Sound Cards/Soundcard upgrade


QUESTION: Hi,I bought a new Dell Inspiron direct from the manufacturer in 2008  with a Creative Soundblaster X Fi Extreme pre installed. I have just upgraded the operating system from Windows Vista to Windows 7. The only driver that seems to be available is from Microsoft and many of the features of the sound card have been lost. It still sounds good though. Do you think that buying a Creative Z series sound card which of course is more up to date would lead to better sound? Or do you think there would be no noticeable difference? I don't use the computer for gaming but I listen to music. I thank you in anticipation of your kind assistance. Best wishes Lindsay

ANSWER: The Sound Blaster Z (and Recon3D; they're mostly identical) offers somewhat different hardware and software features, but the sound quality will be mostly directly comparable to the X-Fi series apart from that. One example of a difference (and probably the biggest difference) is that the Z cards have headphone amplifiers built into them, which the X-Fi does not, so that would be an improvement for headphone listening. They also include a Dolby Digital Live licence, which many X-Fi cards do not (X-Fi can support the feature, but usually it requires purchasing of a software add-on (around $5)).

However, you should be able to install the Vista drivers for your X-Fi within Windows 7 (there isn't a huge difference between Vista and 7 in this regard), or download newer drivers from the Creative website (there are some Dell OEM cards that may not be properly detected by the installer); you would need a little bit more information about your specific card though.

Alternately, if you want to go the new-card route, any of the SoundCore 3D-based cards like the Sound Blaster Z or Recon3D Fatal1ty would be perfectly acceptable options; my advice would be to look at the range of available models and see whichever ends up being the least expensive (again, aside from breakout hardware, they're mostly identical cards - they're all built around the same processor and have very similar capabilities as a result).

Not to editorialize too much, but personally I like Creative's return to a unified driver panel with the SoundCore cards, versus the "mode switching" feature on the X-Fi. It means that the card's full capabilities are always available to any application on your system, much like was the case with the older Audigy and Live! series cards. This simplifies the user experience with the card, in my view.


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Dear Bob, thanks again. Do you think a Creative Blaster Z would fit straight in to the Dell Inspiron in the slot presently occupied by the X Fi Extreme or do you think it might not fit ? Best wishes again Lindsay in Leeds, England

It depends - is your X-Fi a PCIe or PCI model? The SoundCore cards are all PCIe, and require an x1 slot (they can be installed in larger slots, such as an x16, and will simply work at x1), while some X-Fi models are PCI.

If we had more specific information about your computer it would allow finding this information out online, alternately if you aren't shy about opening the case up, you could visually identify if it has a PCIe slot (it doesn't matter if it's the same slot as the X-Fi, as long as you also remove the X-Fi during the installation (running two Sound Blaster cards side-by-side is counter-indicated by Creative, and may cause conflicts in Windows)).

PCIe looks like this:

All of those slots are PCIe; the x1 slot is the shortest, the longer slots are higher speed/power for devices that support them (like graphics cards), but x1 cards can be installed in any of them.

PCI looks like this:

As long as you have an available PCI Express slot, the Sound Blaster Z (or other SoundCore based card) will be able to be installed. If the X-Fi occupies another slot, remember to remove it before installing the new card as well (uninstall the drivers/software before removing the physical card, and remember the machine must be *off* (for both it's safety, and your own) to perform any hardware maintenance, upgrades, to open the case, etc).


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I can answer questions regarding computer audio both speakers and sound cards, and their interactions with one another. In addition to being able to answer questions regarding the purchase and maintinence of such devices.


Roughly a decade of experience with PC hardware and audio applications. Avid computer and audio enthusiast.

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