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PCMCIA-Audio and Compatibility

If you are interested in computer audio solutions, you are probably aware that audio cards for the PCMCIA bus are rather rare. As far as I know, only Echo makes such products, besides Creative. There are much more notebook makers in this world, so some compatibility problems are unavoidable at times.

The obvious problem is physical incompatibility. Although such parameters should be standardized, the PCMCIA slot is placed deeper in some notebooks than in others. Creative, however, reacted quickly to users complaining about the card not reaching the pins in the slot and began to produce the card in a longer case.

However, other kinds of problems proved to be more serious and the most disturbing fact for Creative is that it’s not wholly in the company’s power to correct them. When it comes to PCI devices, it is most often the device manufacturer who is responsible for most of the arising troubles. In case of PCMCIA peripherals, the PCMCIA controller, an intermediary between the device and the PCI bus, may become a weak link.

You can refer to the compatibility section of the Creative website to check what PCMCIA controllers may cause problems with Audigy 2 ZS Notebook. It is rather a lengthy list, considering that there are not so many companies that make such controllers:

  • ENE Tech CB1411
  • Ricoh R5C476(II)
  • Ricoh R5C475(II)
  • TI PCI-1520

The problems show up as clicks, distortions and faltering reproduction and make it impossible to work with the card normally. I encountered such problems on an MSI M630 notebook which was equipped with an ENE CB-1410 controller. By the way, the audio card from Echo also has compatibility problems with ENE controllers and the Echo website explicitly blames ENE on this point.

You should be aware that this controller is quite popular among notebook makers, being used in many models from HP, Dell, Acer and other renowned brands. So it is no wonder that the “PCMCIA Sound Blaster” topic is a popular and long one on Creative forums, chronicling the fight of notebook users with this incompatibility problem. It reads as a thrilling detective story, I should say.

As for me, I managed to make the ENE CB-1410 controller and the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook card work together properly by doing some research work and performing some magic rites. Besides updating the card’s and controller’s drivers (to version 5.1.2600.1011), I used the version 2.3 PCI Latency Tool to manually set up latencies for PCI devices.

By default, the controller and the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook card have zero latencies. When I set them at 16 and 32 for the controller and card, respectively (the numbers were found experimentally), the distortions were gone and the card began to work normally, allowing me to perform my tests. I don’t say this is a universal cure, though, because some users have reported that these measures haven’t helped them to solve the problem.

As for other PCMCIA controllers (not in the “black list”), I have no complaints about them at all. So, I can only express my regrets that Creative’s reputation is somewhat blemished because of problems the company seems to have no power to correct.

It would also be wise for you to check the card with your notebook before the purchase or at least make sure which PCMCIA controller is installed in your system. Also note that when the PCMCIA slot is located close to the CPU cooler, the audio card may get too hot at work. I could hardly hold it in my hands, so hot was the metal case of the device.

P.S. After I’ve done with my tests, I checked the card in other notebooks with different PCMCIA controllers. The same compatibility problems appeared on an Intel Centrino platform with a Texas Instruments 1410 Cardbus controller. In this case I couldn’t achieve anything with the PCI Latency Tool, but as I accidentally found out, the errors in reproduction vanished when an external USB drive was attached to the notebook’s USB port!

In other two notebooks the card worked normally. So, the above-described problems are quite serious and affect many modern notebook models, thus reducing the appeal of the card.

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