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by Staff Writer
When you're gaming, sound can turn an ordinary gaming experience into an incredibly immersive experience. Games nowadays can create a tremendous array of sounds that will add to your gaming experience. So, is your computer's sound card up to the task? On-board audio systems do a fair job, but if you're looking for dedicated hardware that can give you the ultimate audio from your gaming, you'll want to make sure you buy a sound card that can bring out the most from your games.
It's the features that a sound card offers that will make or break it as a great gaming card. Low-end sound cards generally skimp on features and do little more than sending audio out to your speakers. This may be fine for general computing and for listening to music, but there's much more that a sound card can do that will add to your gaming experience.
It should be noted that, when you're considering the features of a sound card, you want those features to be performed in hardware. Cheap sound cards will often support a feature "in software," meaning that it will have your computer's CPU handle nearly all of the processing. This just creates an additional load on the processing cycles that could be better used elsewhere when you're gaming. If you've always used on-board audio systems, you may be surprised at home many frames-per-second you can gain by switching to a dedicated sound card.
Support for your operating system's preferred drivers for gaming: For years, an enormous amount of games required that your sound card offer DirectSound drivers. More recent operating systems are starting to change that. Whatever your operating system calls its standard for high-performance drivers, you'll want to make sure your sound card includes those drivers. After all, games will almost invariably be written to make use of high-performance audio drivers. Fortunately, getting a sound card with support for these drivers is generally very easy, provided you buy a sound card that your operating system supports.
Hardware effects processing: The effects that a sound card can do are sometimes broken up into regular effects and "environmental effects;" either way, you'll want a sound card that does them in hardware. There are several standards for effects processing that a sound card might support, some of which are vendor-specific. If your favorite game has added support for one of these standards, it may be worth it to you to shop for a card that specifically supports that standard.
3D audio processing: 3D positional audio is one of the most crucial parts of getting immersed in a game. You'll definitely want to make sure that your sound card supports this in hardware.
Support for 7.1 or similar speaker configurations: Having a surround-sound speaker setup is crucial to gaming, as realistic 3D audio calls for having speakers all around you. Some sound cards can simulate 3D audio on headphones or 2.1 speaker systems, but your ears will probably be able to tell the difference.
Sound cards have long been designed for PCI slots. Some newer sound cards, however, can use a PCI Express slot on your motherboard, which offers much higher bandwidth than a PCI slot. This means that more data can be sent to and from your sound card. If you have an available PCI Express slot in your computer, look for a sound card that can use that slot.
Some gaming-optimized sound cards have extra on-board memory. Even if your sound card is on a PCI Express slot, having this extra on-board memory can offer a performance increase if it means that the rest of your computer has to spend less time sending data to your sound card.
There are other features that surround card might support, although most of them will be more useful for things like music or DVD playback or for music creation. If you really want a serious sound card for gaming, make sure that your sound card doesn't sacrifice features like 3D audio or effects processing for those other features. Some particularly powerful sound cards are able to switch between gaming-optimized configurations and configurations optimized for other uses, which makes such cards an excellent choice for just about any situation.