While the XtremeMusic’s reasonable price tag has made it our favorite X-Fi, the card doesn’t offer much in the way of extra I/O ports. It also lacks X-RAM—onboard memory that can be used by the X-Fi audio processor to store additional voices and higher quality audio assets. Creative claims X-RAM can ultimately improve gaming performance. Fortunately, both X-RAM and additional I/O ports are available on the X-Fi Fatal1ty, with a red LED riding shotgun, of course.
To explore the X-Fi’s potential with X-RAM onboard and a collection of extra I/O ports at its disposal, we’ve cornered an X-Fi Fatal1ty for testing. Read on to see if it can match the XtremeMusic’s impeccable audio quality—and whether X-RAM makes a difference in the games that support it.
X-Fi and X-RAM
Before we continue, I strongly suggest you read our original review of the X-Fi audio processor. Our initial coverage of the chip delves into the X-Fi’s flexible audio ring architecture, 24-bit Crystalizer, CMSS-3D, playback modes, and Creative’s bundled software. That discussion applies to the X-Fi Fatal1ty, which shares the same audio processor, software, and capabilities as the rest of the X-Fi lineup. The Fatal1ty does bring a couple of extra bells and whistles to the table, though. Among them is support for onboard memory that Creative has dubbed X-RAM.
X-RAM may be a fancy new marketing moniker, but onboard sound card memory isn’t exactly a novel idea. After all, Creative’s own AWE32 was available with between two and eight megabytes of onboard memory years ago. Creative insists that X-RAM is different, though, because it’s there explicitly for use by applications. Developers are free to exploit X-RAM as they see fit, and Creative hopes they’ll use it to cache uncompressed audio. Doing so could save CPU cycles and improve in-game frame rates, especially when developers take advantage of the X-Fi’s support for 128 simultaneous hardware voices. Creative also likes to talk about how caching uncompressed audio with X-RAM can free up system memory, but with current X-RAM implementations packing only 64MB onboard, that’s not saving you much.
To illustrate X-RAM’s performance potential, Creative modified Unreal Tournament 2004’s audio engine increase the number of simultaneous hardware voices and support X-RAM. This updated Unreal Tournament build was originally going to be made available to X-Fi owners, although when we asked for a copy, Creative indicated that it was no longer planning to make the build public. Since we couldn’t get our hands on the build for testing, we have to rely on the results Creative details in its X-Fi reviewer’s guide.
Creative’s tests contrast Unreal Tournament 2004 performance with “basic” audio, which decompresses audio streams on the fly, and with X-RAM caching uncompressed audio. The results speak for themselves, as X-RAM enables higher frame rates with both 10 and 30 simultaneous voices. Note that the performance drop from 10 to 30 voices is much less significant with X-RAM caching uncompressed audio, as well. Of course, considering that these tests were conducted by Creative using a special build of the Unreal Tournament engine that won’t be publicly released, they may represent a best-case scenario for X-RAM’s performance impact.
In addition to caching standard, uncompressed audio, X-RAM can be used to store higher quality audio samples that would have been infeasible to stream from the hard drive or decompress on the fly. That could allow developers to finally bring high-definition audio to games, since the X-Fi supports 24-bit/96kHz audio for all 128 of its hardware voices.
As with many new features, developers must specifically target X-RAM to reap any benefits that the onboard memory can provide. Two publicly available games already do this, with Battlefield 2 and Quake 4 using X-RAM to cache in-game audio. Creative says X-RAM support is coming in more upcoming titles, as well, although we have to wonder just how willing developers will be to dedicate resources to exploiting a feature that has such little market penetration. X-RAM is currently only available on the X-Fi Fatal1ty and Elite Pro, which cost upwards of $250 and $330, respectively. Considering their price tags, it’s unlikely that X-RAM support will reach a critical mass among gamers and enthusiasts any time soon.
To support X-RAM, the X-Fi Fatal1ty is endowed with a 64MB memory chip that you won’t find on the XtremeMusic. The Fatal1ty card also adorns the X-Fi audio chip with a small heat sink, although we haven’t run into overheating problems with our heat sink-less XtremeMusic. Oh, and there’s a bit of plastic at the top right corner of the card that houses the back-lit Fatal1ty logo. Red LEDs will make you frag like Fatal1ty, or so we’ve been told.
