Aside from rubbish graphics cards, the thing that most often gets neglected on notebooks is the quality of the sound card. One might argue that there's good reason for this, since integrated sound-chips have reached a level of audio performance that's certainly acceptable to most users. Many notebooks these days even offer digital audio out, with the headphone socket doubling as S/PDIF.
But for some users, this just isn't good enough, and even the 'sound cards' built into many USB headsets don't improve things much - for one thing, any discerning audiophile is likely to own a pair of high-end 3.5mm-jack headphones already. This brings us to the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Notebook under review today.
To readers who've been with us a while this might sound very familiar and it should, since we reviewed the similarly-named Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Notebook in 2007. However, what we have before us today is a very different item, both in terms of styling and technology.
Style-wise, black has thankfully replaced silver. Colour preferences aside, we'd wager that black is less likely to clash with most laptop exteriors. This iteration now features rounded edges, as well as a glossy section sporting power and connectivity indicators, while the sides and bottom of the unit bear a sensible matte finish. Overall it simply looks a little more polished.
As the lack of the 'Xtreme' part in the name suggests, this product is in some ways inferior to its older relative which is still available to buy. It no longer features optical audio connectivity, for example, nor will it provide true 7.1 surround sound.
But what features it lacks, it adds more in other areas. Primary among its unqiue features is the capacity to send a wireless signal to other Creative products such as the Wireless Receiver, which of course is a more elegant solution than having to plug a cable into your notebook, though it does require an additional purchase. Indeed, you can use several wireless receivers to send audio to different locations, though at £60 per receiver it's no trivial expense.
Another major differentiator with the Xtreme is that the card has now been reduced in size to fit the 34mm ExpressCard slot, giving it a far broader range of compatibility. For 54mm ExpressCard laptops, a strong plastic clip-on adapter is provided, and in either case the card seats itself solidly.