Since the Forte is essentially a modified X-Fi, the driver and software used for the card is nearly identical to Creative’s software suite. The Forte lets the user change the audio mode between 3 different settings, each one geared for different, specific audio tasks such as watching movies, recording audio, or playing games. Switching modes while an audio application is running is not recommended and will usually cause a Windows error so it’s suggested you close out all audio applications beforehand. Let’s take a closer look at each application mode and what their particular strengths and weaknesses are.
Switching to game mode enables the 64MB’s of on-board memory, which in theory should allow the card to pre-cache sounds faster while also giving the DSP some extra resources for EAX processing. Game mode also enables CMSS3D, which is Creative’s way of rendering surround sound to a stereo headset. CMSS3D also up-mixes a stereo source to surround sound. You also gain easy access to the X-Fi Crystalizer, a feature that can supposedly re-render any bit-depth audio at 24-bit. Game mode features an audio mixer and enables EAX Effects by default. Environmental effects are also fully supported in game mode while the other two modes leave them disabled by default.
Audio Creation Mode is easily one of the most powerful modes enabled on the X-Fi cards. Granting the user full access to a digital version of a mixing board, the Audio Creation Mode lets you control quite a few powerful aspects of recording such as FX effects for each individual Line-In. Creation mode also enables 24-bit and matched bit recording, as well as ASIO, a low-latency interface that allows for direct recording via the sound card. Finally, creation mode disables the ability of card to run CMSS3D and EAX effects as the hardware memory buffer is utilized for the MIDI Synthesizer. Entertainment mode is more geared around movies and video, and as such, disables a lot of the 3D audio processing capabilities of the X-Fi. Entertainment also fully supports the high resolution audio playback of creation mode.
Dolby Digital Live is available in Entertainment and gaming modes and works for the most part without issue. The only problem we ran into during our testing was the inability to control the volume over Live via Windows. We confirmed with Auzentech that this is a limitation of the encoding feature by Creative Labs as DDL transfers the audio signal and then the sounds free themselves from the Windows controller.
We love the audio modes that Creative implemented into the X-Fi, however we do not love having to swap modes each time we change what we are doing. Going from game mode to entertainment mode is annoying and we think many users will end up leaving the sound card in one mode or another instead of changing it out. It would not have been difficult to implement a per-process application swapper. In fact, someone already did for free with the X-Fi Mode Switcher from Spectra9. Also, enabling headphone detection does not mute the speakers if you have Dolby Digital Live enabled and plug your headphones into the front port of the sound card. These small issues hurt the Forte a bit, especially if you consider its intended usage in a SFF PC, such a home theatre setup or LAN PC.
Another big issue people need to consider is that lack of EAX support in many modern games. While this can be blamed on the re-written audio stack in Windows Vista, it still means that one of the big features of the card is going to go pretty much underutilized. Also, you must be running Windows XP to hear EAX to begin with, so installations of Vista will find they are limited to stereo. You might be aware that Creative released a tool a few years back called ALChemy as a workaround for this, which essentially translates OpenAL commands to EAX calls. This essentially re-enables EAX for legacy products. Unfortunately this still doesn’t change the fact that developers are moving away from EAX support in lieu of proprietary surround audio systems or straight-up stereo.