Why buy a sound card. (Computes Getting Started With: PC Sound)
by Richard O. Mann, David English
If your computer isn't equipped with sound, you're not getting everything you could out of your computing experience. If you play computer games or your kids use educational programs, using your PC's internal speaker is like always eating unbuttered toast--you can do it, but you don't get as much out of the experience as you could.
There is, of course, more to PC sound than games. Music adds to almost any experience; a PC equipped to play music takes on new dimensions. If you have any interest in music composition or learning the mechanics of music, you can get software (sometimes bundled with the sound card) that records music in standard notation as you play it. If you have a CD-ROM drive, you can play standard audio CDs through the computer as you use it to do other work (just as I'm doing as I write this).
Musicians and recording hobbyists can inexpensively create entire professional sound-mixing studios with their PCs.
And finally, voice processing is in the wings, waiting to become a major part of many PC users' lives. You can buy sound cards today that also serve as small telephone-answering and voice-mail systems. In business, voice annotation of documents is possible now with dedicated equipment; it might become an important factor in future PC use.
Voice recognition also seems a likely candidate for popularity. A current edition of Interplay's game Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, for instance, responds to voice commands (if you have the right sound card). When you say, "Beam me up, Scotty," or "Warp 3, Mr. Sulu," the game obeys your command.
Software developers are also saying that voice-to-text dictation isn't that far off--you'll dictate letters and memos, watching the words appear onscreen as you speak them.
Making a Sound Choice
Unfortunately, buying a sound card isn't easy. While there are no real standards in PC sound, a few de facto standards keep total chaos at bay. The technology seems to change monthly, as newer cards with more and better features appear at ever-falling prices. If your sound card is at least a year old, you may want to upgrade to one of the new flashy, feature-laden boards.
Because there's so much to know about sound cards, we've attempted to sort through the technical details, explain the important matters to you, and then tell you about a selection of the market-leading cards, along with the more interesting technical innovations.