Section 7.1. Understanding Sound Adapters (Sound Cards)

7.1. Understanding Sound Adapters (Sound Cards)

The circuitry dishing up sound and music within your PC is technically called a sound adapter , but most people and computer stores simply call it a sound card . That term comes straight from your PC's history. Early PCs merely blurted out a single beep on startup, meant to reassure nervous owners that everything was working correctly. (More than two beeps, on the other hand, meant it was time to reach for the screwdriver.)

The only way to improve a PC's sound back then was to spend $300 or more on a drop-in sound card (Section 7.1.1); most gamers gladly paid the premium. Today, all new PCs include stereo sound, but the circuitry lives in any of three different placeson the motherboard (Section 1.4), on a separate sound card, or inside a box that plugs into a USB port.

To see which type of sound adapter lives inside your own PC, take a look at where your speaker cable plugs in to the PC; that cable's location shows you what type of sound circuitry your PC has.

Sound Advice for Laptops

Built for portability over performance, most laptops usually squeak by with a pair of tinny speakers and, mercifully, a headphone jack. Some models toss in a microphone port, great for recording classroom lectures. That's usually enough for people on the run, letting them plug in their iPod headphones while watching a DVD during a long flight.

Because laptops now outsell desktop PCs, many laptops are working the swing shift, computing on the road and back at the desktop. To give your laptop the same sound as a desktop, Creative Labs ( squeezed the circuitry from their most powerful sound card into the creditcard sized Audigy 2 ZS Notebook PC card shown here. Slide the $100 card into your notebook's PC card slot, and it's ready to power your room's stack of speakers while you watch DVDs or play computer games .

The card's designed to let your notebook take advantage of any sound situation you encounter, either at home or on the road. At a friend's house, for instance, plug your laptop into her stereo while watching a DVD or playing a game to enjoy its five-speaker surround sound.

The card's optical ports also come in handy for Digital Audio Tape and MiniDisc enthusiasts . If you're one of these people, you can dump your bootlegged concert soundtracks directly onto a laptop's hard drive in the car, burn quick CDs, and hand them out to friends in the parking lot.

The card's way too powerful for the average notebook owner, but if sound is important to you, this is your best option for portable music power.

  • If the speakers plug into a port living next to your mouse and keyboard ports (shown at the top of Figure 7-1), your PC has integrated audio . That means the sound circuits are built right into the motherboard itself, a cost-saving option for your PC's manufacturer, but possibly a quality-cutting measure for you.

  • If the speakers plug into a port living on one of several parallel metal strips (shown at bottom in Figure 7-1), your PC has a sound card. Sound cards often provide higher quality sound than circuits built into the motherboard.

  • If the speakers plug into a box that connects to a USB port (Section 1.8.1), the sound circuitry lives inside the plug-in box, which is handy for moving the sound capabilities from one PC to another.

Figure 7-1. All the ports contained in the rectangular area near the USB, mouse, and keyboard ports are built into the motherboard. If your speakers and microphone plug in up here, your sound circuitry is built into the motherboard, too. The ports on the parallel strips near the bottom of your PC are attached to add-on cards. If your speakers and microphone plug in down here, your PC has a sound card.

Don't have any speakers at all? Then you're limited to headphones until you either plug your PC into your stereo (Section 7.3) or buy and plug in a cheap set of speakers. If you've got a laptop, check out the "Sound Advice for Laptops" box.)

Each of the three types of adapter serves slightly different needs, all of which are described in the following sections.

7.1.1. Integrated Audio

All notebooks and most modern PCs rely on integrated audio . Listed on spec sheets and sales floors, the term simply means your PC's sound circuitry lives tucked away inside one of the motherboard's chips. Reducing the sound card's circuitry to a single chip lowers the PC's price, yet still lets your PC play stereo sound and record from a microphone or other gadget.

A few years ago, the term "integrated audio" cried out "budget PC," leading to derisive scowls at geek gatherings. Integrated sound's come a long way since then, and some of today's new motherboards even include 5.1 surround sound for the most realistic rumbling helicopter explosions.

In a few years, integrated audio will handle all of a PC's sounds, replacing everything but specialized cards aimed at musicians .

7.1.2. Sound Cards

Gamers and music fans tend to drool over high-performance sound cards, which drop into a special slot (Section 1.7.1) on your motherboard. A basic stereo card runs less than $20; a more elaborate one with higher-quality sound costs between $150 and $200.

People upgrade to a sound card, shown in Figure 7-2, for several reasons.

  • Upgrades . If your older PC doesn't even include integrated audioor if its current sound card doesn't power enough speakers for your latest gamea sound card upgrades your sound quickly and inexpensively. Also, the circuits on old or cheap motherboards sometimes fail. If your motherboard's sound chip dies, dropping in a cheap sound card extends your PC's life just a little longer.

  • Power . Passing the sound-creation chores to the sound card lets the computer concentrate on other tasks , like creating more realistic-looking graphics and faster games.

  • Quality . Being somewhat isolated from your PC's main circuitry, sound cards provide a cleaner, more buzz-free sound than sound circuits built into the motherboard itself.

  • Software . The software bundled with most sound cards let you tweak the sound slightly for different conditions. Choose the Karaoke profile, for instance, and the card automatically filters out the singer 's voice and lets you record your own. Closet musicians can add effects to recorded sounds, and gamers can tailor sound profiles to match each game's unique monster-howling attributes. (Some sound cards come with free games, as well.)

Figure 7-2. Considered a high-end card, Creative Lab's Audigy 2 ZS slips inside your PC, granting it 7.1 sound. It powers a wall of three speakers in front, two in back, and one on each side. (Toss in the bass-producing subwoofer for the ".1" part.)

Note: If you add a sound card to a PC, you may need to disable your PC's integrated audio by flipping a switch in its BIOS (see Section 17.2 for details).

7.1.3. Plug-in Box

Some sound circuitry doesn't live inside the PC at all. Instead, it resides in a separate box, as shown in Figure 7-3, that plugs into your computer's USB port. These boxes cost about the same as a sound card and come in handy for people who want better sound but shudder at the thought of opening up their PC's case. For instance, if your current sound card won't play your DVDs in surround sound, plug a box into a USB port, plug the speakers into the box, and listen to the helicopters whirl overhead.

When shopping for a plug-in box, make sure it plugs into a FireWire or USB 2.0 port rather than the older USB 1.1 ports. The USB 2.0 ports move information 10 times faster than the older versions, which is vital when moving lots of sound information between the box and your PC.

PCs: The Missing Manual
ISBN: 0596100930
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 206
Authors: Andy Rathbone

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