In this final section I'm going to talk about the more general features that goes into the process of choosing a sound card. This section is more or less about the features we usually take for granted and often forget when we decide on a sound card.
DTS & DD Decoding
If you wanna watch DVDs, chances are that your movie has more than the basic PCM audio tracks and comes with either Dolby Digital or DTS audio tracks. What's the fuss with these tracks anyway?
First of all, the basic PCM track has only two channels. This means the sound effects can only come from the left and right channels which are always from in front of you. Dolby Digital (DD) and DTS are compressed multi-channel formats, where their tracks have more than two audio channels and can make use of multi-speaker surround sound setups that many people have these days.
Incidentally, both DD and DTS are compressed. This means their audio data must be decompressed or decoded before they can be used. In the older days, your sound card would have to output these tracks to an external decoder but these days, a number of sound cards can directly decode these tracks.
So, what's the lesson here? If you want a better movie-watching experience, look out for a card that can directly decode these formats. Of course, the number of formats available these days are far more than just the two examples I've given you. So, do your homework on whatever multi-channel audio format you prefer.
Sadly, people never seem to care about drivers. The value of a good, reliable driver in delivering a flawless computing experience cannot be stressed enough. Why? Well, new software and games are being developed and released all the time, together with new bugs and features. If the manufacturer does not bother to update the driver to keep up, your sound card will not be able to take advantage of the new features and may fail to work properly.
Just imagine if the driver for your sound card is 3 years old, and then this hot new game comes along. When you load it up, it just crashes the whole system. There's nothing wrong with the old driver per se, but the new game may call upon features that the old driver does not support, causing it to crash. So, do yourself a favour and consider companies that make their drivers open-source or at least, dish out regular updates, patches, bug fixes and new functionality in their drivers.
Ahhh... Often forgotten but potentially the most troublesome issue in the long term because you literally have to live with the software that comes with the sound card, unless someone is nice enough to make you a viable alternative. The software should be judged based on 3 aspects - stability, functionality and interface. Of course, you can't really make a proper judgement of the software until you've actually purchased the card and used its provided software. Therefore, I suggest you use the reviewer's impression of the software in a review as a good indication of whether a sound card's software suite is usable or not.
Some sound cards come with extra ports that might or might not be useful to you. For example, the newer Creative Sound Blaster sound cards generally come with a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port which I find immensely useful for hooking up my ageing iPod, and for the occasional video editing work. Some sound cards come with TOSLINK connectors, which will be useful to those who like console gaming.
Others may find BNC connectivity a useful feature. Balanced output should appeal to audiophiles and audio editors who need to run cables a long distance. Like always, list down the ports that are important to you and your work. Put it right up at the top of the list. Remember, you can't add ports to a sound card! So, give this matter due consideration.