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Creative's Sound Blaster X-Fi Fatal1ty audio card

Much ado about X-RAM

ModelX-Fi Fatal1ty
Price (Street)

IT'S RARE THAT a new product completely outclasses its competition, but that's what happened when Creative introduced its X-Fi audio processor—not that there are many real competitors left in the PC audio market, mind you. Still, it's hard to argue with the X-Fi's attractive blend of exceptional sound quality and hardware acceleration for positional 3D audio. Those attributes, combined with the X-Fi's flexible architecture and a well-stocked quiver of useful features, were enough to earn the chip distinction in our Best of 2005 Awards. The X-Fi XtremeMusic won an Editor's Choice award when we reviewed the card back in October, too.

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.

Source: Creative

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.