Saturday, May 23, 2009

How a Ubuntu live CD can help testing braindead Windows drivers

I've been using my work laptop as my personal music player for years. SInce I'm in IT, it's with me everywhere I go, has tons of disk space, and I don't need to travel with an ipod. An ipod would be nice, but it needs to be charged, and I already have enough gadgets with a laptop, cell phone, and pager. I don't want something else.

Yesterday I received from my employer a brand new HP 6730b laptop. I started testing it, and it had a very serious issue: sound output was atrocious. And I'm not being picky here; it was just abyssmal. This has probably been unnoticed by our staff's QA process since built-in laptop speakers are rarely good (unless you have an alienware or ferarri), and not everyone uses their laptops to play music. The problem was apparent with earphones.

I tried another identical laptop model, and it sounded as bad.

I tried the same earphones on other laptops, and they sounded fine.

So the problem had to be the laptop. I tried searching the forums with "6730b headphones bad sound" (and all possble combinations) and didn't find anyone complaining with a similar issue. So what was the problem? Possibly a bad batch of DSPs? Maybe.

Of course, having to endure bad sound quality is not the kind of reason you can invoke to return your business laptop. The only choices were:
  1. Suck it up, buttercup, and don't listen to music anymore.
  2. Wait a few months until a new model is available from IT, and try real hard to break my laptop to get a new one.
  3. Buy an external USB sound card (such as the Turtle Beach Audio Advantage Micro) and use it to bypass the lame built-in Soundmax HD Audio
  4. (see below)
Neither of these choices were interesting. 

I tried choice #4: Boot up the laptop with a Ubuntu Live CD and check it out. And it sounded fine! Darn. So the culprit was Windoze after all.

I'll spare the end of the story. I could have brought it back to the IT staff, put in my favorite CD, and brag on how Ubuntu sounds better than Windows. But let's just say that fiddling with drivers (illegaly, I must say, since our PCs are locked out) fixed the issue. It now sounds fine. 

So what should you do if you want to investigate some weird hardware issue on your work laptop, for which you are limited in the scope of how far exactly you can go to fix it? Boot Ubuntu!

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