Thursday, January 1, 2009

Avoid Fictitious Use Cases

I have a stereo hidden in my kitchen cabinet, with wires that run to speakers in the wall. It's nice that the stereo's hidden away, but it's a pain to use. I wanted to connect it to the iPod on which we have all our music, and I recently discovered that Creative makes a wireless device that seemed perfect. I could put the iPod in a wireless dock on the counter and attach a wireless receiver to the stereo. Or so I thought. It turns out that Creative didn't really think things through.

The system consists of two parts, the Xdock and the X-Fi Receiver. There are only two ways you can possibly use this system, but the system doesn't really support either way.

The first way is to use the Xdock by itself and connect it to your stereo. But, there are no standard RCA audio connections to do so. The only outputs are S-Video, video, and audio optical. And, oh yeah, there's a headphone jack on the front. So, they've substituted an audio optical connection (and a mini one at that) for the universally standard RCA jacks. Just to make sure that I wasn't out of touch with the current state of the art in receivers, I checked on Amazon. Sure enough, the majority of stereo receivers that I looked at did not have audio optical connectors. RCA jacks are still the standard. So, even if you want to connect the Xdock to your stereo, the vast majority of people will be unable to do so. And, for me, there's nothing in my house that I can connect the Xdock to.

The second way is to use the Xdock as a transmitter and the X-Fi Receiver as a receiver. This is the usage that I bought them for. If you read Creative's web site, it sounds like you can control the whole thing from the Receiver. And that would be great. You tuck the X-Fi Receiver away in a cabinet or behind your stereo and just use the Xdock. Unfortunately, the very first thing that I wanted to control -- the volume, duh! -- can't be controlled by the Xdock. Only the volume control on the Receiver itself controls the volume of its audio output. It's as if the folks at Creative hadn't even thought of the obvious use of the transmitter/receiver pair.

Interestingly, the volume controls rotate continuously -- they're soft controls with the true volume level being set in firmware. So, of course, I expected both volume controls to work, and my initial assumption was that I had missed something in setup (the documentation is rather scanty). Sadly, there was nothing to miss.

So, how do the people at Creative think their devices are used? According to the support staff at Creative, "the sole purpose of the [X-Fi] Receiver is to be used by a user who would like to listen to the same music being played on the Xdock but not on the same volume level." What? The sole purpose for the X-Fi Receiver to exist is so that two separate people can listen to the same music, in different rooms, at different volume levels?! Yeah, there's a product need crying out for a solution!

I wouldn't have faulted Creative if they hadn't put volume controls on the product at all -- after all, the output has to go to an amplifier and most amplifiers have volume controls. If that had been the case, or if the sentence above had been on Creative's web site, I simply wouldn't have bought them and I wouldn't be a disgruntled customer. But, to provide controls that only work to support a fictitious use case, in a product that doesn't support multiple, obvious use cases -- that makes no sense.