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Sometime ago I managed to break (don’t ask) my Sandisk Sansa MP3 player. My phone is okay but it just doesn’t have the features (and sound) of a dedicated player. So, I’m now a proud owner of a Creative Zen X-Fi Style player.

The “style” range of Creative Zen players are one of a number of models that Creative produce and the 8GB red version that I have can be found for £65.60 at Amazon. In comparison, the cheapest 8GB Apple iPod available at Amazon is the black Nano at £102.60 (more money for other colours). The Style is also available in 16 and 32GB models, as well as colours of black or white.

Packaging wise, Creative have kept it very minimal with a simple plastic exterior holding the player in front in full view, containing a box with all the manuals and accessories in. There is no full manual or software included – I’ll mention that in a bit. However, you get a quick start guide, headphones (which are reasonable – nothing too exciting, but better than those provided with most players) and a short USB cable (which is used for data transfer and recharging).

The player itself is quite dinky but houses a 2.4″ screen (the iPod Nano screen is 2.2″). It’s held in landscape and to the right of the screen is a 4-way selector (and click centre to select) and is flanked top and bottom with 2 rocker switches – the top one is a back and menu button and the bottom one is a user shortcut and play/pause button. The back is always white, but the top reflects the colour you chose (in my case red), shown in a fake carbon fibre effect. The screen is seamless – there’s no step or ridge between it and the rest of the case. The case, though, is plastic and the buttons feel particularly cheap – considering the price, this is the kind of thing you’ll have to expect. None-the-less, they work well.

On the top of the player is a microphone and a power (and hold) button, on the side is the headphone socket and USB connection and on the bottom is a reset button. To the rear is a speaker grill. Creative have gone down the frustrating Apple route, in that the battery appears to be non-replaceable. It’s recharged via USB but there’s no obvious way to access it if you need to change it in future. However, it does go 25 hours between charges (which playing music).

In use, the Zen takes a few seconds to “boot up”, after which you are presented with a clear colour screen (320×240 pixels) with good viewing angles. The menu is easy to navigate and, generally, the whole device is easy to use.

The “X-Fi” part of the products name is a technology of Creatives that improves the quality of compressed audio (i.e. MP3). By default this isn’t turned on, but can be easily done via the X-Fi menu option.

The Style is not just a music player, but will also display photos, play video and has an FM radio. There is an offline RSS reader (the software to synchronise feeds is actually on the player itself and you run it from your PC once the Style is connected to it) and organiser function and the microphone can be used for voice recording.

The radio has good reception but isn’t RDS, although you can name stations yourself.

Audio, photos and videos can all be converted to compatible formats by using the downloadable software, named Creative Centrale. To keep packaging to a minimum, the full manual and software is on the player (in the folder named “Starter Pack”) or downloadable from their website. This will catalogue your media and transfer it to your player, converting the format, if required. It will also synchronise with the organiser as well from products such as Microsoft Outlook. The software is okay – it’s not always obvious how you do things and it lacks any “power” options for the more advanced user (e.g. conversion options) but, well, it works and I was happily transferring files onto the player. You can use Windows Media Player instead, but that won’t provide the automatic format conversion.

So, the music and video itself. The audio is excellent – especially when paired with a good set of headphones – and it can be played through the headphones or the rear-facing speaker. The speaker is not particularly loud, but is as good as you’d expect from one as small as it is and is a useful addition to have! Video too is excellent with crisp colours and a clear output.

I’d recommend upgrading the player to the latest firmware – this is easy to do and, as it will cause your custom settings to be lost, is well worth doing quite early on. All of my tests have been done with the latest 1.03.04 firmware (it comes with 1.00.04 by default).

One of the downsides of buying any MP3 player, other than an iPod, is the lack of accessories as most manufacturers seem to concentrate entirely on Apple products. Creative themselves have a few accessories available – screen protectors, silicon case, an AV cable (so you can view videos and photos directly on your TV!) and a power cable (that runs from the mains). They’re not cheap however, and eBay comes up empty (with the exception of the power connector). I’d recommend a silicon skin, but only if you’re buying the player from Creative in the first place – they’re £12.99 in the first place and with delivery of £5, that makes a grand total of £17.99. For a case.

The Zen X-Fi Style is an excellent music and video player for the money – the sound output and display are superb and all the extras (such as the radio and speaker) make it excellent value for money.

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