There are currently four models available in the X-Fi series, to be released in the second week of September 2005.
When it boils down to the conclusion we always have to compare to the previous generation product. The first question I always ask myself, would I buy this product over the latest comparable past generation product. With that in mind and without a doubt I have to answer yes. There are several key advantages to the new X-Fi product that make it very interesting. Of course new EAX 5.0 compatibility, improved and gorgeous looking drivers. Sound Processor functionality and capability make this a tremendously better buy over the previous generation products when it comes to the two cheaper models in the X-Fi range (XtremeMusic & Platinum version).
The real deal however kicks in when you buy a Fatality of Elite Pro Edition card. The X-Ram functionally appeals to me. At this moment in time we just can't see the pure benefit of it just yet. As with all new technology the software needs to be patched and made compatible with this new technology. I'm a believer though and I believe this can be a very strong selling point to the gaming audience. I just wish Creative would have made this option scalable. It's utilizing SDRAM, wouldn't it be great to plug in another 128 MB for 50 bucks ? But again, even with 64MB the introduction of X-RAM can be, and probably will be, a hit. Even if it would not give you the benefit of performance, you'd still be saving 64 MB of system memory and games these days need excessive amounts of memory to play around with. I'm all for it!
PCI .. while writing this article one of my editors contacted Creative to ask when the PCI-Express version of this series would arrive. The guy uses a Shuttle SN25P that comes equipped only with 1 PCI-Express 1x and 16x slot. Creative responded that they have no plans for a PCI-Express version at the moment.
For games, well it doesn't get any better then this until a new generation of soundcards comes along I guess. The X-Fi series has all the EAX standards up to 5.0 (Advanced HD) features that will be appearing in many of today's and upcoming games. As an added bonus, the X-Fi will only take up about a couple of % of your CPU cycles to get its work done and when games start to kick in with X-RAM compatibility, who knows what'll happen. Even if you fire off a 127 voice test at the X-Fi then you will finally get roughly a 6% CPU utilization as I had a quick peek with RMAA, yes 127 voices /sounds! This is something the Audigy 4 can' event do (64-voices limited). Suffice to say that not one integrated solution can even get close to that.
From a music point of view you will just love the X-Fi series, especially the addition of the new Crystallizer function, which does its job really well and although you'll probably have a hard time hearing the difference over the Audigy generation of soundcard the difference is there alright. I love my MP3 collection with this function for sure. And with a 108 dB signal to noise ration at a near studio quality, well that's just what the doctor ordered.
No, I have to say that there is nothing out there on a consumer level that can beat the X-Fi products although I do think that the two high-end series cards are getting fairly expensive. If you are in the market of buying a new soundcard, then by all means please skip the Audigy and go for a X-Fi soundcard. From a technical point of view it offers way more features, newer architecture and heaps of connectivity. From the subjective sound point of view I have to say it pretty, much can't get any better then this. If you already own an Audigy then I see no true valid point in upgrading to X-Fi though from a sound experience point of view.
Combine all that goodness with 24 bit capabilities and a fair entry price for the most cheap product in this range and this has to become a success. But my dear gentlemen from Creative, if you want to sell the Fatality FPS version of this gamers soundcard, that price needs to come down. In my humble opinion Creative labs made one nasty error in judgement. Gamers WANT the 64MB X-RAM memory yet will not pay 280 bucks for it. Their limit will be 200 USD at the most. May I recommend to Creative to release the Fatality version without the drive bay and make this card with the 64MB memory available below the 200 USD price range? Because that's the X-Fi card that people want to buy.
Anyway, you can playback sound in any way you want, whether that's in its purest form, enhanced or altered really the X-Fi gives you options in an amateur, average and professional way. You do not need to be an audiophile to be able to operate this card as anyone can work with it. Beautiful designed and for me perfectly stable drivers are another huge plus as we've seen horrific driver issues in the past with Live and Audigy drivers. Both the soundcard's quality, functionality and software are surprisingly impressive. The downside is that unless you are a very hard core gamer or audiophile, you probably won't notice a difference over let's say an Audigy 2/4 except for that sweet Crystallizer function. It does sound superior for music, it does sound superior in games and it does sound superior in Media playback. Also let's not forget all the classifications the card already has, it's certified for all standards like Dolby Digital EX 6.1, DTS ES 6.1 and THX it offers the most complete sound package available to date.
The Creative Soundblaster X-Fi Fatality FPS is wholeheartedly recommended and a dazzling product, I can nitpick slightly about the price but in all fairness, currently there's no other soundcard on this globe that I want in my gaming rig.
Update August 30, 2005 - One of the questions that remained to be answered was why Creative decide to go for a PCI only based soundcard, we found at that in the near future there will not be a PCI-Express version of the sound card. Steve Erickson, vice president for Creative's audio products was kind enough to answer that question, here's his take:
As far as PCI Express (PCIe) is concerned, which is the next bus, what we found is that the performance of PCIe is truly bad for audio. We are seeing four times degradation on the bus for audio.
PCIe is designed for graphics and high data transfer, but audio sends very small packets and the overhead can be very big! Moving the data across PCIe is much, much higher than PCI. So what we have to do is go back to the drawing board and work on the transport part of the chip and re-design it to add more silicon to overcome some of the problems we had with PCIe. So for us to come up with a PCIe solution is going to take a while because we have to overcome the problems we're facing with that bus.
SoundBlaster X-Fi Fatality FPS
Manufacturer: Creative Labs
Price: $279.99 / 249 EUR