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Once in a while, a product comes along that makes us sit up and take notice. Sometimes it's because of the way it looks; sometimes because of it's incredible speed and power; and other times it's because it makes one particular task so easy and straightforward that we wonder why no-one else has tried it that way before.
When I first extracted Creative's new MP3 player - the Zen X-Fi - from its box and began to play with it, I had a similar experience. Not because of any of the above reasons, but because it does something I'd never thought I'd need, or would ever see on the spec sheet of any MP3 player: you can use the X-Fi to send and receive instant messages.
The X-Fi has a Wi-Fi adapter (802.11b/g) built into it and once you've used this to hook up to your home Wi-Fi network, you can register it with your Yahoo Instant Messenger or Windows Live Messenger accounts and get messaging. Alas, for the X-Fi, this is not the killer feature Creative might have hoped for. Quite apart from the fact that set up is tortuous - you have to create an account on Creative's website, enter your chat login details there, then login twice on the player before you start - text entry is painfully slow.
The X-Fi is equipped with a nine-button control console to the right of its 2.5in 320 x 240 resolution screen and this is used to tap out letters. But instead of working, as you might expect, like T9 or multitap text entry on a mobile phone keypad, you use it like a directional pad to highlight and then select letters on a screen-based virtual keypad. There is an alternative way of entering text, where letters are arranged around the edge of the screen, but this is even more confusing and difficult to use.
Fortunately for the X-Fi, the rest of the product is a lot more impressive than its IM abilities, and it's absolutely crammed with features. With the Wi-Fi connection, for instance, you can also stream and download tracks from a networked media library. In this way, you can use it as a convenient, portable music-streaming gateway and connect it to any music system to gain access to your PC's music collection.
Transferring tracks is a little slow over Wi-Fi - you wouldn't want to copy more than a few tracks at a time - but it's a nice feature to have. Browsing the media library on your PC while you listen is a surprisingly pleasant experience, and for copying across the odd album, it works very well. The Wi-Fi also allows you to listen to a selection of podcast material stored on Creative's servers, including some BBC content, but this is of less use since you can't download content to the device.
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