When you purchase a sound card for your computer, you will be faced with the decision of purchasing an internal or external model. Both have different strengths and weaknesses, and by knowing these, you will be able to purchase the sound card that best suits your needs.
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Both internal and external sound devices can be equipped with a wide array of features, and the features of a sound device depend more on the target market for that device than whether it has an internal or external form factor. Features that you may find in a sound device include RCA and digital outputs, MIDI keyboard ports, recording quality settings up to 24 bits and 192 kHz and environmental sound enhancements for games. Choose a sound device based on your intended use, since sound devices intended for gamers and musicians are equipped with different features.
If you are considering purchasing an external sound device, be aware that there can be some latency associated with them due to the fact that a device on a cable is simply further way from your computer's processor than a device inside the computer itself. High latency can cause vocal and instrumental tracks to not line up properly as you record music. Minimise latency by choosing an external device that uses a high-speed USB 2.0 or FireWire interface.
Sound cards are available in every price range, but in general, external models are more expensive than internal ones due to the plastic or metal housing required. For a device that produces high-quality sound but has no special features, expect to spend approximately £19 for an internal sound card or £29 for an external device in 2009. Both internal and external sound devices can be purchased for under £6, but the quality of these devices is often questionable.
Because of the limited space on the back of internal sound cards, they often feature fewer connectivity options than external models. External sound devices often have connections for MIDI keyboards, along with RCA, 1/8-inch and digital input/output jacks. Internal sound cards often have only 1/8-inch and digital jacks. Also, because an external sound device can be placed on your desk, all of these connections are much easier to reach.
The quality of a sound device depends more on the quality of its hardware than on whether it is an internal or external device. Some tests conducted with spectrum analyzers have shown external sound devices to have a lower noise floor than internal devices, however, meaning that the volume of the speakers connected to the device must be raised higher before hissing can be heard. This is because all electrical components are subject to interference, which is greater for components that are closer to a computer's high-power processor and video card. Choose the sound device with the lowest noise floor possible if you will be connecting it to a very high-end amplifier and speakers.
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