Laptops - now outselling desktops in the UK - are undeniably great. This review, for example, is being typed on a three-quarter-sized keyboard in the waiting room of a doctor's surgery. When the laptop storing these words gets back to the office, a proper keyboard, monitor and mouse will be plugged in and full desktop service will be resumed.
For all practical purposes, there's only one difference between this laptop and a PC: laptops make music sound terrible. Kicking back to the classical strains of a Mozart MP3 just pains the ears, thanks to an ungodly integrated sound chip and its sole headphone out port.
It's a common dilemma, but here comes Creative to the rescue with the X-Fi Xmod USB soundcard. We've seen other attempts at this, but the Xmod really stands out for one reason - it requires no drivers, no power supply and it even has its own carry pack.
The design is Apple-rivalling in its straightforward elegance. It has one big set-up button, a volume knob and two switches to turn on either Creative's upscaling tools - the X-Fi Crystalizer, as seen on the PCI versions of this chip, and the pseudo 3D effect of CMSS chip.
Because there are no drivers, you miss out on many of the functions of the fully fledged X-Fi cards, but the Crystalizer really can help to rescue badly encoded MP3s by upscaling them to 24-bit audio and filling in missing data. The result is a more natural sound than can be achieved by playing around with an equaliser. And at £50, it's not an outrageous investment for people who use their laptop for music or movies regularly.
So what's the catch? Well, we can't help but feel that all that X-Fi goodness is somehow wasted on a device that only has a headphone jack and a stereo line out.
Consider that you can invest in a £20 stereo headset and receive an all-too-similar USB sound device thrown; all you really get for your money here is a bit of upscaling and a nice volume knob. What we really want is all-singing, all-dancing multichannel surround sound, preferably with a digital out as well. Only then can we can turn our backs on the desktop for good.