Creative Zen X-Fi 2 £129.99
1st Oct 2009 | 14:49
Creative's first touchscreen MP3 player - but does it measure up?
Creative Zen X-Fi 2: Overview
It's no secret that Creative is in a spot of bother.
Dwindling fortunes have caused the Singaporean company to scale back its operations in order to concentrate on its core businesses - making PC soundcards and MP3 players.
The problem for us is that Creative used to make the best MP3 players of them all. Back in 2005, the Creative Zen Vision:M was totally kick-ass and put the iPod equivalent at the time to shame.
However, since then we have seen two things happen. Firstly, the Apple iPod improved massively, with millions of dollars of R&D resulting in the release of the world-beating, brilliantly-constructed iPod touch.
And secondly, Creative's fortunes dwindled, and while the original Zen X-Fi had brilliant sound quality, it was not in the same league as the iPod nano or touch in terms of either design or interface.
Creative's next big thing is the Zii Egg, a Google Android-powered touchscreen X-Fi device that has more in common with the latest mobile phones than previous Creative MP3 players. It looks seriously impressive.
But while we're waiting for that one, here we have the latest in the long-running Zen series, the Creative Zen X-Fi 2.
Creative Zen X-Fi 2: Features
The big difference with the Zen X-Fi 2 is that it does away with the fiddly buttons of previous Zen models in favour of a resistive touchscreen interface.
The screen itself has thus increased in size to three-inches with a fairly average resolution of 400 x 240 and the only button on the front of the device is an Apple-like 'home' button that takes you back to the home screen.
Battery life has also been improved due to the inclusion of a bigger cell - over 24 hours of music playback is now possible, with 5 hours of video. And the on/off/hold button has changed as well. It's now flush to the chassis like on the iPod touch, and to unlock it you have to drag a bubble off the touchscreen - also touch-esque.
The X-Fi sound processing is also retained and improved. X-Fi basically up-mixes audio to try and replace the fidelity lost in compression. MP3 compression, for example, tends to push most music into the midrange, muddying cymbal crashes and blunting deep bass.
X-Fi seeks to restore the peaks at the high end while deepening and smoothing out the bass. It's worked brilliantly in X-Fi soundcards for years, but in the original X-Fi MP3 player the results were a bit hit and miss.
We'll see how well X-Fi is working in this model on the next page.
The X-Fi 2 is available in 8, 16 and 32GB flavours and it also has the ability to playback video through a TV or monitor - you'll need an additional AV cable for that though.
CHANGES: The Zen X-Fi 2 is slimmer, but also longer than the original Zen X-Fi
And the file format compatibility is what you'd expect, with support for all the usual formats including DivX and Xvid, as well as lossless FLAC music which will please the audiophiles out there.
Other misc features such as organiser, calendar, FM radio and clock are all present and accounted for.
Features that have disappeared from the original Zen X-Fi include the Wireless networking that allowed you to stream audio over a network from PCs and other Zens. Did anyone actually use that feature anyway?
Creative Zen X-Fi 2: Performance
As Creative's brand-leading MP3 player, you'd think its performance would be right up there competing with Apple's iPod touch, but that's not really the case here.
The price of this 16GB model is just £129 - the same price as the new 16GB iPod nano and nearly half the price of the 16GB 3rd generation iPod touch.
So that's why we'll be comparing the X-Fi 2 to the nano rather than the touch.
So, the question on everyone's lips is bound to be - is the touchscreen on the Zen X-Fi 2 any good?
Well, it's fairly safe to say that anyone who's been using devices like iPhone, iPod touch, HTC Hero and so on, will find the X-Fi 2's touchscreen an absolute nightmare to use.
But that's more a reflection on the superiority of more expensive capacitive screens in comparison to the resistive one we have here. With capacitive screens, you can literally glide your finger over it and the device will respond.
Resistive screens need a much firmer press, and tend to be more sticky and less responsive.
The practical upshot of this is that the Zen X-Fi 2 is a bit sluggish, and the touchscreen is not terribly easy to use. Scrolling through menus is a bit of a clunky affair, and consequently it takes time to get to the album or song you want.
However, with a bit of practice you can used to it and it's not quite as noticeable - until of course you have another go on a capacitive device.
Still though, we just can't work out why Creative has chosen a touchscreen interface for this player. It's totally unnecessary and frankly, ruins it as a product.
To give an example of how clunky this bad boy is; if you're listening to music and the player is in your pocket, how do you change the volume? You have to take it out your pocket, press the unlock button and then a bubble appears on the screen. You have to drag this bubble off the screen in order to unlock the device.
