Creative have had a hard slog in the media player market. They have consistently produced reasonable players but have had a hard time taking any market share. The reason is comes down to brand positioning and innovation, both of which they sorely lack. The new Zen XFi2 continues their trend of players that produce excellent sound and a wide range of features. The design is much more streamlined and attractive than previous players but there is no real innovation in the product and as such, they will undoubtedly join the background noise of the MP3 market dominated by the Apple iPod.
We tested the XFi2 and were impressed with its audio performance. It has EQ settings, which work quite well but without them it still sounds excellent. The XFi sound processing needs to be turned on and can be adjusted to boost the music and make it feel more robust. However, while it did make it sound better at mid volume, when the player reached the higher end of its volume range, having the XFi features switched on created some distortion and hiss. The Zen is capable of extremely loud volume though and most normal people that respect their eardrums probably won’t sit on the highest setting very often. If you do listen to it at that volume, we recommend you turn the Xfi features off.
Like previous Zen players, there are quite a lot of features crammed into one tiny package. The player can display videos and images in addition to audio files. The video formats supported are Windows Media 9, MPEG4, Divx and XViD. The audio codecs include MP3, WMA (DRM9), WAV (IMA-ADPCM) Audible4, AAC and FLAC.. It is rare to find an MP3 player that will support lossless formats like FLAC, which is likely to make audiophiles quite happy. The image formats are limited to JPG and BMP although the bundled software will convert TIFF, GIF and PNG files. There is no RAW support though. The player also has an FM radio and voice recorder feature which works quite well. The microphone picked up a little background noise when recording but it wasn’t too bad.
The interface is similar to previous Zen players but has had a few minor tweaks that are vast improvements. However, like previous models, it is a little cumbersome to use and will take some getting used to. In a market dominated by the iPod, the way to a customers heart is a slick and easy to use interface and in that regard, the Zen falls down. The biggest issue with the interface is that it isn’t as responsive as it needs to be. The touch screen picks up the user interaction easily enough but the operating system is a little sluggish at times diminishing the enjoyment of the player. For example, scrolling through lists quickly is difficult as the list tends to scroll too fast or too slow. You are constantly having to go back through as you miss what you are after. Another example is the way you unlock the device which Involves dragging an icon off screen to unlock. This is slow to move and often has to be done more than once to be effective. It seems like a minor issue but it is things like this that Apple does well and what customers respond to.
The design is very attractive with very few buttons. The device is dominated by the 3inch TFT touch screen. The resolution of the screen is only 400×240 pixels which makes the icons lose some fidelity and appear a little pixelated at times. Also the screen isn’t bright enough and gets drowned out in sunlight. With many players adopting LED or OLED screens, a TFT screen is a little outdated.
The device used mini USB to connect to a PC which also acts as its charger via trickle charging. It also uses the same port to facilitate its TV out functionality but the required cable is not included in the sales package. The internal storage comes in 8GB, 16GB and 32GB variants but it also has a MicroSD slot so the storage possibilities are unlimited.
The supplied headphones are very impressive too. The Zen comes with Creative EP-630 in-ear earphones which sound great. Being in-ear, they cut out quite a bit of background noise. They aren’t quite as effective at noise cancelling as other headphones on the market but considering you get them as part of the sales package, we were highly impressed with their performance.
The Zen XFi2 has it problems but on the whole it is an impressive little player. Audiophile will love the file support and sound quality and even fashionistas will enjoy its aesthetic. It doesn’t have the chops to put a dent in the media player market though but if you are looking for an alternative to an iPod, it is an excellent choice.