Creative Labs X-Fi: The Last PCI Sound Card?

It’s been sixteen years since the original ISA-based Sound Blaster card arrived on the scene. That card sported an 11-voice FM synthesizer and 8-bit monophonic digital audio capability. We can recall plunking down an extra twenty bucks to buy the Wing Commander II voice pack, which took up three floppy disks all by itself, and only worked on the Sound Blaster (or “100% compatibles”). Since then, Creative has weathered competition from an assortment of competitors to dominate the market for PC add-on sound cards.

Unfortunately for Creative, they happen to be dominating an ever-shrinking market. As CPUs have become more powerful, the capabilities of host-based audio have improved over time. While it’s true that a good PCI sound card enables extra audio effects and lower CPU utilization in games, that’s not a great benefit to non-gamers. On top of that, motherboard and chipset manufacturers are rapidly adding features to their products, including Dolby Master certification, clean multichannel audio and even 3D positional sound. The final straw may be Microsoft’s move away from hardware accelerated audio in their upcoming Windows Vista operating system. So when Creative went back to the drawing board two years ago, the engineers at Creative and their E-MU subsidiary decided to architect an audio processor that could be the core of a high end PCI sound card—but be also usable in more general audio applications. The end result is one of the most sophisticated single-chip audio architectures created to date. We covered the X-Fi architecture in depth last May, so if you’re interested in the internals of the chip, check out that story.

We first heard about the X-Fi—code-named “Zenith”—two years ago, even before first silicon. It’s been a long road for Creative, as they’ve had to respin the chip several times in order to fully bake it. After all, the X-Fi processor serves up 51.1 million transistors, versus the Audigy 2’s 4.6M, over a 10-fold increase. Now the chip is done and the cards are about to ship. The chip is clocked at 400MHz, versus the 10K-2’s 200MHz, and is built on a 130nm process


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here