Sounds frustrating! There’s an audio problem affecting users of any screen reader on some Windows computers, and it needs to be fixed
This post is a written summary of an issue I described at length verbally in The Blind Side Podcast 91.
I’m producing a written version for two reasons. First, someone pointed out to me that the sound driver issue I described in the podcast is important, and of interest to some who are not usually podcast listeners.
Second, it occurred to me that by describing the symptoms of this Realtek driver issue and opening the post up for comments, it might be possible for our community to save a lot of time if we can collect data about machines or drivers to avoid.
As part of this post, I also provide a little feedback about my short-lived, unsatisfactory Microsoft Surface Book 2 experience, but I’ve marked up the post with headings, so you can skip past that background if you wish.
Problems with the Windows 10 April 2018 update
This tech adventure began for me when I installed the Windows April 2018 Update. I don’t run insider builds, because there’s only so much one can test, and I’m so dependent on my primary Windows device for my livelihood that I decided to leave it in the capable hands of others. But I was keen to get the April 2018 update on my system because of some useful changes to audio, such as the ability to assign any application to a specific audio device, even when the application didn’t provide the UI to do this. I installed it on release day and recorded a demonstration for The Blind Side Podcast.
I quickly found that the battery life on my laptop, a Toshiba Z30C which, apart from its atrocious speaker is one of the best laptops I’ve owned, had plummeted. Before the update and depending on the tasks I was performing, I could reach 12 or 13 hours of battery life regularly. With the April 2018 update, battery life was maxing out at about 3.5 hours and the fan was at full speed constantly. Typically, this is a very quiet machine.
I decided to roll back. Windows makes this easy and I’ve never had a problem with the process any time I’ve needed to do it.
I installed it a second time last weekend on 16 June, with the same results.
I don’t have to call Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk often, because I can research how to solve most issues myself. So when I do call them, it’s normally with unusual problems. Even so, I’ve always found the team there to be informed and helpful. This was no exception. The technician spent some time with me trying to resolve the issue, but in the end he felt that the best option would be to reset the device. This would take all my third-party applications with it. I have some good backup strategies in place, but it would still take time to do the job. I decided to roll back to the previous update for now and get on with all the work that needed doing.
I figured that I’d wait until what is likely going to be the October 2018 update in case that resolved the issue, and if it did not, I’d have to take time out, maybe over the summer break, and do the reset.
Surface Book 2 Serendipity
That Saturday evening, 16 June, a website ad caught my attention. One of the stores I shop with frequently was offering around $1,100 off a Microsoft Surface Book 2. There are a few Microsoft products with Surface in the name, so to be clear, this is the full-sized laptop with a button that causes the screen to detach and become a stand-alone tablet. Very clever engineering.
I went to the store, just to look. Even when a demo model is on display in retail mode, you can start Narrator, then run an app like Notepad to do a bit of typing and check basic responsiveness.
I thought about it, and reckoned I might be able to use my Toshiba as an insider build machine, while using the Surface Book as my primary, stable workhorse. After all, I figured that a Microsoft hardware/software combination would be tested extensively together. The biggest sacrifice for me was giving up built-in LTE. My Toshiba has this and it’s been incredibly useful to just power up the laptop and use it from anywhere, without having to be concerned about logging into Wi-Fi, or public Wi-Fi hotspots and their notorious security risks. There’s a Surface Pro tablet with LTE, but not yet a Surface Book.
I purchased the Surface book 2 with 16GB of RAM, 1TB solid state storage and the latest generation I7. Quite a beast.
I never got anything like the battery life that was expected. Despite extensive references in the literature to 17 hours, it was far less for me than the Toshiba I was relegating to insider builds. Initial performance was hellishly slow, until I realised that it had come shipped with the performance slider set all the way down when plugged in.