Apart from its extra memory, heat sink, and LED housing, the X-Fi Fatal1ty audio card appears to be identical to the XtremeMusic. Given the XtremeMusic’s credentials, that’s a good thing. Both cards share an impressive 109dB signal-to-noise ratio, and both can handle audio streams up to 24 bits at 192kHz. The X-Fi’s support for 24-bit/192kHz audio isn’t universal, though. Cards in the X-Fi family can only handle 192kHz for stereo output; input and multichannel output are limited to 96kHz.
Creative says the X-Fi audio chip can actually handle 24-bit/192kHz recording, but the Fatal1ty’s Wolfson WM8775 analog-to-digital converter (ADC) only supports 24-bit input up to 96kHz. The card’s Cirrus Logic CS4382 digital-to-audio converter (DAC) supports 24-bit/192kHz output across the board; however, Creative limits 192kHz to stereo output because commercial multichannel 24-bit/192kHz content simply doesn’t exist. Multichannel DVD-Audio only goes up to 96kHz, with 192kHz reserved for stereo recordings, making it hard to fault Creative’s compromise.
We do take issue with the X-Fi Fatal1ty’s port cluster compromises, though. The card only offers three analog output ports, and while that’s just enough for six-channel audio, it’s less than ideal for eight-channel speaker configurations. To support eight-channel output, the X-Fi Fatal1ty’s left and right surround channels hitch a ride on the card’s rear and center/sub outputs. This requires special cables that Creative doesn’t bundle with the card.
What’s especially puzzling about the X-Fi’s port cluster is the fact that there’s a fourth jack just sitting there. That port can be switched between an analog mic/line in port and a digital output port, but for some reason, it’s impossible to configure it as an analog surround output.
The X-Fi Fatal1ty makes up for these limitations with a 5.25″ drive bay insert that serves up a wide variety of extra ports. The Fatal1ty I/O drive offers digital Coaxial and TOS-Link S/PDIF input and output ports, analog RCA inputs, and 1/4″ headphone and microphone jacks. Individual volume knobs are available for the headphone and mic jacks, as well, although the knobs protrude about half an inch from the front of the drive bay so they may interfere with the drive bay doors on some cases.
For the musically inclined, the Fatal1ty I/O drive offers MIDI input and output ports, complete with a couple of MIDI adapter plugs. Creative also throws a 3.5mm-to-1/4″ headphone/mic adapter into the box, along with a little something extra for the home theater PC crowd.
Home theater PC aspirations?
Fatal1ty-branded products are primarily targeted at gamers and enthusiasts, but that hasn’t stopped Creative from including an IR remote control with the X-Fi Fatal1ty.
It’s actually a pretty nice remote, and we were surprised to find that the 24-bit Crystalizer, CMSS-3D, 3DMIDI, EAX, and volume control wheels work throughout Windows.
The individual controls even worked in games, complete with handy pop-ups icons illustrating the intensity level of each effect. Control over CMSS-3D, the 24-bit Crystalizer, and volume should come in especially handy when gaming, as different games tend to require little tweaks here and there.
Unfortunately, the remote’s other functions are limited to Creative’s bundled Entertainment Center software. Entertainment Center isn’t all that bad, but it’s a far cry from Windows Media Center Edition. Still, Entertainment Center is capable of playing back multichannel DVD-Audio, a feature missing from many media center apps.
Our testing methods
To test the X-Fi Fatal1ty’s X-RAM, we’ll be comparing the card’s performance with that of the X-RAM-less X-Fi XtremeMusic in Battlefield 2 and Quake 4—the only commercial titles that currently support Creative’s onboard memory scheme. We’ll also be testing the Fatal1ty’s audio playback quality in RightMark Audio Analyzer to see how it compares with the XtremeMusic, and we’ve even probed some of the Fatal1ty I/O drive’s extra input and output ports.
Since this review focuses on the Fatal1ty’s unique features, we haven’t run the card through a full suite of audio performance and listening tests against a wider range of competitors. You can see how the X-Fi stacks up against other sound cards in our exhaustive XtremeMusic review. We have included our motherboard’s integrated Realtek ALC850 AC’97 audio as a reference point, though.
