Troubleshooting tips for sound card problems in Windows XP

Windows XP employs many multimedia features previously unavailable in earlier versions of the OS. However, without a sound card all the bells and whistles do not do you much good. This article examines what to do with a pesky sound card in XP.

Windows XP comes bundled with more new multimedia features than previous Windows operating systems. However, the old rule that the more complex something is, the more likely that it is to malfunction, still applies. In spite of Microsoft’s efforts to make Windows XP as stable as possible, the OS still has problems, particularly with multimedia files that require a sound card because they are system resource hogs. This article takes a look at how to troubleshoot some of the many sound card problems that can occur in Windows XP.

Checking the basics
If you’re having multimedia playback problems, the first thing that I recommend checking is your sound card and your speakers. Unfortunately, Windows XP doesn’t come with a component that’s specifically designed to test your system’s sound. If you’re lucky enough to have a Creative Labs Sound Blaster product, then you’ll be happy to know that the Sound Blaster ships with a program called Creative Diagnostics. This utility allows you to test your speakers, the sound card, and several media formats with a few simple mouse clicks.

If you don’t have a sound card that ships with its own diagnostic program, then you’ll have to resort to using the Windows Media Player to test system audio. As you do, be sure to try to play back several different audio formats so that you can get a feel for what is and isn’t working. If you aren’t hearing any sound at all, then it’s quite possible that your sound card or speakers could be to blame.

Testing your speakers
The easiest method of testing your speakers is to plug your computer speakers directly into a headphone jack of a portable radio or CD player. After adjusting the sound controls on the speakers and the player, you should hear sound through your computer speakers.

If no sound is present, temporarily disconnect the speakers and verify that sound is coming from the boom box when the speakers are disconnected. You should also verify that the speakers are receiving power. Finally, double check to make sure that the speakers are plugged in and that the volume level is adequate. If there is still no sound, it could be that your speaker wire has shorted out or that you’ve somehow managed to blow your speakers.

Once you’ve verified that your speakers are functional, reconnect them to your computer’s sound card. Before attempting to play any sound, select the All Programs | Accessories | Entertainment | Volume Control commands from the Start menu. When the Volume Control is open, verify that all levels are somewhere in the middle, that the balance is set to the center, and nothing has been muted. Now, close the Volume Control and try again to play a sound. If you still can’t hear any sound from your computer, try experimenting with plugging the speakers into different ports. Some sound cards have very misleading markings to indicate what device gets plugged into each port.

Diagnosing sound card problems
If you’ve tested your speakers and verified that your PC's volume isn’t muted or turned way down, then it could be that your problem is with the sound card and not with the speakers. In this section, I’ll show you several different ways that you can troubleshoot your sound card using Windows XP.

A sound card is one of the more difficult hardware components to troubleshoot because Windows treats this one single hardware device as multiple hardware devices, each with its own resources. To begin the diagnostic process, open the Control Panel, and then click on the System icon. When you see the System Properties sheet, select the Hardware tab and click the Device Manager button.

The Device Manager is a utility that allows you to interact directly with any hardware on your system. As you browse through the Device Manager list, click the plus sign next to Sound, Video, And Game Controllers. Keep in mind that it’s possible that this section may not even exist. If the Sound, Video, And Game Controllers listing does not exist, it means that Windows doesn’t know that your system has a sound card in it. To get around the problem of an unrecognized sound card, turn off and unplug the computer and remove the sound card. Now, boot and then shut down Windows normally. When Windows shuts down, unplug the system and insert the sound card. Now, reboot the system.

If Windows doesn’t automatically detect the sound card, return to the Hardware tab of the System Properties sheet and click the Add New hardware button. Doing so will force Windows to search the system for new hardware devices. When searching for new hardware, it’s very possible that Windows may detect the new sound card, but not recognize it. If this happens, be prepared to provide Windows with a driver for the sound card. You can usually download the latest Windows XP driver from the card manufacturer’s Web site. If no Windows XP driver exists, you may be able to use a Windows 2000 driver.

Now that you know how to search for a new hardware device, let’s assume that the Device Manager is displaying the Sound, Video, And Game Controllers section and that the section contains a variety of hardware. The actual hardware devices that will be listed depend greatly on your individual sound card. However, Windows will likely see a single sound card as multiple hardware devices. In order to make sure that your sound card is working properly, it’s necessary to test each of these virtual devices.

