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Sound and Video Upgrades: Sound and Video Cards

There are more reasons than just gaming to add or upgrade your PC’s eyes and ears (video and audio cards): For example, maybe you want to move up to a sound card with Dolby Surround sound support or perhaps a video card with video capture capability.

Like the addition of high-speed ports, these upgrades are pretty simple: Just take the case off your PC, remove your current sound or video adapter card, and plug the replacement card in its place.

Most motherboards now have built-in sound (and/or video) hardware on the motherboard rather than on separate adapter cards. If your motherboard has either a built-in video card or sound card, you should be able to disable the onboard hardware so that you can add your upgrade card.

Typically, you must either display your PC’s Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) and disable the onboard hardware from there or move a jumper on the motherboard. Read your motherboard user manual to discover which avenue to take.

Sound cards to upgrade

A number of specialized sound cards are available for the discriminating audio connoisseur — which, no doubt, you are. Consider these gems:

  • A MIDI card: If you’re a musician that’s invested in a MIDI keyboard or instrument, a sound card with MIDI ports makes it easy to compose music on your instrument and record it on your PC, or, conversely, play your MIDI instrument automatically from your PC! A typical sound card with MIDI support can set you back anywhere from $100–$200 US), but you’ll find the convenience of MIDI well worth the cost.

  • A 24-bit card: For the absolute best in audio reproduction, pick up a card that can produce 24-bit audio (that’s 192 KHz, for you audioheads), which is far superior to the sound produced by virtually all audio CD players.

  • Many high-end sound cards also support DVD audio or feature front-panel controls that fit in an open drive bay (whipped cream and cherry on the sundae). Expect to pay a prime price for one of these cards, usually in the $75–$100 range.

  • A Surround sound card: These cards are specifically designed for 3-D environmental audio within games and for full support for Dolby Surround sound as you watch DVD movies on your PC. Naturally, you need more than two mundane speakers from a discount store to enjoy the full effect — which is why a premium set of speakers is usually included with these cards. Look for these cards to set you back around $50.

Which video card is right for you?

When you think about upgrading a video card, please do not —do not — just think “gamers only.” A number of specialized video cards on the market have nothing to do with games. (Okay, gamers do indeed love video cards.) Here’s a cross section of what’s available:

  • A gamer’s card: The latest 3D video cards (equipped with chipsets from NVIDIA and ATI) simply kick serious tail, no matter whether your favorite games involve mowing down Nazis, building a civilization one stone at a time, or matching wits with your computer over a chess board.

    If you haven’t seen the realistic 3D figures that these cards can produce, visit your local mall’s Maze o’ Wires store and ask a salesperson to crank up the latest game. Of course, Windows displays ho-hum applications faster with one of these cards as well. Most 3D gaming cards also offer dual monitor support so that you can run two monitors side-by-side for a really big desktop.

    These high-end, 3D cards run tremendously hot — after all, they’re practically separate computers — so they usually have a fan (or two) already installed on the card. However, if you’re planning to install the card in an older PC, have at least two fans installed in your case — that’s one for the power supply (which is standard equipment) and at least one larger auxiliary fan (to help circulate air to all those hot components).

    Unfortunately, most “pizza box” and “shoe box” cases don’t have the necessary fans on-board to handle a cutting-edge video card.

  • An MPEG card: These cards are specifically designed for encoding and decoding Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) digital video (usually from a DVD, but hardware MPEG support is also very useful for doing serious video editing on your PC).

    The idea is simple: Let the card, rather than your PC’s processor, do the video grunt work, and everyone is happier. High-end video cards specially designed for digital video editing are significantly more expensive than video cards meant for home and gamer machines.

  • A capture card: You use this popular video upgrade card to capture an incoming analog video signal and convert it to digital video. For example, you can connect your VCR or older analog VHS-C camcorder to the card, convert the signal to digital video, and then record DVD backups of your home movies. If you can display it on your TV, you should be able to capture it with one of these toys.

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