Fixing choppy audio in Windows XP SP2

So I’m sitting at this 2 GHz PC with 2 GB of RAM and a reasonably fast video card, and the audio in Railroad Tycoon 3 skips and sounds a little bit distorted.

It’s maddening when the game played fine on 400 MHz systems. I did some digging, and bad audio seems to be a common problem in XP SP2, but solutions are rare.I’ll cut to the chase: A little-known hotfix, KB920872, fixed the problem for me. This isn’t the specific problem this hotfix addresses, but since it does affect the audio subsystem, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

It worked for me when all of the conventional fixes didn’t, and I haven’t seen this hotfix mentioned anywhere. So if your new computer can’t play MP3s or stream online video or audio as well as a Pentium-166 running Windows 98, try the hotfix.

The usual advice is to update or reinstall your sound drivers, and if possible, to use drivers from the manufacturer of the computer or of the sound board, rather than drivers that Microsoft provides.

In my case, I already had the newest manufacturer-supplied drivers, so that didn’t help. Utilizing the newest drivers from the manufacturer is usually a very good idea anyway, of course.

Another piece of advice was to install Windows and all the service packs and hotfixes before installing drivers and software. That’s a good practice–and I like to use something like nlite to slipstream all of those updates so the system doesn’t accumulate too much cruft. But I didn’t want to rebuild this system, partly because the vendor didn’t provide an XP CD or installation files on the hard drive, only a certificate of authenticity. (Doesn’t it stink when you have to pirate software you already legally own?) So that wasn’t a very practical option in this case.

Another suggestion I’ve seen is to go into the control panel and either increase or decrease the sound acceleration. I don’t like this option; you always want to use whatever hardware acceleration you can. You paid extra for it, after all.

Using discrete hardware as opposed to built-in sound doesn’t make a difference. I was using onboard, but I found people using Creative’s highest-end cards experiencing the same problem, which must have been maddening.

Finally, I found some people saying they had the problem go away when they upgraded to Vista. I don’t like that option either, because I found just as many people saying their audio skips in Vista but worked fine under XP SP2.

And no, I don’t know how to fix skipping audio in Vista. I haven’t seen it yet and have no plans to mess with it. Maybe in five years. Maybe.

So now I just have to figure out how to get XP SP2 to get along with my Firewire card. It seems to be a common problem.

Optimizing a brand-new PC

Dell offering PCs free of bloatware and crapware reminds me of the ultimate optimization tip, the thing you should do on Day 1 immediately after unboxing your PC.

Reformat the hard drive and start over.Most PCs get shipped with lots of garbage you don’t want or need. It used to primarily be signups for online services, but there are plenty of applications you’ll never use, trial applications that aren’t fully functional unless you pay for them, and who knows what else.

The reason this stuff gets bundled generally comes down to money. The manufactuer loads this stuff, and the company who made it pays a small fee. The software company is hoping you’ll sign up; the computer maker uses the money to subsidize the cost of the hardware (computer hardware is a very low-margin business).

Software that you install but don’t use slows your computer down, because it chews up disk space, bloats the registry, and it may keep some components loaded at all times. Get rid of that garbage, and the computer speeds up.

When I started working in desktop support way back in 1995, this was standard procedure. We squeezed far more life out of computers than anyone could reasonably expect us to do. But we had to do it–we had virtually no budget to work with.

So, assuming your PC comes with a real Windows CD (not just a system restore CD that reloads the factory image, junk and all), insert that CD when you power on, format the hard drive and install fresh. Better yet, use another computer to set up Nlite so you can install Windows with exactly the components you want. That way, if you don’t want or need, say, Media Player, you don’t have to have it. (Personally, I like to watch videos and listen to MP3s on my servers, especially seeing as they don’t have sound cards.)

If you haven’t ordered your new PC yet, be sure to ask when you buy whether it comes with a system restore CD or a real Windows CD.

If a new PC doesn’t come with a real, bootable Windows CD and I don’t have any other means to get one, I wouldn’t buy the PC. Period. That’s how important this is.

I rebuilt a Dell Dimension 4100 last night

So, I rebuilt a Dell Dimension 4100 last night. I didn’t make any hardware changes other than replacing the Western Digital hard drive inside, which was on its last legs.

Along the way, I learned a few things.I won’t say much about the WD drive except to say it’s the most recent in a long line of bad experiences I’ve had with the brand. I don’t know anything about current WD drives. But this one was loud and shrill, Windows bluescreened when I tried to install to it, and when I tried to run SpinRite on it, it said it would take 140 hours to test. A drive that size (20GB) should take 8-10.

In its defense, that drive was five years old. But I replaced it with a Maxtor drive that’s almost eight years old. SpinRite processed that Maxtor in 3 hours and found nothing worth commenting about. (Just because SpinRite didn’t say anything doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t do anything.)

The Dell Dimension 4100 does have a proprietary power supply (although it looks like an ATX). If you work on Dells, I suggest bookmarking PC Power and Cooling’s Dell cheatsheet. PCP&C power supplies are expensive, but they are reliable, and their prices are comparable to what Dell would charge for a replacement and they are higher quality than what you would get from Dell–assuming Dell will even sell you the part (they’re in the business of selling computers, not parts). I believe newer Dells use standard power supplies.

If you buy a Micron, you can punch in a serial number and get drivers for the machine. With a Dell, you just get guesses based on the options that were available for the machine.

Download the chipset drivers and other low-level stuff from Dell’s support site. Windows 2000 didn’t completely recognize the system’s Intel i815 chipset and I get better performance afterward.

Nlite offers a lot of promise–automating the Windows install, removing components, etc.–but I had trouble getting it to work with the OS recovery CDs I had. I didn’t have enough time (or blank CDs) to figure out how to get it to work for me. I’m sure it works better with a plain old Windows 2000 Workstation CD, but of course I can’t find mine. But if you have a CD that works with it, it’s nice even if you don’t remove the stuff Microsoft doesn’t let you remove, since it provides a nice interface for slipstreaming service packs and hotfixes and removing all of the prompts during installation.

The tricks in Windows 2000 with 32MB of RAM work pretty nicely, even when you have more than 32 megs. Of course, if you’re ruthless with Nlite and can get it to work for you, you probably don’t need that bag of tricks.

I didn’t try to install it without Internet Explorer. I’d love to try that sometime but I didn’t have time for that. At least disabling Active Desktop (see the link in the paragraph above) gives most of the benefit you would get from smiting IE.

The quality of the Dell hardware is reasonable. It didn’t floor me, but I didn’t see anything that made me cry either.

WordPress Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux