The player's jog dial as well as its menu, volume, forward/rewind, and play/pause buttons are mounted on the player's left and right sides in a slightly different configuration than on the original Zen, and the power button, the USB 1.1/2.0 port, and the headphone jack are located along the top. The new, larger LCD isn't a big improvement, but it helps with navigation.
Like the Zen NX, the Xtra has a removable front faceplate that provides easy access to the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, making the Zen Xtra easier to recommend to long-term users averse to the idea of their battery losing resiliency after 2 to 3 years.
Creative bundles the Zen Xtra with standard earbuds, an AC adapter, a USB cable, and a durable, belt-clip-equipped black carrying case. Once you've pointed the included MediaSource software to your MP3 collection (or allowed it to scour your hard drive for all applicable music files), transferring songs and playlists to the Zen Xtra is a snap. Users can choose to manually or automatically sync their PC-based music collection with the portable, or they can send songs into folders. MediaSource also handles CD ripping, file conversion, ID3 tag editing, and a host of other handy functions. The USB 2.0 connection provides for fast transfer speeds on computers that are so equipped, but backward compatibility with the older 1.1 standard means the Zen NX model will work with just about any Windows PC.
You can also transfer files onto the Zen Xtra with Nomad Explorer, which enables you to load music more conveniently via Windows Explorer (data files can also be ferried between computers using this option). Another software option worth considering is Red Chair's $25 Notmad Explorer. With a streamlined interface and a bevy of features, it's a worthy alternative to Creative's bundle.
Like its predecessors, the Xtra is compatible with MP3, WMA, and WAV files. The jog dial makes browsing the 30GB hard drive's massive collection of artists, song titles, genres, and playlists a breeze. And Creative's EAX menu offers a comprehensive set of DSP settings and other useful effects, such as speed control, volume normalization, and five-band equalization.
While you can create playlists on the fly, the Xtra's Play Any Track menu option adds the instant ability to shuffle all the songs on the device. This is a marked improvement over the original Zen, which required users to first build an all-track playlist on the computer.
Other onboard features include six different usage profiles (for saving multiple configuration settings), as well as sleep and wake timers. Thanks to the Xtra's superlative 98dB signal-to-noise ratio, our digital music sounded great. The included earbuds performed adequately, but the player's mighty 50mW output was more than enough to power our beefier reference headphones.
File transfers were a quick 0.81MB per second at USB 1.1 and a considerably faster 2.9MB per second on USB 2.0 connections. That means you can fill the Xtra's 30GB hard drive in just more than 2 hours on a USB 2.0 system.
We averaged about 8 hours of playback time on a single charge, with EAX periodically engaged--well shy of the 14 hours claimed by Creative. Recharge time averaged more than 3 hours, with the AC adapter as the only power option; unlike the earlier model, the Zen Xtra does not allow for charging via USB.