This is not as easy as it sounds - it typically takes two or three attempts before it works. And when it does finally respond, the bubble doesn't glide smoothly off stage with your finger - it lags half a second behind and then clunks off with about 3 jerky movements.
Then you've got to tap the screen to bring up the options, then click the volume button, then drag the dial to the desired level. We timed this process at 11 seconds at a push. With the iPod touch 64GB it takes 4 seconds - Apple was clever enough to put volume controls as 'real buttons' on the side of the device for volume control, and it's much much easier to unlock too.
And that's just one example of how it takes an age to do something on the X-Fi 2, when other players are far quicker and easier to use. For the record, it also takes four seconds on the original X-Fi.
The lack of an accelerometer also means the X-Fi 2 screens is permanently anchored in landscape mode. And so unless you want to navigate the player while reading the menus sideways, it's impossible to use with only one hand.
The Zen range hasn't had one-hand functionality since the aforementioned super-brilliant Zen Vision:M.
Creative Zen X-Fi 2: Sound quality
So far, so ho-hum then.
But the original Zen X-Fi had a trump card in that it was the best sounding MP3 player out there, so we're expecting similarly impressive performance here. And thankfully, Creative has not let us down.
With X-Fi crystallisation enabled, music and video sound fantastic. Creative has even added a little X-Fi perma-button at the top of the screen so you can turn X-Fi on or off at any time without navigating away from your 'now playing' item.
The Zen X-Fi 2 ships with some high-quality noise-isolating earbuds which are far and away more impressive than the plastic pieces of junk that come with the iPod and most other players.
X-Fi: Turn X-Fi on and off from the perma-button at the top of the screen
However, to test the sound quality, we used a £200 pair of Shure earphones and compared the sound against both the new iPod touch 64GB and the new 5th generation iPod nano.
The results were pretty much as expected. Sound quality is always a subjective thing, but to our ears the X-Fi 2 sounded better than both iPods when crystallisation was set to about 75 per cent. However, with X-Fi switched off, sound quality was below that of the iPods.
The X-Fi functionality does take a certain degree of audio processing, and as such uses more power and decreases battery life. Still though, we can't think of a single reason to not have it enabled, at least when listening to compressed music files like MP3 and WMA files.
Virtual surround sound
The other benefit of X-Fi is its 'expand' option (also known as CMSS-3D in X-Fi soundcards). This is designed to simulate a virtual 3D soundstage, and to bring flat music to life. Essentially, it makes music sound like the band is playing out in front of you, instead of flat music being played into your ears through earphones.
The results have always been a bit hit and miss, and vary wildly between different recordings.
The 'expand' setting on the original X-Fi was nothing short of a disaster. It just didn't work and made music sound horrible.
Thankfully, this is not the case with the X-Fi 2. The expand setting does, in most cases, improve the sound of the music. Still, it's very subjective so it'll be up to you whether you want it switched on and with which types of music.
Creative Zen X-Fi 2: Verdict
As Creative's brand-leading MP3 player, the X-Fi 2 was always going to be a decent player. Excellent sound quality is the trump card and in general the player is easy to use.
X-Fi enhancement makes MP3s sound brilliant, while the bundled earphones are fantastic. Apple should really be doing something similar with the iPod touch. The screen is also big and bright, with a menu that's easy to find your way around in.
We've also got a pretty agreeable price here - £129 for a 16GB touchscreen player with category-leading sound quality is pretty good in our books - and it's cheaper than the original X-Fi was on launch.
The touchscreen doesn't quite work and we reckon it's a totally unnecessary addition. It's no easier to use than the previous X-Fi, and the clunky menu system needs to be smoothed out to make it worthwhile. It's so unresponsive that it actually detracts from the experience. It's an absolute deal-breaker.
The interface can also be pretty fiddly - it takes longer to navigate to your music on the X-Fi 2 than on the iPod nano, touch and even the original Zen X-Fi. This is not acceptible in an age of intuitive design.
All in all the Creative Zen X-Fi 2 is a decent MP3 player. However, with the Zii Egg on the horizon, it's hard to recommend buying this player.
We prefer the original Zen X-Fi, mainly because it too offers X-Fi audio, and yet the interface is more zippy - the touchscreen doesn't really offer anything more than gimmickry.
That said, if you're in the market for a new player and you're looking to spend around £100, you could do a lot worse than the X-Fi 2.