Sound off

Although today's high-end desktop replacements can keep pace with desktop-PCs' CPU and graphics power, even the most expensive laptops are still only passable when it comes to pumping out crystal clear and booming audio.

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By  Jason Saundalkar Published  August 13, 2007

Although today's high-end desktop replacements can keep pace with desktop-PCs' CPU and graphics power, even the most expensive laptops are still only passable when it comes to pumping out crystal clear and booming audio.

This is due to their on-board sound chipsets, which limit the overall entertainment experience. These chipsets - which include the latest iteration of Realtek's AC97 chip and other models adhering to Intel's HD Audio standard - aren't quite as capable as the sound cards that can be fitted inside desktop PCs. (They are equal for example to the on-board sound chips used by entry- and mid-range motherboards.)

Because laptop audio, while fine for everyday listening, isn't capable of generating complex audio with realistic reverb (sound reflections), most of today's big games sound flat. The fact that notebooks usually only have low power speakers compounds the problem.

The options

A number of firms produce external audio solutions based on either plug-and-play USB or PCMCIA interfaces. Creative and Philips for instance manufacture a number of such products. So depending on your budget and how good you want your notebook to sound, you can choose one accordingly. At the top end, Creative's PCMCIA-based X-Fi Xtreme Audio Notebook is comparable to the firm's PCI-based X-Fi solutions for desktop PCs. In other words, it truly rocks.

In terms of which solution you should opt for interface-wise, this largely depends on your laptop. If for instance you have an older non-Centrino notebook, which uses a PCMCIA wireless networking adapter, you'll have to go the USB route. This is simply because if you want to use a PCMCIA sound card, you'll have to remove the wireless adapter first, limiting your machine's functionality.

The advantages

Regardless of which external sound card you choose, you can rest assured you'll get a better audio experience. If you go the Creative route, games that use the firm's EAX (Environment Audio Extensions) will produce realistic echoes, reverb and more, which built-in audio chipsets cannot do.

This route also provides additional digital audio inputs and outputs, which make them more flexible than on-board chipsets. Creative's X-Fi for instance offers optical output, which means you can connect your notebook to an amplifier and play DVD or DivX movies with Dolby positional audio. This can't be done using built-in audio chipsets, as these only offer analog outputs for a set of headphones.

Audio potential

Intel's High Definition (HD) Audio standard supports positional audio technologies such as Dolby Digital. It's worth noting however that although your laptop might include this type of sound chip, if you want to hook your system up to your home theatre set, it will need a digital audio out port such as an Optical or Coaxial connector (as without either of these, you'll get only basic positional audio). This is another reason why an external sound card is a good buy.

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