To test a virtual device, right-click on the device and select the Properties command from the resulting context menu. When you do, you’ll see the device’s properties sheet. The individual tabs that appear on the virtual device’s properties sheet varies from device to device. In the sections below, I will discuss some of the more useful tabs that you might encounter for a device. Just keep in mind that not every device will have every tab.

The General tab
The General tab is the default tab for each device’s properties sheet. The General tab displays the device’s status, which consists of a short message stating whether or not Windows thinks that the device is working properly. If the device is failing, the General tab may sometimes present you with some brief information regarding the nature of the problem. Keep in mind that the Device Status is usually accurate, but may sometimes be misleading.

Beneath the Device Status is a Troubleshoot button. When you click the Troubleshoot button, Windows will launch a wizard that’s designed to help you solve the problem by walking you through the diagnostic process. I recommend using the Troubleshooting wizard as a last resort.

The Properties tab
The next tab is the Properties tab. Typically the Properties tab will only exist under the listing for your physical sound card. The Properties tab contains a list of all of the virtual devices that Windows sees on the physical hardware. As you select each device, you can click the Properties button to display a properties sheet that allows you to enable or disable the virtual device.

The Driver tab
The Driver tab is the place where you can control which driver is assigned to the multimedia device. This tab contains four buttons that you can use to manipulate the driver. These buttons include Driver Details, Update Driver, Roll Back Driver, and Uninstall. Typically, you’d only use the Roll Back Driver or the Uninstall button if the sound card had been previously working and had stopped working after you updated the driver. The Uninstall button is also useful if you suspect a corrupt driver and Windows won’t allow you to install a new driver over the top of the old or corrupt one.

Most of the time when you suspect a sound card problem, one of the first things that you should do is to update the driver. This is especially true if you upgraded the computer from another operating system. When you upgrade a system, Windows tries to replace your current driver with one of its own. In many cases, these Microsoft drivers simply don’t work correctly. A good example of this is the 3COM wireless network card driver (PCMCIA). I had been using a 3COM wireless network card with Windows 2000 on my laptop for quite some time. After upgrading to Windows XP, the network card stopped working until I replaced the Microsoft driver with the original 3COM driver.

Therefore, if you’ve upgraded from another operating system, I strongly recommend downloading the latest driver for your sound card and using the Update Driver button to replace the current driver with the new driver. Even if you haven’t performed an operating system upgrade, new drivers come out all the time to correct bugs. Updating your system with newer drivers is almost always a good idea and tends to fix a wide range of problems.

The Resources tab
The Resources tab is designed to show you exactly what system resources the device is using. For example, you can expect to see a list of the device’s IRQ, DMA, and I/O Range usage information. At the bottom of this tab, you can see a list of any other devices in the system that conflict with the device that you’re presently viewing. If a conflict does exist, some devices allow you to deselect the Use Automatic Settings check box. You may then select the conflicting resource and use the Change Settings button to assign the device a different set of resources.

Changing a device’s settings is tricky. Remember that just because Windows allows you to assign a resource to a device, it doesn’t mean that the device supports the assigned resource. Generally speaking, assigning resources manually is a bad idea unless there’s no other way of getting your device to work correctly. If you do choose to assign resources manually, I recommend using the System Information tool to gain a better picture of which resources are presently in use.

You can open the System Information tool by clicking on the Start button and selecting the All Programs | Accessories | System Tools | System Information command. When the System Information tool opens, look at the various nodes beneath Hardware Resources in the System Summary tree. These nodes will provide you with valuable information regarding which devices are using which resources.

Check for conflicts
Finally, I strongly recommend checking out the Conflicts / Sharing node located on the System Information System Summary tree. This node will tell you about any conflicts that may exist in your system. There are two good reasons for looking at this node. First, I’ve seen conflicts appear in the Conflicts / Sharing node that didn’t show up under the Device Manager. Second, sometimes a hardware conflict that doesn’t involve the sound card directly can cause the sound to malfunction. The System Information tool is your best resource for spotting such conflicts.