"Great player, not so great software"3.5 starson by make_or_break
Pros: Excellent audio and video quality, easy UI.
Cons: Creative Centrale, so-so battery charge life, derivative iPhone styling
Summary: Don't get me wrong, I truly enjoy the hardware side of my 32GB Creative Zen X-Fi. Performance-wise, I think it's one of the best PMP devices I've ever owned. It does almost all the music formats I need it to do. It's been packed with even more features than the already excellent 32GB Zen it supplants as leader in Creative's flash-based lineup. And its delivery performance (picture, audio) is as good as it gets.
But as great as the hardware is, the Creative Centrale software tempers a lot of my enthusiasm for the platform. It's been about as UN-stable a media client application as I've ever used; constant lockups and outright crashes, and this irritating ability to destabilize Windoze XP Pro as a whole...it's not a program I like or care to use as a result. Unfortunately, I have to if I want to import in video since a bit of translating often needs to happen before certain video files can be used on the X-Fi. And I have to rely on Centrale if I want to use any of my non-DRMed AAC library I maintain for my iPods (roughly 26,000 song files at this time), since the drag-n-drop feature available to MP3 and WMA users doesn't work with AAC (additional "translation" is needed, which unfortunately is what Centrale does when it's not crashing, that is). Unlike my wonderful Sony NWZ-A818, where drag-n-drop works for a wide range of formats, including for those AAC files I rely upon, so much of my content has to works its way through buggy Centrale before it's rendered useful for the X-Fi.
Enough with the depressing stuff...at least the hardware is bloody near brilliant. As a former owner of the predessor Zen (I went through TWO of those, both of which bricked due to a faulty optional Creative AC adapter I purchased with my first 32GB Zen and I belately discovered after-the-fact when the second unit froze up in the same manner--right after charging), the X-Fi does everything I asked my Zen to do and a fair bit more, although I will say with mixed results. The audio processing of the Zen's X-Fi Crystalizer and Expander to me is hit-and-miss; with some genres of song it works great, with others it oversaturates the extreme ends of the sonic spectrum, which make for an unpleasurable listening experience. I typically use my Shure SE530 canals with my X-Fi (as I did with my Zens before), and the combo makes for an near unbeatable listening experience. I say near-unbeatable, since the Zen X-Fi does have one downside: it doesn't do lossless audio, only compressed bitrates and/or formats.
As for the Wi-Fi/wireless features...I'll have to defer to others on that. It's a feature I have little use for since I'm of an age that I don't see myself using such a tiny device for conversing. And for aesthetics, the X-Fi's iPhone-like styling is take-it-or-leave-it to me. It seems very copycat-like, yet it gives the the X-Fi a classy feel. I admit I prefer the main, two-piece controller on the Zen over the nine-button configuration on the X-Fi, but with the X-Fi it gives four additional command points (the corner buttons) that the Zen didn't have. As of now, I've only discovered that the two left corner buttons are used by my X-Fi among the features I've toyed with so far with the firmware that's on the player right now (1.00.06), and only in a limited capacity at that. But with additional firmware updates (hopefully), Creative could develop this interface into something more useful.
As for the player's actual UI it's straightforward Zen, although data input has been revised from a Qwerty-like interface to a cellphone-like multitap one, which ironically works a LOT better, even though the nine-button isn't yet programmed right to realize its full potential. For instance, when naming a playlist with this firmware, I still have to select the actual letter I want with the center "5" spot button, and use the the other eight button to navigate to the right "key" to pick out the next letter, rather than the X-Fi assigning the actual physical button to the appropriate key, like a multitap cellphone does.
The front face is just like an iPhone in another way...it's a fingerprint magnet. The silver rear cover at least is matte-finished, and though I don't share Jasmine France's desire for a metal back I do think that the Zen's matte black back looked a lot better. I don't like the repositioning of the power/hold switch to the rear of the X-Fi (it was on the right side of the Zen), but I applaud the relocation of the reset switch from the bottom of the player to the side, and to using a flush-type switch instead of the pinhole type (you WILL on occasion need to use the reset too, as I've rudely discovered). The X-Fi is marginally thicker than the svelte Zen, but ironically this works a bit to its advantage if you use the leather flip case that Creative sold with for the Zen. Even though the power switch is in the wrong spot for the case, the added thickness fits the case far better than the Zen ever did.
I go back and forth on whether the X-Fi is my best-sounding PMP, but in the end I tend to tip in the favor for my Zune 80. But it's so close that it really IS a hard choice. None of my iPods really compare in terms of audio quality, and my sweet little Sony tends to add a bit of tone to its audio that puts it down onto the second-tier, though only just (the best of my iPods, on the other hand, can only make it to the third-tier, continuing with this sort of rating system). The drawback with the Zune 80 of course is its reliance on a hard drive for data storage, which a flash-based device does not need worry about. Of course, with a flash-based device there's only so many times data can be written to it before the NAND chip won't work anymore, but for now that's a day that's still a long way off, which in the meantime affords me piece of mind in not having to worry about damaging the moving parts of a hard drive.
But quality and durability is still in the back of my mind. As I mentioned earlier, I literally 'burned' through two 32GB Zens. Though the blame was ultimately determined to be caused by the AC charger, I still wonder if the miniature design of the Zen had something to do with it. Certainly there's less room to put 'stuff' into the Zen/Zen X-Fi; does that mean that Creative had to cut corners on circuitry protection as well? I really don't know for sure if the AC charger was truly faulty, or just a bit out of spec that the Zens couldn't handle the current coming from it (it WAS supposed to be the authorized charger for the Zen). Both were charged using the AC adapter on a solid power regulated protection bar--I have several tens of thousands of dollars of audio equipment hooked up to that strip, which is also line regulated by a power conditioner. Yet the Zens bricked anyways after AC charging. As a result, I tossed the AC adapter (actually I returned it for a partial refund--I got a whole refund for the Zen) and only juice up the X-Fi via USB2 on my main media computer. A bit inconvenient as I have to leave my computer on, but it works.
Battery life on the X-Fi (Wi-Fi turned off) with audio use is about the same as with the Zen: not impressive. Since the LCD is on all of the time (it doesn't blank out like it does on my other devices), it's not really surprising, especially with all that text scrolling it does with the song metadata. The Crystalizer and Expander do seem to increase the rate of drainage from the battery, but it's still not all that impressive even with the signal processing turned off. I typically don't use the equalizer, but even when I toy around with it I've noticed that the amount of gain when the EQ is turned off is higher than when it's being used, either with one of the preset choices or with the custom EQ. I haven't gone all the way down to "WARNING: CHARGE ME OR DIE" mode yet, but the X-Fi does seem to get down to an indicated 50% bar pretty fast, far quicker than its supposedly rated 30 hrs of charge for audio would seem to infer (4 hrs vs. 15, if the 30 hr benchmark is to be believed).
In the end, I'd have to rate the X-Fi a weak 4 out of 5 stars. It's a great player that has a middling battery charge and a horrid piece of software managing it. After all these years, Creative, I would've thought that you would've been able to come with a decent client app by now. It was bad with my original 20GB Nomad Zen, and it hasn't gotten much better a half a decade or so later.
(I will say that I AM surprised at how CNET downgraded the Zen X-Fi's final grade from that of the previous Zen's, since they are pretty close to being one in the same. Considering the improvements mades, I would've thought that the scoring would've been closer; I guess that delaminating front panel DOES count for something and leave an impression, after all.)