Consumer alert – Sound-Mix intentionally crippled laptops August 4, 2008Posted by rm42 in Computers.
The standard components of a PC are in constant evolution. Features that used to be integral to the PC are almost impossible to buy these days. (How many of you remember 5.25″ floppies?) However, for the most part, nobody misses those old features since they have been gradually replaced by alternatives that do a better job. And that is as it should be. As time goes by, thanks to technological advances, the computers available in the market should be more powerful and/or offer more functionality. Unfortunately, there seem to be other factors at play that break down this idea of continuous progress.
A standard feature of mainstream multimedia PCs and laptops has been the ability of being able to record digital sound. This ability was clearly defined in section 5.5 of the AC ’97 Specification, a paper intended to serve as a standard “for implementing audio and modem I/O functionality in mainstream PC systems”:
AC ‘97 Analog Mixer
The AC ‘97 analog mixer is designed to manage playback and record of all digital and analog audio sources likely to
be present in a mainstream PC. These include:
• System audio: digital PCM input and output for business, games, and multimedia
• CD/DVD: analog CD/DVD-ROM Redbook audio with internal connections to Codec mixer
• Mic: choice of desktop or headset microphone, with programmable boost and gain
• Speakerphone: use of system microphone & speakers for telephony, DSVD, and video conferencing
• Line in: external analog line level source from consumer audio, video camera, etc
• Video: TV tuner or video capture card with internal connections to Codec mixer
• AUX: internal analog line level source
Sounds good right? Well, it would if every manufacturer chose to implement it. The sad thing is that many “mainstream” devices are choosing not implement these features to some degree or another. In particular, there has been a recent crop of laptops being shipped without the ability to record from anything other than the built-in microphone. (To see if your computer has this feature, check the Recording section of your Sound Volume properties in the Control Panel as see if you have something called “Wave Out Mix”, “Stereo Mix”, or “What U Hear”.) Some have speculated that the absence of this feature is the result of pressure placed by the RIAA on OEMs. But, so far, no substantial evidence has surfaced to validate this claim. What is certain is that a substantial number of consumers are being disappointed when finding that this long standing feature of multimedia computers is missing from their shiny new laptops.
After a flood of complaints (just do a Google search for “stereo mix what you hear”, without the quotes), some laptop manufacturers like Dell and Asus are issuing updated drivers for their sound cards which correct the issue by enabling that feature. See here for example:
(The above link is now dead. See the following link for some useful info.)
Unfortunately, other manufacturers apparently do not plan to offer any fixes for this problem. Lenovo in particular has said that their laptops are crippled “at the hardware level”. This is their official response so far:
The ’61 series systems do not have any way to provide the same loopback function or “Stereo Mix” that previous systems have provided. This is by design of the hardware. There cannot be any driver update to enable this function as the hardware layer does not support it.
It is too bad that the specs they publish for their systems do not show whether this functionality is present or not. I find it an outrage that people are buying crippled laptops without notice from the manufacturer. I guess it is up to the user community to sound the alert. I don’t know what else to do other than write this blog entry and hope that it gets as much publicity as possible.
The question of whether the “Sound Mix” feature has a legitimate place in a standard multimedia PC shouldn’t even have to be asked. There are educational packages that use this feature, such as Sony Virtuoso, a language learning application. People have written comment after comment explaining how this feature is useful to them. One user provided the following list:
- 1. I have a radio program I produce. The “stereo mix” is what allowed me to do voice-overs and such the way a real radio program does. I now have to use another old system I dug out of the closet to do this.
2. I have a device I connect to the USB port to copy VCR tapes to DVD for some of my customers. Things like family videos and such. That device uses, you guessed it, “stereo mix” for the audio portion of the tape. Back to the old boat anchor system.
3. A radio station in the area contracts with me to make some of their commercials for them. Again, those require voice-over work. Without the “stereo mix” it’s right back to the old system again.
4. I am part of a Bluegrass Gospel group. I used to use my laptop to make “master” recordings to use to make CDs for the group. That was handy because I could set up wherever we wanted to work. My old system is a desktop, so now we will have to move all the stuff for a desktop the next time we want to do that.
5. The company I work for does meetings via the web. I used to be the one that recorded the meetings to be played back later. There’s a slight problem with that now since I can only record the video portion of the meetings and not the audio.
6. I used to be a member of a web site that does Karoke and allows you to record what you sing. This one is the thing I like to do, and it also uses “stereo mix” to mix the music with the voice from the mic. They are RIAA members and pay royalties for the music you use, BTW.
So, if you think that this feature is important to you or someone you know, don’t just assume that your next PC or laptop will have it. Otherwise you may join the ranks of those that have been disappointed by their purchases.