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How to Choose a Stable Sound Card for a PC

written by: John Garger•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/20/2011

Not all sound cards work well with Windows. Learn how to choose a sound card that is unlikely to conflict with Windows Vista and Windows 7.

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    The sound card forms the basis for the audio component of a computer’s multimedia capabilities. Many computer buyers think that one sound card is the same as another and some even opt to use onboard sound that is built into a motherboard as the main audio driver of a computer.

    With the relatively recent releases of Windows Vista and Windows 7, many computer hardware components interact differently with the operating system than they did with previous versions of Windows such as the ever-popular Windows XP. The result can be disappointment with a computer’s sound capability because many people find that sound cards are not as stable with the newer versions of Windows as they were with older versions.

    We can lump Windows Vista and Windows 7 together here because they share the same peripheral paradigm of not allowing any software application to address hardware directly. There will always be a layer of operating system software between the programs you run on your computer and your computer’s hardware.

    There are three major considerations when choosing a stable sound card for Windows Vista and Windows 7. The first has to do with choosing a sound card that is compatible and known to work well with Microsoft’s newest operating systems. Second, you need to take into consideration whether you are running or intend to run the 32-bit or 64-bit version of Windows. Finally, you need to consider the manufacturer of your sound card and the manufacturer’s track record for offering stable sound cards to the market and supporting them competently throughout the product’s life.

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    Windows Operating System and Choosing a Stable Sound Card

    The multiple versions of Windows control the vast majority of the operating system market. In fact, about 9 out of 10 home computers run some version of Windows, past and present. As with any hardware, problems occur when Microsoft introduces a paradigm shift in how new versions of Windows behave and address hardware.

    Windows XP is based on the NT kernel, offering greater security and stability to users in both the home and in the office. Quite different from previous versions of Windows, Windows XP was just not compatible with some hardware, software, and drivers making it difficult for some users to upgrade to the operating system from Windows ME or Windows 98 without having to buy new hardware.

    A similar issue happened with the releases of Windows Vista and Windows 7. Without getting too technical, a lot of hardware and software is just not compatible with these new operating systems because of a paradigm shift in how Windows Vista and Windows 7 handle interaction with your computer’s hardware.

    Compatible with Windows 7 Logo One of the best ways to ensure that your sound card is stable with either of these two operating systems is to look for the “Compatible with Windows 7" logo authorized only by Microsoft. To carry this designation, sound card manufacturers must ensure that their hardware passes many tests and qualifications. Without passing these tests, Microsoft will not grant the sound card manufacturer the right to print this logo on their products.

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    32-bit vs. 64-bit When Selecting a Stable Sound Card for a PC

    Many home users are in a quandary about whether to buy and install the 32-bit version or 64-bit version of Windows Vista and Windows 7. It is beyond the scope of this article to argue for one choice or the other. But once you have weighed the consequences of both and decide which to install, you need to choose a sound card that is stable under the operating system.

    The key to sound card stability in either a 32-bit or 64-bit environment is the drivers available for the sound card you choose. Many 32-bit drivers will not work in a 64-bit environment but it is certain that 64-bit drivers won’t work in a 32-bit environment. A further problem occurs when a user decides to switch from 32-bit to 64-bit or vice versa. You must take care that the drivers you need are available or will be available if you decide to switch.

    The first home 64-bit version of Windows was released for Windows XP but the hardware manufacturers didn’t really take this version of XP seriously. With the release of Vista, many hardware manufacturers, including sound card makers, were certain that few home users would opt for the 64-bit version and only provided 64-bit drivers as an afterthought. These drivers received very little support and probably contributed to the unpopularity of Windows Vista 64-bit.

    With the release of Windows 7, both hardware manufacturers and home users are taking the 64-bit version of the operating much more seriously than previous versions of Windows. Support for 64-bit versions of drivers for sound cards is consistent with excellent updates and downloads available from the sound card manufacturers such as Creative Labs Sound Blaster and Turtle Beach’s line of home sound cards.

    To ensure a stable sound card experience with Windows Vista and Windows 7, visit the sound card manufacturer’s websites and look to see what downloads, drivers, bugs, etc. are associated with the sound card you intend to buy. Often, it is possible to get a sense of the stability of a sound card by visiting the manufacturer’s website and seeing what’s available. For example, if it looks like 64-bit support is lacking for the sound card you intend to buy, you might want to consider another card or even another manufacturer.

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    Manufacturer and Support Issues When Choosing a Stable Sound Card

    Along the same lines as what has been discussed above, the support you can expect to receive from the manufacturer of a sound card can have a lasting impact on your sound card’s stability. Visit the sound card manufacturer’s website and see how the company administers support to its customers.

    Things to look for include whether the manufacturer offers a toll free number for support or whether you must use e-mail and wait several days for an answer. Many hardware manufacturers offer online text chatting for support, eliminating the need to wait for an answer through e-mail or a callback.

    One thing to avoid is the manufacturer that wants you to mail back your sound card without even trying to help you resolve your sound card issues. This cuts costs for them but costs you money in real dollars for the cost of shipping the sound card at your expense and in the time you will have to wait while the manufacturer gets around to testing your card and mailing it back.

    Some sound cards manufacturers offer “extended warranties" but, generally, these are not worth the price. Often as expensive as 20% to 50% of the purchase price of the sound card, you are better off risking that the sound card won’t work within the original warranty period where you can return it for a full refund.

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    Buying a stable sound card for your computer is a function of three components. First, you must consider the operating system with which you will be using your sound card. Second, your must consider the ramifications of running a 32-bit versus a 64-bir version of Windows. Finally, you must factor in the support you can expect to receive from the sound card’s manufacturer should something occur that requires expert help.

    Generally, it is not worth buying extended warranties to ensure that your sound card will remain stable in your computer. This is because it is usually easy to determine whether a sound card is stable in a computer before the original warranty period expires. Buying an extended warranty is usually wasted money when it comes to sound cards.

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