Installation was fairly routine as compared with other sound cards, nothing new or exciting this time. You insert the sound card in a PCI slot (doesn't matter if it's bus-mastering), start the computer and install all the programs on the CD. In the back of the card, there are line inputs, as well as microphone and also of course the front and rear speakers. Also, the VersaJack is there too. All the color coding is relatively easy to figure out. I found out that a good use for the VersaJack is as a headphone back when set to analog out, so you can have speakers and headphone available. The drivers were stable for WindowsXP. The previous sound card in my system (Creative SoundBlaster Live!) had drivers issues with WindowsXP where the audio quality would be poor but the drivers included with the Santa Cruz proved to produce superior audio and performance compared to the SoundBlaster drivers.
As for the drivers, some other reviewers found the drivers to be unstable, especially with tinkering with audio modes on the fly, almost all of them were using the drivers on Windows 2000 so that could be a problem or they might be using the old shipping drivers. I chose to get the latest drivers at TurtleBeach.com and the card has been running and performing flawlessly for me, it could also be that WindowsXP is more stable altogether than Windows 2000 but being based on the same core, that is debatable.
The control panel that comes with the hardware is VERY nice and basically gives you control of the entire card and its features, from the preset settings optimized for the specific tasks to volume and recording, it has a full feature set that is impressive. The design of the software is very aesthetically pleasing also. The preset equalizer settings are also a plus, although they sounded off a little. Also, the great thing about the panel is that all of the changes you make to the settings occur on the spot without having to reset anything; you hear the difference as soon as soon as you make the switch. The control panel allows you to fully customize the outputted audio and even lets you save profiles so you can have different ones for different tastes.
This sound card is good in the aspects that it can do a lot of things in hardware, taking off the load that is usually on the processor. For example, found that playing an mp3 with my old sound card caused my CPU usage to hover around the 4-6% level while playing mp3's with the Santa Cruz lowered it down to around 2-4% with better audio quality. Since a lot of the reverb effects and EQ effects are done in hardware, it takes a lot of burden off while giving you better hardware assisted playback. It can be compared to software DVD decoding as opposed to hardware DVD decoding. The only drawback to hardware mp3 decoding is that you must use either the included AudioStation 4 (there is a new version 5) software or Windows Media Player, sorry all of you Winamp users, it's just not our day. 2-4% up to 4-6% is not noticeable at all so you might be wondering what the big deal is? I think Neoseeker.com did a test with the Santa Cruz in which they played multiple mp3 streams with Windows Media Player and also with Sonique, the Sonique decoding (which was not supported) taxed the CPU more than twice as much as Windows Media Player.
As for A3D testing in Unreal Tournament, the audio outputted was similar to a Vortex 2 SQ2500 sound card using the same API. CPU usage and FPS hits were also similar, no improvements to A3D unfortunately. On the bright side, it's pretty hard to improve a discontinued API such as A3D, no matter how good it is. When testing with EAX, the Santa Cruz showed lower numbers and higher performance hits than the SoundBlaster Live, it could be the drivers but obviously something was wrong, the sound quality, although, was very similar. Games remained playable without a doubt. I'd say that this card performs up to par and past it at times when it comes to games, it's universal API support is a good feature when it comes to choosing a single card for today's machines.