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4/15/2004
03:28 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Linux's Achilles' Heel

New Linux distros still fail a task that Windows 95 -- yes, 95! -- easily handles, namely working with mainstream sound cards. That sends the cost of commercial, paid versions of Linux dramatically higher.

Blame The Hardware?
In Usenet and other user-to-user forums, the most common advice I got was to downgrade my hardware. All I had to do, I was told, was get rid of the brand-new, fully functional sound card and install a card from a few years ago, and Linux would work just fine.

Maybe it's me, but that oft-cited suggestion has always seemed a little odd. I can see where a new operating system might require new hardware, but why should a new operating system require old hardware? And if the hardware was to blame, how could XP handle it out of the box, with no special drivers or setup?

But I try to keep an open mind, so I entertained the thought: Maybe there was something truly strange about the hardware.

So I started looking at ways to change the hardware without trashing part of a brand-new PC. That's what originally led me to explore virtual PCs. VPC software masks a system's true hardware, and instead uses software to emulate generic, run-of-the-mill hardware. In the case of sound systems, the VPC software I used emulates a plain-vanilla SoundBlaster card.

When I got the VPC software set up, I first tried installing Windows XP in a virtual machine. It ran fine, and used all the emulated hardware, including sound, perfectly.

Next, I tried Windows 2000, which is much fussier about its hardware than is XP. But the sound worked perfectly, using only Win2K's built-in drivers, from four years ago. No problems at all.

I next tried WinME, which uses hybrid drivers; some like Win2K's, others like Win98's. But again, using only the retail software's built-in drivers from when the operating system originally shipped, WinME detected and used the sound system just fine.

How about Win98? This is software from six years ago, but it, too, detected and ran the sound system perfectly, using only the operating system's original, built-in drivers.

What about Win95--nine-year-old software? No problem at all: A vanilla install of Win95 ran the system perfectly, and with full sound support; with no separate drivers, tweaks, or manual adjustments needed.

I had to go back 11 years--to Win3.x--before I found a version of Windows that couldn't get the sound system to work right off the bat. I suspect I could have found a way to make it work, but that wasn't the point: I was looking to see what Windows could do out of the box, with no special drivers or manual intervention.

Finally, I again tried XYZ's distro of Linux. Nope, the sound simply wouldn't work. I also tried eight other versions of Linux, all with the same result: No sound.

Next, I tried a dual-boot setup to ensure that Windows and XYZ would be in exactly the same environment: I first set up Win98 and then ran XYZ's setup. It saw that Windows was already on the hard drive, and correctly set itself up to dual boot. When I booted through XYZ/LILO to Windows 98, the sound worked fine. But when I booted to XYZ--in the exact same environment where the sound had just worked for Win98--the sound now failed.

I tried the same thing with Win95 in a dual-boot with XYZ. Booting through XYZ/LILO to Win95, the sound worked perfectly. Booting to XYZ in the exact same hardware environment, there was no sound. Once again, a nine-year-old copy of Windows could do what a brand-new, commercial distribution of Linux could not.

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