Creative's new X-Fi Audio Processor reviewed

The Tech Report has an in-depth review of Creative’s new 51 Million Transistor X-Fi audio processor for PCs. So, is this the new “de-facto standard” for audio/video and Media Center enthusiasts?

A big “pro” idea:

While the X-Fi architecture is impressive and its ability to accelerate 3D audio unmatched, one of the chip’s more interesting features is that it can be paired with onboard memory that Creative calls X-RAM Onboard memory is nothing new in the sound card world (the AWE32 was available with 2, 4, and 8MB of RAM), but X-RAM is different because it’s there specifically to be used by applications. Creative hopes that game developers will utilize X-RAM to cache decompressed audio, potentially saving precious CPU cycles in the process. Developers are also encouraged to use X-RAM to store higher quality audio assets that would otherwise be infeasible to decompress on the fly or stream from the hard drive. At least one developer is already taking advantage of X-RAM, with DICE’s Battlefield 2 using it to cache in-game audio.

From the “missing the point” category:

Despite its fancy new architecture, onboard memory, support for Dolby Digital ES and DTS-EX output, and THX certification, the X-Fi won’t encode Dolby Digital Live. According to Creative, Dolby Digital Live support would make the X-Fi more expensive due to both licensing costs and the need for additional tank RAM on the chip. Creative also asserts that Dolby Digital Live encoding introduces a small amount of latency, and points out that it’s limited to 5.1-channel output. Perhaps more notably, Creative says that Dolby Digital Live encoding can’t handle DRM-protected content since it passes unprotected data through a digital output. That’s an interesting limitation, although PC enthusiasts have never really been enthusiastic about DRM-encrusted content.

I find this statement interesting. I regularly download music from MSN Music and Yahoo (also did from Napster) but I’ve never had a problem with my S/PDIF out audio in PCM. Dolby Digital wouldn’t do anything to mux this. So, the 80% scenario is now negated? Am I missing something here?

Then there’s the lack of a S/PDIF (optical) connector. There are many affordable receivers starting to show up with WMA Pro support built-in. Too bad- we’ll still have to go with analog/coax digital. I was really hoping for DD Live encode like Nvidia supports in their NForce boards.

At $110 online, it’s not a bad board by any stretch,but lack of a PCI Express version as well keeps me in the “waiting to upgrade” camp.

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