco-system accompanying that range of MP3 players from Apple.