Many Dead Heads out there are familiar with the wonders of the Internet Archive (archive.org), specifically their vast collection of Grateful Dead recordings. They have everything from studio rehearsals to rare recordings, to famous runs at Madison Square Garden or Red Rocks, and many of them are soundboard quality. While the archive doesn't have everything that the Dead played, they have shows that (supposedly) are missing from the Dead's vaults that will probably never be released officially. This makes the archive an invaluable tool for Heads who want access to just about any conceivable show.
What I'm really trying to get at, though, is the difference between this and the days of tape trading. I've listened to a fair amount of my dad's old tapes and bootlegs, and some of them are definitely good quality and worth listening to and digitizing; some have even been released officially, and are therefore no longer an option on the archive. Others...well we're all familiar with the sound of bad recordings; a hiss like a rattlesnake, coming from the far end of the world' largest trash can, filled with mud and drunk people. The difference in quality is something that still lingers on the archive, even with some so-called "soundboards." However, there's a reason my dad (a huge dead Head in his time) only has a dozen tapes from his trading days, and I have folders on folders on folders of shows on my computer: it's so much easier now!
Most of what I know about tape-trading is second-hand, overheard knowledge; mailing copies of tapes you own to a friend of a friend of a friend with a good tape connection/collection in return for ones that you don't own. There was no guarantee of quality, timeliness of arrivals, or even of getting a tape you didn't already have. There was also the risk of taping over some premium shows and getting a Madonna song from the radio in the middle of the second set, or having your set lists and songs mislabeled ("Don't Murder Me," "High On Cocaine," "Roll Away").
Nowadays though, everything I need is just a click away. Everyday I click the "Shows on this Day in History" link on the Dead's archive page (archive.org/details/GratefulDead), and get suggestions from history. Sometimes I'll put in random dates in the URL that comes up after that link, or cruise an entire month or year; sometimes I'm looking for something in particular like the longest "Dark Star," and other times I'll just be looking for a solid '73 show. No matter what I'm doing, it's more than easy enough to get what I want, which makes it even easier to be picky. Things are just so easy! You can find tracks where the separate the crowd noise and tuning from the other tracks so you know you're not in for 15 minutes of "Bird Song," you're in for 12 minutes of awesome music, and then 3 minutes of tuning and people yelling "Saint Stephen!!!" You can also find up-loaders who will put transitions in one track, so your annoying MP3 player won't pause between "Scarlet" and "Fire," or "China" and "Rider."
So if you haven't already, head on over to the Archive and see what there is to see! No matter what you think you know about the Dead and their songs, there's always something new to learn. Some shows will never be released officially, so it's up to us to find the gems that will never see the light of day otherwise.