Time was, your Wintel PC needed a sound-card to do much more than make a thrilling little beep or click. Early sound-cards were pretty rudimentary, but they did the job. You got sound, and sometimes darn good sound.
More modern sound cards have all sorts of features, chief among which I would think is easing the sound-processing burden for the CPU, and really, that's the primary reason you'd go out and buy a sound-card rather than relying on the audio systems that are built into virtually every motherboard out there. The onboard sound hardware generally seems to rely on drivers that do most of the dog-work at the CPU end.
So, armed with a shiny new machine, I found it would really shovel. It handled pretty much every piece of software I threw at it, and usually on maximum settings. Memory and disk throughput was comfortably huge, and very snappy.
The onboard sound hardware, however, gave all the symptoms of an overworked software audio pipeline: Clicks, pops and stutters, when the system gets pretty busy delivering flashy frame-rates.
Not a great experience.
So, time for a dedicated sound-card to move all that work off onto hardware and give me a nice smooth sound experience. In this case, that was the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Audio PCI-E.
Golly, was that ever a waste of money.
Plugged in, and running the latest drivers it delivers sound that is no better than the software-driven audio hardware on the motherboard.
But I can have advanced audio features with my clicks, pops and stutters.
Not impressed. Honestly, I don't give a damn about the nifty audio features. I want something that offloads the work from my CPU to the sound-card hardware and keeps the audio system doing what it is supposed to do. Viz: Delivering smooth audio. I have a 10-year-old Creative sound-card that does just that, with efficiency and aplomb, and which never showed any trouble until I choked the system too hard for it to accomplish much of anything. Unfortunately, this system just doesn't have any PCI slots for it.
So, what is it with these newer sound-cards? Are they basically little more than life-support for a bunch of software features and brightly coloured output sockets nowadays?