Creative X-Fi XtremeMusic
PC audio has been pretty stagnant over the past few years, but 2005 saw a handful of interesting developments. High-definition audio finally gained widespread support in Athlon 64 chipsets. BlueGears also released the X Mystique, finally giving real-time Dolby Digital Live fanboys an alternative to SoundStorm. However, both of those developments pale in comparison to the introduction of Creative's X-Fi
, the first fundamentally different audio architecture we've seen in some time. The X-Fi's unique audio ring architecture makes a staggering amount of processing power available to a variety of audio tasks, such as positional 3D audio, sample rate conversions, and speaker virtualization schemes. On paper, it was easily the most impressive audio offering in 2005.
Of course, unique architectural configurations and theoretical peak processing power aren't terribly convincing on their own. Fortunately, Creative backed up the X-Fi's academic credentials with useful real world features, such as support for high-definition audio, DVD-Audio playback, and true hardware acceleration for positional 3D audio. In 2005, it was tough to find a PC audio implementation that supported two of those features, let alone all three. Creative's own Audigy2 series does, and that's why it took home one of our Best of 2004 awards.
At only $70 online, the Audigy2 ZS remained an attractive option for PC enthusiasts throughout the year. However, the X-Fi XtremeMusic did its predecessor better on a number of fronts. For one, the X-Fi offers support EAX Advanced HD 5.0, which accelerates up to 128 simultaneous voices in hardwaretwice as many as the Audigy2. More importantly, though, the X-Fi offers more balanced music playback than the Audigy2. The Audigy2 tends to favor foreground vocals at the expense of background instrumentals, but the X-Fi XtremeMusic's playback is solid across the spectrum. The X-Fi's 24-bit Crystalizer and extensive CMSS-3D options also allow users to fine tune their listening experiences to suit individual tastes, room dimensions, and speaker configurations.
Considering its wealth of features, exceptional 3D audio performance, clean and balanced music playback, and relatively affordable $100 street price, the X-Fi XtremeMusic is a clear choice for best sound card of 2005.
Creative's X-Fi XtremeMusic sound card
Western Digital Caviar RE2
Western Digital won the best hard drive award last year for the Raptor WD740GD, and it's tempting to give the drive another nod this year. Thanks to its unmatched 10K-RPM spindle speed, the Raptor is still the fastest Serial ATA hard drive on the market. However, Western Digital hasn't updated the drive since it was launched nearly two years ago, and the dinosaur is starting to resemble one. The Raptor is missing key features like Native Command Queuing and support for 300MB/s Serial ATA transfer rates, and the drive's 8MB cache looks a little anemic.
Although Western Digital didn't update the Raptor in 2005, it did add the Caviar RE2 to its quiver. The RE2 may not sport a 10K-RPM spindle speed, but it does boast a 16MB cache and 400GB of storage capacity. The RE2 supports Native Command Queuing, as well, though not 300MB/s SATA transfer rates. Still, a 150MB/s Serial ATA interface didn't appear to slow the RE2 down. On the whole, the drive is faster than any other 7,200-RPM SATA drive released in 2005, and its performance is particularly impressive under multi-user and multitasking loads. That, combined with Western Digital's five-year enterprise hard drive warranty and a lower price tag than other 400GB SATA drives, is enough to earn the Caviar RE2 distinction as the best hard drive of 2005. Don't let the Caviar RE2's marketing as an "enterprise-class" product throw you off; enthusiasts have never been shy about using enterprise-class hardware in desktop systems. The RE2 may have been intended for corporate RAID arrays, but there's no reason you can't pop one into a pimped-out gaming rig.
While the Caviar RE2 gets the glory this year, we would be remiss not to praise Seagate for offering an industry-best five-year warranty for all its internal hard drive products. Unfortunately, the company's Barracuda hard drives weren't quite as fast as the RE2. Hitachi also deserves props for hitting the half-terabyte mark first, although the price premium on high-capacity drives didn't sit well with enthusiasts seeking the best value for their money. Finally, we should note that if capacity and command queuing aren't a concern, the Raptor can still be frighteningly fast. Overall, though, no one matched the Caviar RE2's combination of capacity, features, performance, warranty coverage, and price in 2005. And we couldn't resist giving the RE2 a couple of bonus points for trading in standard hard drive attire for an all-black outfit.
Western Digital's Caviar RE2 hard drive