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While laptop owners are starting to enjoy graphical power to match their desktop cousins, portable machines still tend to lag behind when it comes to audio. As the foremost name in PC audio, it's no surprise therefore that Creative has stepped up to plug the gap in the market. While there are plenty of USB sound cards for laptops these don’t offer the convenience of the PC Card form factor and are held back by the limited bandwidth of USB. Enter the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook.
Featuring the same EMU10K2 audio processor as its PCI counterpart, the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook represents the portable sound card to be released with full hardware mixing, surround capabilities and EAX 4.0 Advanced HD - a great range of features for the price. With the sound card market so competitive, it’s in Creative’s interest to attract as many market segments as possible.
As such, the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook is designed to be a one-stop solution. You get Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES decoding, of up to 7.1 surround channels, a healthy signal to noise ratio that will have no trouble walking over an onboard sound chip, EAX support, hardware mixing to reduce the load on the CPU and high resolution DVD Audio. For gamers in particular, no other card offers this range of features, and it’s potentially a perfect companion for laptops that like to take their owners to LAN parties.
The card is supplied with a connecting cable featuring three female mini-jack connections; the same kind of connection to be found on the back of a conventional 5.1 capable consumer sound cards. On the card itself are two further mini-jack connections for headphones, and microphone or line inputs. These are multi-purpose and double up as optical digital connectors.
Three discs are included, a driver disc, a DVD Audio demonstration CD and a rather self-serving promo CD advertising EAX capable games. No games are included however, although you do get a very serviceable pair of earphones as part of the package and a cheap looking plastic wallet in which to store the card.
Physically, the card is well designed and looks very smart, sitting flush inside your laptop’s PC card slot. Creative suggests that the breakout cable is left connected to the speakers and detached from the machine rather than fiddling with all the audio connections every time the laptop is moved.
I have never had much affection for the Creative software suite, which seems to become more bloated with every new piece of hardware released. A full install of the ZS notebook involves no less than seventeen separate applications – overkill in anybody’s book. Many are confusingly titled and could very easily be merged together. For example, the equalizer application installs separately from the mixer application, which is different from the speaker app.
Whilst the card has the capabilities of a desktop Audigy 2 ZS, the range of accessible features does depend on the speed of the laptop’s PC Card bus. The two modes are high performance mode and standard mode. Many of the headline features, such as EAX 4.0, hardware voice mixing and high resolution DVD Audio (not to be confused with DVD movie soundtracks) are only possible in the high performance mode and this is something that I would have preferred to see more clearly highlighted on the packaging. In standard mode the notebooks CPU will be used instead. However, unless you have a recent laptop, you can’t be sure as to which features will be available until the card is installed.