PAX East 2013

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DDR Memory Lane

30 March 2013 | Written by Maxxum

During my college years, Creative Labs and Turtle Beach were ubiquitous with high quality sound cards - Creative Labs for gaming, and Turtle Beach for music. Both companies presented products at PAX, and though each company has changed significantly, I was reminded of two products in particular from my computer hardware past, partly because each was tied to the same ex-girlfriend during my last year in college, and the start of my life after graduation.

The first item was the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz sound card, which I bought just after I started dating said ex, and the second item was a Creative Labs Nomad 64mb MP3 player, given to me in 2002 just before we broke-up. Beyond nostalgic reasons, both products are important to me because they represent the turning point at which I began to seriously explore hardware... and, I still have them.

The TB Santa Cruz started as a total failure for me in the beginning. I was running WindowsME, and the TB drivers were not compatible at the time. Three months later, I had a stable driver, and a significant improvement in audio over my Yamaha DS-XG sound card (I know, right?). Prior to the 24-bit audio commonly available today, TB was creating 18-bit audio solutions that produced more detailed audio in comparison to their 16-bit competitors. TB also used line-level outputs, vs boosted channels, which allows for a sound closer to what was intended in a recording. The difference was so clear that at the time I used two sound cards in my primary system, a Creative Labs sound card for gaming, and the Santa Cruz for music.

Though I preferred to use my Creative Labs cards for gaming, the Santa Cruz had 5.1 audio, something my gaming card did not have. At the time I was very much into Half Life: Opposing Force, which made very effective use of surround sound. On a lark I decided to attach one 2.1 speaker system to each output, effectively creating a 4.2 audio system. The result was that when missles whizzed past my character and exploded behind me, I had to force myself to not turn around in my chair to see what had happened; the extra sub-woofer made the experience that much more realistic.

Turtle Beach has since stopped producing internal sound cards, and now concentrates heavily on headphones, headsets, external USB sound adapters, and other portable audio solutions.

On the other hand, Creative Labs still produces sound cards and MP3 players, amoung other things, but nothing like the Nomad (a rebranded Samsung Yepp YP-D40), which is why I find this next bit so amusing. My Nomad still works. It's 15 years old, but it still works flawlessly. I suspect that CL's first attempt at an MP3 player was guided by a very OCD engineer; the body is magnesium, battery contacts are gold-plated, it has FM and voice recording (which is still uncommon in MP3 players today), and transfers are handled by means of a parallel port, which may sound silly, but in 1999 when the Nomad debuted, USB was still an unpredictable technology.

I need to point out the gold-plated contacts, and why they're important. Let's say you leave your batteries in the device for, I dunno... 5 years, they're going to start corroding at the contacts. Standard contacts would be damaged, but because gold doesn't tarnish, and it resists acids, you can simply remove battery corrosion with a cloth... which is what I did because I forgot to remove my batteries before storage.

My Nomad had enough room for 15 songs with the additional 32MB SD card, and there was still music on the device - my life at the time, expressed at 128kbps. I don't know what else to write after that because this article is depressing me... so, here's an 80's montage.

Photos by Maxxum