Windows XP And Microsoft's Audio Support
With so many companies exiting the computer business, we attempted to get a clear direction from each company on the status of Windows XP driver support. In some cases, this was very easy because these companies already have beta Windows XP drivers posted on their web sites. In other instances, Windows XP has a basic function driver that is included with Windows XP itself. The majority of the time, a Windows XP basic function driver isn't going to provide all of the features that were included with the sound card's control panel application. Future driver support is important as well, so we did our best to answer that question. One other issue to consider is that, in some cases, the manufacturers only provide a basic functionality in the driver. This was the case in Windows NT Workstation 4.0 with the cards that supported that OS. No card in this review claimed to offer direct Linux support. Although it is possible to use some of these cards with Linux, we didn't really examine which ones will run under Linux.
With so many sound standards to support, it seems amazing that all of these cards support most of the popular standards. But do they? Microsoft developed Direct Sound 3D (or DS3D) to provide simple positional audio. DS3D does allow the use of extensions, unlike Direct3D. If your sound card doesn't have direct support DS3D, Microsoft has provided a simple software 3D sound engine, but it is very CPU intensive. This software 3D sound engine really isn't that good at placing sound, in my opinion, and it is for this reason that most software publishers choose to use 3D sound engines such as A3D or EAX. It is very important to note that just because a sound card claims to support DS3D, this does not mean that the sound card will not bog down your CPU for 3D sound processing. With DS3D, sound streams are converted into algorithms that the sound card manufacturer or chipset developer has licensed or developed. These algorithms are often better at placing the 3D sound and most often use less CPU.
What complicates the issue even more is that most sound cards can't accelerate more than a fixed number of 3D sound streams, and once these streams are exhausted the sound card reverts to using the MS engine with non-3D sound. Many cards support other sound formats by way of conversion. Support of A3D 1.x is done by converting the A3D 1.X calls to DS3D. This will work in most, but not all, A3D 1.X games. With Aureal no longer around to offer developer support for the A3D API, it will most likely die, so this will not be a major issue in the future.
Now that we have presented a general overview of all of these DSP technologies and a basic understanding of how Direct Sound 3D processes sound, let's look at a few cards and see if it really is worth considering anything other than a Sound Blaster sound card.