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Reviewed by: Carl Nelson [05.05.06]
Manufactured by: Creative Labs

 

Introduction

It's been around for a couple months now, and we've had the chance to use it in our motherboard reviews, usually to make the point that no matter how good onboard sound is, it is almost always worth upgrading to a decent soundcard if you play games at all.

When the X-Fi was introduced, it came in several variations. We'll be looking at the one that is marketed to gamers - you can tell, because it has Jonathan Wendel's Seal of Approval on the box... and a glowing red LED logo...

A Bit More

Actually, unlike "Fatal1ty" branded products from other companies, Creative has gone a bit further than slick paintjobs and fancy LED's in an attempt to make this a truly viable solution for gamers.

Mostly though, the $250 X-Fi Fatal1ty is almost identical to the $100 XtremeMusic version, with the exception of some bundled items, and 64MB of onboard memory that Creative has dubbed, "X-RAM". You can get a version that comes with the bundled items I'm about to talk about in detail, but without the X-RAM, for around $180 - this is the "Platinum Edition".

There is even a super-duper luxury version for professionals dubbed the Elite Pro. This one differs from the rest, as it has professional onboard components, giving it even higher specs than we're about to talk about below. For instance, the Signal/Noise Ratio of the Elite Pro is 116 dB, while the others are 109 dB. If you're interested in producing semi-pro music on your PC, you can grab the Elite Pro for around $380.

The X-Fi Platform

First we'll talk about what all these cards have in common - the X-Fi platform. When the X-Fi was first announced, Creative was quick to brag about the numbers before anything else. Running at 400 MHz, the 130nm X-Fi core is estimated to perform at up to 10,000 MIPS - this is 24 times higher than Creative's previous audio processor, the Audigy 2. Another bragging point; the X-Fi has 51 million transistors - about the same as a Pentium 4 Northwood CPU.

The first buzzword mentioned is AMA - "Active Modal Architecture". This allows the user to select from three different presets in the drivers. Each mode (consisting of Gaming Mode, Entertainment Mode, and Creation Mode) enables or disables a combination of X-Fi features that best suits the environment the user plans to use. We'll discuss this more later on.

Perhaps the most crucial improvement over previous Creative products is that of the sample rate conversion engine - this is what most of those 10,000 MIPS are working on when the X-Fi is in use. Prior Creative products have featured horrible SRC engines - playback of 44.1 kHz audio (which most digital audio is sampled at) upsampled to the card's native 48 kHz output introduced noticable noise, especially at higher frequencies. X-Fi promises to improve vastly on upsampling quality - this is discussed in great detail on Creative's site. X-Fi also supports "bit-perfect" playback, matching the sampling rate of digital sources, bypassing any conversion.

The specifications of these cards are quite impressive, especially of you consider the low price of the XtremeMusic version.

All cards use an 8 channel Cirrus Logic CS4382 DAC, giving them 24-bit, 192 kHz for stereo ouput, and 24-bit, 96 kHz for the remaining 6 channels.

The ADC is a Wolfson WM8775, supporting up to 24-bit 96 kHz for all input channels.

Thankfully, Creative is very open about these limitations on their Specifications Page - gone are the tricky marketing terms they were previously known for. Nowhere on the packaging or marketing do you see "SUPPORTS 24-bit 192 kHz!!!!!!!!!!!!!" with no mention that only 2 output channels support that mode.

X-Fi introduces the latest version of EAX (from version 3 up, it became "EAX Advanced HD") - this time up to version 5.0. EAX Advanced HD 5.0 supports acceleration for up to 128 simultaneous voices - double that of the two prior versions. Additionally, up to 4 EAX effects can be applied to each voice, giving developers more control than ever over the sound we hear in their games.

Creative has a list of games that feature EAX acceleration, but there is no indication of what version each game supports. If you do some digging around, you'll see that Creative has made room for some "Featured Games" that sometimes tells you whether they support EAX 5. Such games include Battlefield 2, Full Spectrum Warrior, and The Regiment.

However even this information is sketchy, as sometimes games are described as featuring "The latest X-Fi features" while others say they support "EAX 5.0" and still others add on "X-RAM support". This kind of lack of information makes things tricky... But when another game that supports X-RAM is released, we'll be sure to know it. Right now, the only games that support X-RAM to my knowlege are Battlefield 2 and Quake 4 (with the latest patch).

X-RAM

The one thing that separates the Fatal1ty and Elite Pro from the rest of the X-Fi lineup is X-RAM. Yes, it's just some onboard ram (64MB to be exact), but you just know Creative couldn't give up the opportunity to create a new word beginning with X.

You may have noticed that the latest version of EAX introduces hardware acceleration for 128 voices, with up to 4 effects applied to each. We know the X-Fi engine can handle this, but the memory requirements have increased quite a bit. X-RAM should allow developers to make full use of the new features of EAX 5.0, while at the same time increasing sampling rates, and lowering compression of sounds in games. If the X-Fi represents "the soundcard of tomorrow" the ones with X-RAM onboard are truly "the soundcards of next year". This is evidenced by the fact that only two games make use of X-RAM at all. Only time will tell if other developers will hop on board, spending the extra resources on features that will only be useful to those who spent more than $250 on their soundcard.

The other things that set the Fatal1ty apart from the $100 XtremeMusic are more tangible; we'll get to those on the next page.

Next Page: (Fatal1ty Hardware)