Testing involved two notebook machines, a Microstar machine from 2003 with Windows XP Service Pack 2 and a new Advent machine running Service Pack 1, both with broadly similar specs, substantially above the Creative recommended specifications. Results were very mixed, due in the main to what appear to be software issues. One of the tools is a diagnostic program that suggests the most suitable mode, depending on the bus speed of the PC Card slot. On the Microstar machine, high performance mode was automatically selected, but testing using the DirectSound, WDM and ASIO 2.0 drivers gave nothing but crackling, as did DVD Audio. There was clearly a problem with the speed of communication over the interface, Creative isn't responsible for the particular PC Card chipset in the computer, but the performance utility should have detected this.
The Advent machine however, gave the expected results with all the high performance features available. Unreal Tournament 2004 in particular sounded really great with full 3D sound and EAX support and it was definitely satisfying having so much noise emerge from a portable machine. Matrix Revolutions sounded just as impressive with its Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (the card can also take a 5.1 digital optical signal from an external device, decode it and send the resulting signal through the analogue cables).
To see how the Creative handled games compared to the on board audio, we benchmarked the built-in time demo of the Quake III powered Return to Castle Wolfenstein. As it turned out the ZS notebook was actually slower than the on-board sound. The difference wasn’t substantial - 116fps using high performance, 109fps using standard and 126fps with the on-board card) and was narrowed by updating the driver, but it does seem to indicate that there’s a processor overhead in moving the data back and forth across the PC Card bus. This is a perfectly acceptable sacrifice though, particularly if the card is running at full tilt, giving you higher quality output, in full surround sound and with EAX affects as well.
Testing the signal to noise ratio gave me an average value of -80dB, a very respectable figure, although the boast that the card offers ‘256 times the clarity of your basic notebook sound’ is typical marketing gibberish. Still, you should be able to rely on the ZS Notebook for make clean sounding recordings while your on the move. It’s worth knowing though, that like all current Creative cards, the clock rate is set to 48KHz requiring the more common 44.1KHz rate to be re-sampled before it’s played back. My personal theory is that Creative got a job lot of 48KHz crystals off the back of a lorry whilst developing the SoundBlaster Live, and has been working their way through them ever since - well, it's as good an explaination as any :)
Other loose ends in the software suite includes the Creative Multi-Speaker Surround (CMSS) technology. Designed to enhance the stereo or surround stage across multiple speakers, playback appears to revert to mono when headphones are chosen under speaker settings. And unless the latest diagnostic tool is downloaded, running the application whilst in standard performance mode, rather unhelpfully doesn’t detect the card at all. Less serious but still irritating is the time taken to detect whether the headphone socket is being used, with a lag of a few seconds before the change over from speaker output to headphone output occurs.
Overall though, the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Notebook is the missing link as far as laptops being able to match their desktop cousins. The sound quality for both playback and recording is top notch and software bugs aside, performance is solid. That said, unless the card is running in high performance mode, you won’t be able to take advantage of its most attractive features.
This is potentially a killer card for notebook users. The thought of having portable surround sound solution is greatly appealing and the price is affordable too. It also enables laptop owners to enjoy DVD Audio discs. Software bloat and some annoying bugs aside this is a solid portable implementation of Creative’s desktop sound card - anyone who actively plays games or makes music on their notebook should take a close look at this card.