As with many PC components, a software driver provides a vital link between an audio adapter and the application or operating system that uses it. Operating systems such as Windows 9x/Me and Windows 2000/XP include a large library of drivers for most of the audio adapters on the market (Windows NT 4.0 also supports some sound hardware but not as much as other versions of Windows). In most cases, these drivers are written by the manufacturer of the audio adapter and distributed only by Microsoft. You might find that the drivers that ship with the adapter are more recent than those included with the operating system. Although traditionally the best place to find the most recent drivers for a piece of hardware has been the manufacturer's own Web site or other online service, Windows Me, 2000, and XP prefer digitally signed drivers that have been certified by the Microsoft Hardware Quality Labs. You might find these drivers available at the vendor's own Web site, but you can also download and install them automatically through Windows Update.
Any DOS applications you might still use do not typically include as wide a range of driver support as an operating system, but you should find that most games and other programs support the Sound Blaster adapters. If you are careful to buy an adapter that is compatible with Sound Blaster, you should have no trouble finding driver support for all your applications. Older ISA Sound Blaster cards provided hardware support for DOS games, but recent models (including the Sound Blaster Audigy/Audigy 2/Audigy 2 ZS series), as well as most comparable sound cards, require you to run software drivers to obtain Sound Blaster compatibility for DOS games. This software must be run before the game starts.
If your game program locks up when you try to detect the sound card during configuration, set the card type and settings manually. This is often a symptom of inadequate emulation for Sound Blaster by a third-party card. If you have problems, check the game developer's or audio adapter's Web site for patches or workarounds.
Choosing the Best Audio Adapter for Your Needs
Although sound features in computers have become commonplace, the demand for sophisticated uses for sound hardware have grown and demanded more and more powerful hardware. If your idea of a perfect multimedia PC includes any of the following, the plain-vanilla multimedia hardware found in many of today's PCs won't be sufficient:
Realistic 3D and 360° sound for games
Theater-quality audio for DVD movies
Voice dictation and voice command
Creating and recording MIDI, MP3, CD-Audio, and WAV audio files
Table 16.2 summarizes the additional hardware features and software you'll need to achieve the results you want with your high-performance audio adapter. The following sections examine in detail these advanced uses and the features you'll need for each.
Table 16.2 Audio Adapter Intended Uses and Features Comparison
Features You Need
Game or USB port; 3D sound; audio accelerator
4.1 or greater speaker configuration; game controller
DVD movie playback
5.1 or greater analog or Dolby Digital AC-3 support
5.1 or greater speaker configuration
DVD player program with 5.1 or greater audio support
Voice dictation and voice command
Audio adapter equivalent or better than Sound Blaster16 and supported by software
Microphone optimized for voice-recognition
Voice-dictation or voice-command software
Creating MIDI files
MIDI composing software
Creating digital music (MP3, WMA) files
Digital connection to CD or DVD drive
CD or DVD drive with digital audio extraction (DAE) support
MP3 or WMA ripping software
Creating WAV (uncompressed audio) files
Microphone or other sound source
Sound recording program
Creating CD audio files
External sound source (microphone, CD audio, or others)
Digital (WAV, MP3, or WMA) to CD audio track conversion program
The following sections discuss many of these special uses in detail.
Thanks to the widespread availability of audio adapters, game playing has taken on a new dimension. Support for 3D and surround digitized sound and realistic MIDI music in current games has added a level of realism that would otherwise be impossible even with today's sophisticated graphics hardware. Gaming enthusiasts should choose audio solutions with support for four or more speakers and some form of directional sound, such as the Creative Labs EAX technology used in Sound Blaster Live! and the Audigy/Audigy 2 series or Sensaura 3D Positional Audio (3DPA) used by ESS, VideoLogic, Cirrus Crystal Logic, Analog Devices, C-Media, and NVIDIA. Most recent sound cards feature support for one or more of these standards, either through direct hardware support or through software emulation and conversion. As with 3D video cards (see Chapter 15, "Video Hardware"), most cards today merely need to work with the 3D audio APIs included in the current revision of Microsoft's DirectX technology.
Any audio adapter built in the last few years will still work with today's games, thanks in large part to the Hardware Emulation Layer (HEL) built into DirectX. HEL emulates the features of newer hardware, such as 3D sound, on older hardware. However, as you can imagine, the task of emulating advanced performance on older hardware can slow down gameplay and doesn't produce sounds as realistic as those available with today's best audio adapters.
Sound Card Minimums for Gameplay
The replacement of the old ISA Sound Blaster Pro standard by PCI sound card standards has helped improve audio performance a great deal, but for the best gameplay with current and forthcoming titles, you need to consider sound cards with the following features:
3D audio support in the chipset. 3D audio means you'll be able to hear sounds appear to move toward you, away from you, and at various angles corresponding to what's happening onscreen. Microsoft's DirectX, version 9.0b, includes support for 3D audio, but you'll have faster 3D audio performance if you use an audio adapter with 3D support built in. DirectX 9.0b works along with proprietary 3D audio APIs, such as Creative's EAX and EAX 2.0, Sensaura's 3D Positional Audio, and the A3D technology from now-defunct Aureal.
3D sound acceleration. Sound cards using chipsets with this feature require very little CPU utilization, which speeds up overall gameplay. For best results, use a chipset that can accelerate a large number of 3D streams; otherwise, the CPU will be bogged down with managing 3D audio. This can slow down gameplay, particularly on systems with processors running under 1GHz or that are running at a high-resolution, high-color depth setting (1,024x768/32-bit).
Features such as these don't necessarily cost a ton of money; many of the mid-range audio adapters on the market ($50–$100 at retail) support these features. With new 3D audio chipsets available from a number of vendors, it might be time for you to consider an upgrade if you're heavily into 3D gaming.
Legacy (MS-DOS and Gameport) Game Support Issues
Support for the classic Sound Blaster Pro standard and 15-pin game port were once the primary requirements for a good gaming audio adapter. However, with the rise of great Windows-based games, the development of DirectX, and the replacement of game ports by USB ports, these are no longer issues for many users.
If you need to play MS-DOS games or work with game ports, see Chapter 16 of Upgrading and Repairing PCs, 15th Anniversary Edition on the disc packaged with this book to learn about compatibility considerations.
This chapter is from Upgrading and Repairing PCs, 16th edition,by Scott Mueller. (Que Books, 2004, ISBN: 0789731738). Check it out at your favorite bookstore today.
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