Desktop PCs

Sound cards

At its most basic level, a sound card (also referred to as an audio card) is an expansion card that the PC utilises to read and play sound files. A sound card has four main functions: as a synthesiser (generating sounds), as a Musical Instrument Digital Interface or MIDI interface (the standard that allows musicians to hook up instruments to sound cards), as an analogue-to-digital converter (used, for example, in recording sounds from a turntable), and as a digital-to-analogue converter (to reproduce sound for a speaker, for example).

Almost all PCs have sound cards built into them and most of them are very good, offering up to eight channels of sound and with signal to noise ratios comparable to stand-alone sound cards.

When buying a PC, the sound card you purchase will determine the quality of the sound you wish to output. If you are going to be producing music on your PC, then a serious sound card with plenty of connectivity (for the MIDI interface), low latency and ASIO 2.0 driver support is required. Some high-end sound cards may even bundle an external breakout box which provides extra connectivity and easy access to audio jacks.

Sound cards connect to your computer either through a PCI slot or a USB 2.0 port.

Dolby Digital

The latest sound cards include Dolby Digital 5.1 or 7.1 processing, which will give you true digital surround if you invest in a good PC surround speaker set or hook up your computer to your home theatre system. Be sure to get surround speakers that match your surround sound card in terms of channels (5.1, 7.1, etc.) and connections.

Speaker systems

A speaker system

A new sound card can be a waste unless you also upgrade your speakers. Most off-the-shelf PCs come with cheap-looking speakers that produce tinny, AM radio-like sound. Figure on spending $100 to $200 for a good-quality set of speakers; the higher-priced systems include front, rear and sub-woofer speakers, as well as a centre speaker. Some might even have rear centre or mid-left and right speakers. The sub-woofer is represented by the ".1" in 2.1, 5.1 and 7.1 speaker systems.

Regardless of which sound card you choose, note that your card and speakers must have matching digital connections, and that sometimes the Dolby Digital encoding within both can be handled differently by various manufacturers. If you plan to buy a card from one vendor and speakers from another, check with the vendors to be sure that their products can make sweet music together.

Media centre PCs

Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is basically a version of Windows XP Home, but using an interface that allows PCs to become more effective home entertainment systems, complete with a TV/Radio tuner card and remote control. You can record and pause live TV (time shifting), watch DVDs or view video and photo files. The same functionality can be found in all versions of Windows Vista except Business and Basic.

Overseas, the uptake of MCE has been quite positive but we're yet to see the same type of response here in Australia. One of the contributing factors for MCEs slow rise is the omission of Electronic Program Guide (EPG); a cool feature that enables digital television users to search, filter and customise program listings and even control access to content. However, there are third-party program guides available, such as Ice TV, which can be used for a small subscription fee.

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