Putting it all together
Be careful to take a close inspection of what is included in the bundle that comes with the card you're considering. And have a think about what the card is needed for and what your priorities are as a user.
Compare this analysis you have made against the software that's included and have a think about whether or not it's what you need.
Another thing to consider is whether or not you would be content with an OEM model, which is really bare bones and comes only with the card and drivers. This is generally a product that is sold in bulk to third party manufacturers and becomes available from certain PC stores, swap meets and large markets.
These are seriously cheap and if you can live without any software at all and don't mind hunting one down, then you should really consider this as an option. Think of the extra money that could be saved and spent on a more comprehensive speaker system.
These are only some suggestions I can make that will benefit you in choosing something that you will find useful. Ultimately, like the decision of buying speakers, your ears are the best for making the final choice.
Although critical in-store listening might not be the first thing that comes to mind when buying a sound card, as with speakers it can really help to separate two close products from one another.
Something like the 24-bit Crystallizer feature of the latest Creative X-Fi series of products has to be heard in person to be appreciated in full; I think anyway. Personally I didn't take a second sniff when reading about it, but in reality it turned out to be a fantastic tool for rejuvenating mp3s and compressed audio.
This is of course only one example of the benefits of in-store listening. Not all stores will facilitate the process, but be patient as you should always be shopping around for the lowest prices anyway.
So remember; take a short list of what you need to be able to do with your new sound card and then find the card you want in the best package you can and at the most competitive price. Consider other alternatives to retail boxes. OEM can save you a bundle if you're patient and don't mind just the card and drivers.
Sound card technology moves quite slowly compared to other PC components.
Buying a good sound card with a solid feature list can be a wise investment that will most likely survive a few upgrades. Pairing it up with a nice set of speakers should provide you with rich enjoyable audio well into the future.
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