All tests were run at least twice, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.
|Processor||AMD Athlon 64 3500+ 2.2GHz|
|System bus||HyperTransport 16-bit/1GHz|
|Motherboard||DFI LANParty UT NF4 SLI-DR Expert|
|North bridge||NVIDIA nForce4 SLI|
|Chipset drivers||ForceWare 6.70|
|Memory size||2GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair CMX1024-3500LLPRO DDR SDRAM at 400MHz|
|CAS latency (CL)||2|
|RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)||3|
|RAS precharge (tRP)||2|
|Cycle time (tRAS)||6|
|Hard drives||Western Digital Raptor WD360GD 37GB SATA|
|Audio|| Creative X-Fi XtremeMusic|
Creative X-Fi Fatal1ty
|Audio driver||Creative 2.07.0004||Realtek 3.82|
|Graphics||NVIDIAGeForce 7800 GTX with ForceWare 81.98 drivers|
|OS||Microsoft Windows XP Professional|
|OS updates||Service Pack 2, DirectX 9.0c|
Thanks to Corsair for providing us with memory for our testing. 2GB of RAM seems to be the new standard for most folks, and Corsair hooked us up with some of its 1GB DIMMs for testing.
Our test systems were powered by OCZ PowerStream power supply units. The PowerStream was one of our Editor’s Choice winners in our latest PSU round-up.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5
- Quake 4 1.0.4
- Battlefield 2 1.2
The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests. Most of the 3D gaming tests used the Medium detail image quality settings, with the exception that the resolution was set to 640×480 in 32-bit color.
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
We tested both Battlefield 2 and Quake 4 by using FRAPS and playing through a portion of the game manually. For these games, we played through five 90-second gaming sessions per config and captured average and low frame rates for each. The average frames per second number is the mean of the average frame rates from all five sessions. We also chose to report the median of the low frame rates from all five sessions, in order to rule out outliers. Finally, we’ve included an extra graph that tracks average frame rates over the length of our 90-second gaming session. We found that these methods gave us reasonably consistent results.
In Battlefield 2, the X-Fi cards were run with the game’s Creative X-Fi audio renderer and ultra high sound quality. The X-Fi renderer doesn’t work with the ALC850, so it was run with the game’s hardware renderer. Using the hardware renderer for the ALC850 also dropped the in-game sound quality setting from ultra high to high quality. EAX was enabled for all configurations.
Battlefield 2’s video quality options were set to their highest values throughout, with the exception of antialiasing, which was disabled.
So much for Battlefield 2’s use of X-RAM. Although the Fatal1ty manages slightly higher average and median low frame rates in the Strike at Karkand level, it’s a little behind the XtremeMusic in the Dalian Plant level. The Fatal1ty doesn’t appear to maintain smoother frame rates over the length of our 90-second test, either.
At least both X-Fis offer higher average and low frame rates than the ALC850. The ALC850 also doesn’t sound nearly as good, offering fewer simultaneous sounds, duller playback, and numerous positional miscues.
In Battlefield 2, the X-Fi cards were run with the game’s OpenAL sound system and EAX Advanced HD enabled. The OpenAL sound system isn’t compatible with the ALC850, so we tested the ALC850 with the game’s default sound system and surround speaker setting.
Quake 4’s video quality setting was set to high quality mode with antialiasing disabled.
Unfortunately, Quake 4 is capped at 60 frames per second, and both of our gameplay sessions spent most of their time at or above that level. That didn’t leave much room for X-RAM to differentiate itself, or even for the X-Fi cards to meaningfully distance themselves from the ALC850.
Capped frame rates aside, the X-Fis clearly sounded better than the ALC850. Sounds were much richer on the Creative cards, and although we didn’t encounter any positional miscues with the ALC850, it did seem to be playing fewer simultaneous sounds than the X-Fi cards.
Quake 4 – con’t
There are two ways to get around Quake 4’s capped frame rates, but neither is particularly attractive. We could increase the game’s video quality settings in an attempt to lower performance, but that could potentially confuse the issue by making the graphics card the bottleneck. Instead, we elected to disable the frame rate cap in the console by using the set com_fixedtic 1 command. This disables the cap, but since in-game physics are tied to the frame rate, it also makes things move a little faster than normal. A com_fixedtic value of -1 is supposed to disable the frame rate cap but keep the game’s physics in-check, but it doesn’t appear to work with the Quake 4 build we used for testing.
Not even removing Quake 4’s frame rate cap makes the X-Fi Fatal1ty’s X-RAM relevant. That’s a little surprising considering that Creative’s own web site points out that the game uses X-RAM to cache uncompressed audio. Sill, our results were consistent across five test runs.
Interestingly, the ALC850 doesn’t have much of a problem keeping up, even with the frame rate cap removed. However, it’s hard to draw too many conclusions given that the ALC850’s using a different in-game sound system.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – 16-bit/44.1kHz
RightMark Audio Analyzer was used to measure the audio quality of each sound card objectively. To obtain this first batch of results, we used RMAA’s “loopback” test, which routes a sound card’s front channel output through its line input. We’ll kick things off with 16-bit/44.1kHz CD-quality audio.
