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Listen Through USB: Five External Sound Cards


Now a typical computer interface, USB connections have become standard ports. Used equally for the mouse, joystick, scanner and printers, it is also put to work for sound. And you have to admit that access to advanced equipment by just plugging it in is a very attractive idea. It is actually the only solution available for enhancing the sound capacities of a laptop, usually restricted to basic functions.

Sound via USB is not actually a new idea. When it first came out, the USB gave rise to the release of some rather odd artifacts: USB speakers. These speakers are amplified devices that integrate the elements of sound cards without actually having all their capacities. They seem to have disappeared now. Operating system compatibility problems and other issues, however, made them hard to use. USB has since found its growing niche, especially after the much faster 2.0 version now found on computers has opened up new vistas. The downside is, if your computer is a bit behind the times, it may well not be able to support the latest USB sound cards or, if it can support USB 2.0, your PC runs slow. This is the inconvenience with this sort of card: it is much more processor power greedy than its internal equivalent. And if your computer is not in the flush of youth, be warned that many of these cards require a recent OS like WindowsXP or 2000 to be able to run.

These disadvantages aside, it is obviously very appealing to think you can plug a sound card into a perfectly accessible input in a single move. More so because you don't have to remove or disable your internal sound card (this applies to both desktop and laptop computers). USB sound cards rub along perfectly well with existing cards and are in fact the easiest way to get two cards to live together on the same machine. In general, just plugging in the USB card automatically changes the multimedia management parameters so it becomes the default sound device. You can check this on the corresponding parameters in the control panel. Some cards (with WindowsXP) will even run (for basic purposes) with a system's no name drivers without any installation.