The Realtek sound problem
I had numerous performance issues and other niggles with the Surface Book 2, some of which I was able to resolve by changing default settings. I may have been able to resolve others had I kept the machine around. But having given you some background as to how I got here, now we get to what for me was the show stopper.
After getting to the point where I had most of my apps installed and configured, it was time to bond with this new toy and I sat down on the couch with it to keep working on my next book. At first, I was perplexed by what I was experiencing.
I’ve been touch-typing since I was eight, and that was a very long time ago now I can tell you. So I don’t have any keyboard echo enabled on my PC. When I need to, I can press keys to read the current line or word, or query the status bar to see how many words I’ve written. What I found was that it would take a little under a second for the screen reader, JAWS in my case, to say anything. My first thought was to wonder if some rogue process was bogging the CPU of this powerful machine down. But subsequent key presses were responded to snappily.
I ultimately worked out that if the audio device wasn’t playing any audio, it would go to sleep after a stunningly short 5 to 10 seconds. When I next pressed a key that required the audio device to play sound, there would be a delay as it woke up from a hibernated state. I didn’t lose any audio, there’d just be this infuriating delay before I heard it.
It’s one of the first things I do on any new machine, but just in case I’d missed anything, I double-checked to ensure all the sound enhancements and other audio gimmicks that can introduce latency into the audio stream were indeed disabled.
I also verified that the problem occurs irrespective of what screen reader is running. No matter what screen reader you choose to use, if your hardware/software combination is set up this way, you’ll be affected.
As part of the purchase of the Surface Book 2, I also purchased a Surface Dock for my office. That offers its own audio device, and when using it, the problem didn’t occur. It was limited only to the on-board sound, and seemed to be worse when something was connected to the headphone jack than when using the speaker.
I then researched the problem online and found others complaining about this same issue on a variety of devices. For some, the resumption delay was much longer than what I was experiencing. I don’t know if the speed of the hardware configuration might be influencing this. Interestingly, some sighted people don’t like this either, although I think you’d have to be a bit of an audio geek to care if you’re not a screen reader user. However, some certainly noticed that after pressing play on a file stored locally, the audio device was taking a while to respond.
The culprit, at least according to many on-line sources, is certain Realtek audio drivers, perhaps in combination with specific hardware. I’m annoyed with myself that because I was so busy trying to get a solution to this, I didn’t keep a record of the driver date and version, although I did try installing the latest drivers from Realtek’s website which resulted in no improvement. The drivers appears to implement a state, which may possibly be tweakable in the Windows registry that hibernates the sound card after a very short period of inactivity. One assumes that this is an energy-saving feature, and one thing I found about the Surface Book 2 in general is that it’s very aggressive about energy-saving techniques.
I then took the problem to Twitter, asking if others had seen anything like this. That unleashed quite the influx of responses, some by Twitter direct message, others in mentions, others through the contact form here on the Mosen Consulting site. People with Dell, Lenovo, HP and some other Microsoft devices all reported the problem.
However, it appears not to be as simple as saying that every device of every manufacturer affected has the issue. Some with other Surface devices couldn’t reproduce it. Some HP and Lenovo machines have it, others don’t.
I don’t have enough data to know whether the problem may be more widespread after the April 2018 update, but some correspondents told me they’d been grappling with this issue for some time.
It’s not surprising that as screen reader users, most of us are not happy to take the productivity hit that comes from waiting for our audio to respond to a command. So what can you do if you have one of these affected devices? Here are a few options in order of complexity.
Contact Realtek and the manufacturer of your computer
This won’t make the problem go away immediately, but you deserve better than this and it needs to be fixed. In some of my recent speeches and blog posts, I’ve been talking about the concept of equivalency. In other words, would a sighted person put up with this if they had the equivalent problem? To my mind, the equivalent problem isn’t simply waiting for an audio file to play. For us, this problem affects how quickly and reliably we can get at information on the screen. If a sighted person’s screen was taking an age to refresh, and/or flickering, back to the store that PC would go unless there was a very quick fix.
