SHORT AND SWEET: SOUND
A Little History
Unfortunately, it is both a little late and a little early to speak of sound in detail. Current generation technology has been well discussed and compared already, and next generation chipsets from the two major players (Creative Labs and Aureal) have been announced, but no specific details are available. So I shall summarize for the uninitiated the history and the status of both companies and their respective chipsets.
For years, since the very early 90s, Creative Labs, with their Sound Blaster brand, has dominated the industry. Back in the day, when AdLib was king of sound, Creative Labs came out with their original Sound Blaster. The card was good, definitely better on the spec sheet than the AdLib. The Sound Blaster was well received by the high-end gaming population and soon all games had support for the Creative Labs card.
Now, let me elaborate on that last statement. Having game support was huge back in the day. Before the advent of DirectSound, you had to make a game and work on drivers for each and every sound card. You made some for the AdLib, the Roland brand MIDIs, the Sound Blaster, etc. This was very tedious and unless your card had a large user base, it wasn't likely to be supported by game makers. If a game didn't support your sound card, you didn't have sound. If a card wasn't support by software developers, it wasn't going to sell. It was a vicious cycle that created monopolies or oligopolies that made computer users stick to only a couple known brands.
The Turning Point
This brand devotion explains why AdLib was so popular even after the advent of the superior Sound Blaster. Adlib's users actually held sound technology behind. Users were able to survive with an inferior product because it was more popular and widely supported, etc. (*cough*Windows*cough -ed.)
Then, it all changed suddenly. The turning point in the battle between AdLib and Creative was Wing Commander II: The Vengeance of the Kilrathi. You see, up until WC2, there wasn't a game (a popular game, at any rate) that took advantage of all the fancy features that a Sound Blaster provided - such as emulated speech. Why, if you had the newer Sound Blaster Pro, you could also have stereo sound!! This was quite a step forward, considering that not too long before the AdLib, the PC speaker was the sound platform of choice.
(For those who don't know, the PC Speaker is the thing that makes that beep at bootup, and can wake the dead with horribly shrill and evil sounds during particularly bad lockups.) Some games actually managed decent sound with this setup (one football game comes to mind that I can't recall - they emulated "blue 32, blue 32, hut, hut hut!" It was DAMN good for PC Speaker :) However, you'd rather play most games without the sound, rather than endure all the beeps from that PC speaker.