To keep things simple, I’ve translated RightMark’s word-based quality scale to numbers. Higher scores reflect better audio quality, and the scale tops out at 6, which corresponds to an “Excellent” rating.
As expected, the X-Fi Fatal1ty ties the XtremeMusic throughout. The ALC850 falls well short across the board.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – 24-bit/48kHz
My Nine Inch Nails With Teeth dual disc’s DVD-Audio tracks are 24-bit/48kHz, so we ran RMAA at those bit and sampling rates. Unfortunately, the ALC850 doesn’t support high-definition audio formats, so it’ll have to sit out.
Again, we see the Fatal1ty tie the XtremeMusic. The cards just about ace the RMAA tests, too.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – 24-bit/96kHz
Since the X-Fis support 24-bit audio at up to 96kHz for both playback and recording, we’ve run an additional set of RMAA tests at that resolution and sampling rate.
And once more, the Fatal1ty and XtremeMusic are even. This confirms my experience with both cards in casual listening tests, where I found it impossible to distinguish between the two.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – Fatal1ty I/O drive – 16-bit/44.1kHz
Our first round of RMAA tests were conducted with an audio cable running from the Fatal1ty’s front channel output to its line input, both of which are located along the card’s PCI backplane. Since one of the Fatal1ty’s key features is its I/O drive, we’ve also run a couple of the drive’s extra ports through the RMAA wringer. Here, we’ve tested with the I/O drive-mounted headphone output connected to the card’s line input, and with the card’s front channel output connected to the I/O drive’s microphone input. We’ve also included our first set of results, which use the card’s front channel output and line input, for reference.
Again, we’ll get things started with 16-bit/44.1kHz audio.
Results are reasonably close across the different input and output ports, but there appears to be a subtle drop in quality when using the I/O drive’s mic and headphone ports.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – Fatal1ty I/O drive – 24-bit/96kHz
Switching to 24-bit/48kHz audio amplifies the performance gap between the Fatal1ty’s card- and I/O drive-mounted ports in the noise level and dynamic range tests.
RightMark Audio Analyzer – Fatal1ty I/O drive – 24-bit/96kHz
Bumping up to 96kHz doesn’t help the I/O drive, either. There’s still a large gap in the noise level and dynamic range tests, and smaller differences throughout the rest of our RMAA results.
We’ve been impressed with Creative’s X-Fi audio processor since its launch, but X-RAM doesn’t live up to the hype. Only Battlefield 2 and Quake 4 even support X-RAM, and neither’s use of the X-Fi Fatal1ty’s 64MB of onboard memory results in higher in-game frame rates or superior audio quality. That’s a disappointing result, although since neither Battlefield 2 nor Quake 4 was developed from the ground up with onboard sound card memory in mind, our results are hardly a condemnation of X-RAM as a technology.
As games process an increasing number of simultaneous sounds and gamers demand higher fidelity, X-RAM could start to make a lot of sense. Yet despite Creative’s claims that more X-RAM-aware titles are coming, we really have to wonder whether developers will be willing to dedicate significant resources to fully exploiting a feature that’s only available on high-end sound cards that cost upwards of $250. Upcoming titles will clearly have to do more with X-RAM than Battlefield 2 and Quake 4 if onboard sound card memory is to become a must-have feature for gamers and enthusiasts.
So X-RAM may not be living up to its potential, but the rest of the X-Fi Fatal1ty is pretty impressive. The card boasts equivalent audio quality to the X-Fi XtremeMusic, which to our ears sounds better than any consumer-level PC sound card on the market. The Fatal1ty I/O drive is nice to have, too, if only to make up for the rather sparse array of output ports available on the card itself. Just keep in mind that the playback and recording quality of those I/O drive-mounted analog audio ports isn’t quite as good as those connected directly to the card.
The fact that the I/O drive is the X-Fi Fatal1ty’s saving grace actually doesn’t bode too well for the card. A virtually identical I/O drive is available with the X-Fi Platinum for as little as $152 online. That’s about $100 less than the Fatal1ty, and all you really lose is a red LED and X-RAM. Considering X-RAM’s dubious performance benefits with current titles, that’s not much of a loss. You’re far better off with an X-Fi Platinum or an XtremeMusic, at least until games are able to leverage X-RAM for tangible performance of quality benefits—unless, of course, you really like red LEDs.