VII: Going further, expansion cards


Now you have all the core components for you shiny new computer. To finish it we still need to give it power and place them in a case, yet before we do that we should consider if we want to add any extension card to get additional features in our computer. This will affect slightly the power consumption and any of these cards will take space, so it is better to think now, before we choose the case or the power supply  if we need them so later we can make a better choice.

For a common desktop computer, there are three main categories of extensions cards that you can consider, a sound card, a network adapter (allows connecting to the internet by a cable) and a wireless network adapter (allows connecting to the internet by WiFi), let’s see each one carefully to see if you need one. Of course, if you have special requirements and need a specific extension card, you should consider it now.

You need a sound card if…

You really like sound quality and you are willing to expend money on it. There is one thing true with high quality sound: it doesn’t come cheap. Almost any motherboard right now has an integrated sound card, so you are somehow sorted to reproduce audio. However, the integrated card will face some limitations. In general, what an integrated sound card is able to do is to reproduce the sound in the format sent to it, that is, if you are seen a movie in stereo, the output will be in stereo, if the input from the movie is 5.1, the output will be then 5.1. What a dedicated sound card can do however, is process the sound to get the stereo mode and convert it in 5.1, it is not as pure as the true 5.1, but this conversion cannot be done with an integrated card. Also, in general the dedicated card does increase the performance of the computer because the audio is now processed by the card and not in the CPU, yet the difference is very small.

The thing with dedicated sound cards is that they can provide you with better quality for sure, but you also require to have good devices to reproduce the sound, that is, good/high quality speakers or headphones. In other words, expending money in a sound card to be used with cheap speakers doesn’t really make sense. On the other case, a good sound card with good multi-channel speakers does make a huge difference.

So this is a personal choice, if you really like to have the best experience and enjoy clear sound you will benefit from a dedicated sound card, just remember that you also need a good medium to reproduce the sound. If on the other side you usually just use your headphones and/or don’t want to expend money in sound card + good speakers, you don’t need it.

You need a network adapter if…

You don’t have it integrated in the motherboard. That’s it, there’s no good reason to buy a network adapter. It makes sense for companies or servers with high demand of data, but the improvement you will get in your desktop computer is so low that you don’t really need it and you can save the space.

You need a wireless network adapter if…

You can’t or don’t want to use the wired connection. I don’t recommend to connect your computer via WiFi because it is slower than by cable. Although WiFi speeds are increasing quickly, wired networks usually are at least one order of magnitude faster than wireless. Also, for a laptop it makes complete sense to have WiFi because you are expected to move around with it and be able to connect anywhere, for a desktop computer this is not the case and the wired connection makes more sense.