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Consumer alert – Sound-Mix intentionally crippled laptops August 4, 2008

Posted by rm42 in Computers.
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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:

http://www.dellideastorm.com/article/show/66120?page=last

(The above link is now dead.  See the following link for some useful info.)

http://audacityteam.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=27&t=2548

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.

Comments»

1. ThinkPad_User - August 5, 2008

rm …. I feel your pain. Fortunately, I was able to afford an external $80 X-Fi Notebook 7.1 surround sound card for the express54 slot on my new laptop as the workaround and am satisfied with the resultant inprovement in sound quality and the restoration of the ability to record “What-U-Hear.” However, please note that not all laptops have have an Express54 lot and the standard PCMIA slot controller on many of the laptops in question here is “coincidentally” NOT compatible with the PCMIA version of the same X-Fi external sound card.

However, I do have some degree of faith in the manufacturers who have yet not resolved the issue in that they may correct it in newer laptops that are soon to be released ….. not much comfort in your case, to be sure, but at least your voice will have helped things in motion to alert future generations of users to this issue.

2. Matthew Broderick - August 13, 2008

Good article, thanx for sharing

3. Music Producer/DJ - August 25, 2008

This is my 4th thinkpad.

I want a refund. From now on I’m getting macbooks.

4. Kit Galloway - October 12, 2008

Thanks for publishing this!

It took me a long, long time to grasp the reality that there was no workaround to get “WAVE OUT MIX” enabled on the SigmaTel High Definition Audio CODEC I got stuck with in a Gateway GT5018E Media Center Computer.

The machine’s warranty expired before I figured it out. So it sits hare like a boat anchor.

THIS IS NOT GOOD! AND VERY COSTLY!

Gateway GT5018E Media Center Computer
Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005
Intel Pentium D processor 820 (dual-core)
Intel (Cortez) 945G Motherboard

8-channel (7.1) audio subsystem with five analog
audio outputs and one S/PDIF optical digital audio
output using the Sigmatel® 9220 audio codec

5. rm42 - October 13, 2008

Kit Galloway,

The workaround involves purchasing a separate sound card.

6. Shams.priy - January 7, 2009

Amazing Site I like it. It Was Quite Interesting NiceWork I appreciate the information you provided. Good day

rm42 - January 7, 2009

You are welcome, and thanks. :)

7. Amanda - February 1, 2009

Why is this not being reported upon? I shelled out $750 for a new laptop only to find that I can not record anything other than with a microphone and can not disable the integrated audio device. This is insane! There are valid reasons for needing to be able to record digitally other than for music files. I am now stuck with using my old laptop for online classes if I wish to record anything and then copying them over to this overpriced hunk of junk I am now stuck with! Sony Vaio VGN-FW245J, stay far far away from it!

8. marco - March 14, 2009

Hi
i have a compaq presario c750 and i’m afraid i got the same issue.
This is what i see in sound options for recording. do i have to buy an ext sound card too?

i only have mic entry
http://www.hostmyjpg.com/i/556031127_recoptions.jpg

thanks
bye

9. MojaveMike - May 1, 2009

I bought an HP DV9600 laptop (specifically DV9617nr) with that problem. But it also has another problem: the audio line out has terrible system board static on it. It’s truly loud and unbearable and is not unique to my computer. (The onboard speakers aren’t affected.) So I bought an X-Fi USB device and that’s solved both issues.

My personal belief is that RIAA is behind this trend. I’ve seen so many other instances of their meddling with DVD players or even the absence in the U.S. marketplace of certain digital A/V recording devices that this seems right in line with their work.

Thanks for your blog, Alien. I just found it and am enjoying the reading.

10. Teri - December 28, 2009

The trend to remove audio features gets worse! just try to find a laptop with line in, spdif out, and stereo mix. Dell doesn’t have 1 laptop in their lineup with spdif. The trend is to have 1 mono microphone input. The New top of the line Alienware 17x does not have line in and spdif out. Just a mono mike input. It has 5 analog audio channels out, but they could not find a space for a optical or digital spdif connector ?

All built in audio functionality is dissapearing fast ! I have been searching the net for 36+ hours looking for a laptop with full audio functionality. Before we know it all we will be able to do is listen. Our multi-thousand dollar laptops will be no better then TVs. The industry as a whole stinks.

11. Teri - December 30, 2009

Does anyone know of any new laptop with 1) stereo mix. 2) line in and 3) spdif out. I cannot find ANY new laptop in the US market that has all three features.
If anyone knows of a new (2009-10) laptop with those 3 audio features PLEASE leave a note on this blog. I have given up searching after a week.
What I have found out is that any laptop that uses the integrated Realtek HD audio card does not have stereo mix as an option.
Even the Sager NP 9280 does not have stereo mix.

12. Phil Cooper - December 16, 2011

For those stuck with a computer that lacks built-in “What-You-Hear” recording capability in hardware, consider a software solution, such as Total Recorder from High Criteria (www.highcriteria.com). Until I built myself a fast Pentium III game machine some years ago with a Creative Sound Blaster Platinum sound system that included this feature, I was using a 150 MHz Pentium machine with a very basic Creative Sound Blaster card, running Windows 98SE. Total Recorder worked perfectly on that old machine for capturing streaming audio from the Internet or from Flash videos while they were playing. Total Recorder is share ware. You can try it for free, but it’s well worth the small price the publisher requests to become a registered user. Since it is a software solution, it doesn’t much care what kind of sound hardware you have; it simply sticks a software “tap” into the digital audio stream and siphons off a copy in real time to the hard drive.


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