I got the chance to play around with the new SoundBlaster Live! card at MacWorld on Wednesday, and spent a lot of time talking to Brian (Creative One) about the card. For those interested, here are my opinions.
First off, I'm impressed - they did a great job bringing this card to the Mac market. The software is MUCH more elegant than the PC counterpart, consisting of two main apps, versus many small scattered utilities in the PC world. It supports all the major audio apps in the Mac world, and is clearly not a hack port of a Windows based card. (Of course, after nearly a year of development I would expect no less.)
I'm more interested in audio/music than gaming, so I'll start with that. For those who have seen the picture on Creative's web site and wondered what the various ports are, here you go. Digital Out, Line In, Microphone In (not the Apple microphone...) Front Line Out and Rear Line Out. The card supports four channel surround sound, which can be accessed either via the front and rear line outs or the digital output. Brian had a demo system hooked up to the Creative/Cambridge Soundworks FPS2000 via the digital out, and it sounded great. The odd connector on the card is the joystick port on the PC version, but is a MIDI port on the Mac version of the card. From what I saw it does not suffer from the latency problems that plague USB based MIDI systems - yeah! Brian also had a PC MIDI keyboard hooked up that he could use a controller - pretty cool.
What I couldn't find out - just how good the on board DACs are. Definitly better than what is on my old 8500, but beyond that... Which brings me to my main complaint about the card - no digital in. I have an A/V receiver with excellent DACs (Denon 4800) and I would like to take its digital output and send it via TosLink straight to my Mac - no can do with this card. Oh well, when converting analog sources (tape, LPs) the DACs on the card seem good enough, and for digital sources I'll pull them off on the Mac and not have to convert them.
It looks like the card will include some audio apps such as Peak LE on the CD in the box, as well as drivers for SoundManager, ASIO, etc. Some of the software isn't quite ready yet, which brings me to the first bad news - the card won't ship for another 8-10 weeks. Everybody in the Creative booth I talked to said the delay was due to some third party apps not being ready yet. Hmm...
On to gaming. Brian had a version of UT with an unreleased patch that used OpenAL for surround sound. He showed me a demo where he was firing some weapon that shot round razor blades (the ripper?) inside a building, and the surround sound just worked. You could hear the blades bounce around from side to side AND front to back - very cool, assuming you have your Mac set up where you can place speakers behind you. (I don't.) The patch should be made public about the time the card ships.
Several other game companies had "Creative SoundBlaster Live!" logos in their booth, so I expect a bunch of new games that fully support the card to come out soon. There was a version of Escape From Monkey Island being shown in the gaming area that supports the card already.
For the price, I'd say this is a card that can't be beat for the consumer audio enthusiast or gamer. Lets put it this way - at the show they were accepting preorders for $99 for the card, or $199 for the card and a set of FPS2000 speakers - I ordered a card. I'll give a more detailed report later this quarter when it arrives.
Oh, and Brian, thanks for giving me nearly an hour of your time during a crowded show - now that is service. :-)
(he later wrote)
I forgot one other drawback. When booting a system with the Live! card installed, it loads 2 megs of SoundFonts into RAM, which increases system memory and significantly slowed down the boot time. Brian assured me that this would be fixed in a future update, but will be present in the drivers that ship with the card.