OR NONE AT ALL?
Due to the dilemma I was having about getting a decent sound card for gaming on my slow as hell PC I figured I would make a quick and basic example comparison of whether or not sound cards actually make a difference to the frame rates in games. Please bear in mind:
- Same OS/other hardware components were used in this comparison.
- These are PCI cards. Any PCI-E card, regardless of brand, utilizes the CPU more efficiently, as they do not need to use old, slow techniques of using CPU bandwidth such as Bus Mastering.
- The on-board sound I'm using is ancient and far worse than any on-board audio you will get with 90% of today's motherboards/laptops etc.
- The fact that I'm using a slow computer to do this is to demonstrate a worst-case scenario difference. About 95% of you OCN users have PCs with processors 2-10 times faster than mine, so you all have next to nothing to worry about (since your CPUs have faster bus speeds, CPU clock rates etc).
- All runs were done with official ASUS and Creative drivers (and some crap called SoundMAX for the on-board, again also official drivers of the motherboard).
To make the comparison somewhat more fair, I used a mild overclock of 220MHz during the on-board run.
Since screenshots won't show much besides an average I'll explain how they each played out, and since I've had a reasonable amount of time to get used to all of them, I'll also explain a bit how they did in some other games/tasks as well.
First off, Xonar DG. The problem with this card is that it seems to hog a lot of the CPU bandwidth due to its mostly software (drivers) accelerated nature. Because of this, during a lot of intense gameplay scenes in a lot of games and even pre-rendered cutscenes I got an awful lot of sound looping and some sound freezing. This also sent my DPC latency through the roof often and therefore it was struggling to process sound. However in terms of frame rates, in Mafia 2 it wasn't the worst performing even though the average is the lowest, since the minimum framerate the PC put out with it wasn't the worst. Another major problem with the Xonar is the "3D effect" it seems to force on some games (with no extra settings/equalizers enabled in drivers). This sounds like the Realtek equivalent of turning on the "Sewer" effect and is extremely annoying, more so than even the standard, flat sounding on-board, since everything echoed un-realistically and equally between each channel you couldn't tell where the sound was coming from. It didn't do this for all games (for example L4D2 during gameplay sounds fine for the most part, alternating between channels as well as it should). EAX compatibility is totally hit and miss, with some stating my sound card could do hardware acceleration for this effect and others stating it was software-only support that the card could provide. However for other uses such as music listening and some movie-watching via headphones it was pretty good, especially if you used the most appropriate equalizer setting (if putting the rare sound looping in MKVs aside).
Next up, on-board. First off let me just say that regardless of what the screenshot says (which was a lucky run for it) it was totally worthless and un-usable in just about everything. Static noise in the foreground of everything was a standard affair (you could barely hear anything alongside it). What's even worse than this is the stutter it caused every 10 or so minutes for about 10-15 seconds in almost every game (which is what this benchmark doesn't show), where performance would drop to unbearable levels (3-5FPS) at which point it becomes a super stuttering slide show. Even though it was in luck for this particular run (especially with the overclock) I can easily mark it as absolutely useless in every single aspect.
Finally, onto the Xtreme Gamer. This card definitely tightened up my frame rates considerably, especially the minimum (which is what you won't see in the screenshot) and was definitely the best and least demanding on the system. A note worth taking in though, is that installing it was a pain compared to the Xonar/on-board. I initially attempted to install it with all the software that was on the disc -- big mistake. Due to all the crap it loaded during boot up (multiple menus and idling background services) and kept running in the background, I re-installed it this time with the "Minimum" amount of programs on the CD on a clean Windows install, which turned out much better. With this minimum amount of bloatware, the 'Creative Audio Control Panel' was much better than the Xonar equivalent, since it was hard to tell what was on/off in 'Xonar DG Center' due to the weird colour scheme (hovering over the buttons didn't tell you what was on or off either) and the Xonar Panel itself ate quite a bit CPU space due to its GUI, so was turned off during games. The Creative control panel is fairly straightforward (giving you a choice between Gamer/Entertainment/Audio Creation modes), since it uses the basic and standard grey coloured Windows-style menu, and therefore didn't take up much CPU resources. Sound in games is much much better, as even in games not supporting EAX, you can hear where each sound is coming from, even on my cheap pair of headphones (HD201s). Sound looping does happen sometimes with this card, but it is very rare. The other effects like Crystalizer and CMSS 3D did improve on the sound depending on the use, and were definitely useful features to have. It was also pretty good for music listening as well, easily as good as the Xonar (however don't take my word for it on this aspect, as I was using fairly low-end cheap headphones, and higher end/better ones could well bring out the difference between the DG and the Xtreme Gamer). The only downfall this card has is the 3 extra processes the Creative drivers have added in the background, although all appear to be idling even during games, eat up about 15-16MB altogether. I would prefer for it to have had one or no processes at all running in the background.
Overall between the 3, the Xtreme Gamer definitely improved on the sound quality and the perfomance front over on-board and was better than overly software-dependant entry level card (DG). In the future I will definitely go with a Creative card for gaming and will probably go for an ASUS card for HTPC/music listening uses as it was good for that. Also just as a quick note, I haven't yet tried audio creation on my Xtreme Gamer, but I did try it on my DG and it was fine for recording some basic guitar practice through the line in/mic jack from the guitar amp.
Thanks for reading.
Edited by Am* - 3/28/11 at 9:57am