It seems hard to imagine a world where there are any other MP3 players of note aside from the unavoidable iPods and yet it wasn’t that long ago that Creative’s Zen range made a big stir (especially with the first Zen X-Fi) because of the generally superior quality of its sound reproduction.
The Zen X-Fi2 has been designed as a significant upgrade and improvement on the original model whilst trying to match the current enthusiasm for all things touch screen. The X-Fi2 is almost unrecognisable from its predecessor as it’s a lot thinner and longer (102 x 57 x 11.6mm), weighs marginally more (75g) and now boasts a 3.0-inch TFT touch screen LCD, with 262,000 colours and a 400 x 240-pixel resolution.
Also, the array of control buttons on the front has largely been dispensed with, leaving just a Menu button and a speaker. The earphone socket and the USB port are still in the same place on the side but the on/off button is now on the top alongside the mini SD slot. There are three different storage sizes available, ranging from 8GB (like the original model), through 16GB (which we’re reviewing here) to a chunky 32GB.
Once switched on you are offered eight menu choices, ranging from Music, Videos and Photos to Mic, RSS feeds and FM Radio, with separate fine tuning for X-Fi audio and the date. The X-Fi enhancement is divided into a Crystalizer, which helps to accentuate the highs and bass notes that have been flattened by compression, and an Expand function that attempts to add more of a 3D surround sound feel to the music. When this is combined with the comfortable and effective external noise reduction earphones, it provides some of the best quality MP3 sounds we’ve experienced.
The X-Fi effect can be switched on and off instantly while you’re listening to a track and the range of audio formats has also been expanded beyond the usual MP3, WMA and WAV to include FLAC4 (Free Lossless Audio Codec) as well as iTunes Plus (unprotected AAC format). In addition, the battery life has been boosted to 25 hours for music play and 5 hours for video. Video looks especially sharp and the unit plays all current popular formats such as DivX, XviD and H.264.
By now you’d expect to be quite excited about the Zen giving the iPods some serious competition but having soared to such expectant heights, Creative then crashes and burns when it comes to the touch screen interface. Instead of opting for the capacitive style technology where you skate lightly across the surface, Creative has chosen a resistive model which requires you to tap firmly on the screen.
There’s no pointer supplied so you’re reliant on finger bashing (a pen actually works better) which frequently needs several taps. If this wasn’t cumbersome enough (changing time and date alone can take a minute), the unlocking system needs a tap on the screen to produce a bubble that you then drag off to the side, and it takes three movements to alter the volume.
This was clearly a missed opportunity but if Creative changes its touch screen technology for the Zen X-Fi3, then Apple might finally have a worthy challenger in the MP3 market.
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