Your money is just as good as anyone else’s, and in fact, given the socio-economic status of the blind community, the sacrifices you may have made to get that computer could have been greater than many others. Don’t settle for an experience that doesn’t meet your needs.
I understand that some blind people have contacted Realtek already, only to receive a generic “thanks for your feedback” message. That’s not a satisfactory response, and if you’ve received a better and more informative one, please let us know. Ask to have the issue escalated. At the very least, we should have an option in the user interface giving us the ability to toggle this hibernation off.
The manufacturer of your device might have more ways to have meaningful dialogue with Realtek than you do as a consumer. And after all, you are the PC manufacturer’s customer, while Realtek is their customer.
I’ll be interested to see what Microsoft, who after my description could duplicate the issue as I described it, will do in this regard. It’s a key test for them as far as I’m concerned, because as end-users, we know that accessibility doesn’t always equate to efficiency. This issue doesn’t affect how accessible the system is, but it certainly affects how useable it is out of the box for productivity and efficiency. The present experience delivers second-rate access for blind people on one of the most expensive devices in its class. I hope Microsoft owns that and gives us a fix, even if that involves using their leverage with Realtek.
Install and run Silenzio
Thanks so much to Piotr Machacz who let me know about an enterprising developer who wrote a little application to get around the problem. It’s called Silenzio and has been written by Stefan Kiss. This little app can be set to load at start-up and sends blank audio to your audio device. This keeps the device awake, and your screen reader will respond as you need it to.
You’ll find an icon in the system tray, allowing you to tell the app which audio device to send the blank audio to. It will use your Windows default device by default.
Play some audio
If you have the ability, record a few seconds of silence in a sound editor and play it on repeat in the background.
Use another audio device
Plug in an external audio device, such as a USB-powered audio interface or a USB headset. Bluetooth devices may also be an option, but they often include latency of their own and may turn themselves off quickly as well to save energy.
Power management settings in Device Manager
In some cases, you might find a setting for your audio device in Device Manager relating to power management that may help. I found no such setting, and although I’ve seen this solution suggested in several places, I’ve not seen anyone say they’ve been able to resolve the issue this way.
Install alternative drivers
No other device drivers talked to the Surface Book 2 for me, but on some machines, you may be able to make the problem disappear by installing generic Microsoft audio drivers to replace the dodgy Realtek ones. Some blind people have reported that on their systems, this has traded one problem for another. Specifically, the hibernation goes away, but it introduces some ugly hiss into the audio. As they say, your mileage may vary.
Please, please don’t do this if you don’t have a Braille display or a second audio device, be that a sound card or USB headset, to which you can route your screen reader. You might also obtain sighted help, including Aira with Zoom or Team Viewer. If it goes badly wrong, you could end up with no sound at all, and you need to think carefully about how you’re going to recover from that.
There may be some tweaks you can make to the Windows registry to resolve the issue. I don’t have a definitive set of steps proven to work at this time, so I won’t be irresponsible and link to anything here.
Those of us who’ve been using computers for a long time will remember how careful we once had to be about avoiding certain video cards and even processors. Remember in the old days how Doctor JAWS would examine your system to check for several issues that would impede a screen reader’s ability to function?
With officially-supported means for screen readers to get the information they need; blind people should now be able to have more confidence that a PC they buy will work. This audio issue represents a serious and significant threat to that promise.
Is this happening to you?
Are you experiencing issues with audio going to sleep very quickly and only waking up after a noticeable delay? Let us know in the comments with as much detail as you can manage. What make and model of computer do you have? What’s the name of your audio hardware and what driver is installed? Did you find anything else that resolved the issue for you? Did it start after an upgrade to Windows?
I’d welcome your comments. In the meantime, I returned the Surface Book 2 and am even more grateful for my little Toshiba Z30C with its built-in LTE, even if it isn’t running the latest version of Windows.