Sunday, August 21, 2005

Not Quite Supported

I finally got the new PC upgrunted and working on Friday the 12th; I suppose that ought to make it Trotsky 1, St Anselm and the Single Mothers 0. But here I am, a little over a week later and it's still not good enough. Sure the machine has more RAM then I've ever seen crammed onto the same motherboard (a mere 256 MB), a bootable reserve hard-drive and a much faster internet connection. So, it's finally hooked up to a working printer and I can print my attempts at literature in the double spaced format beloved of publishers and editors. And yeah, that little bit of code I added to the system halt script, to copy changed files in my home directory to the reserve hard drive whenever I shut down the PC, is working a treat. But the thing still doesn't have a working sound card. How utterly bloody useless.

Come to think of it, the video card - a Riva TNT - isn't working up to capacity either. It's fine for stuff like word-processing and web-browsing but it craps out a soon as you try to run Tux Racer. I've got an old PCI video card (FCC ID LUT-DSP3332P) over in the drawer with all the other old cards - two dud ISA internal modems, one working PCI modem, two serial port cards, and a SoundBlaster (Model CT4170, © Creative Technology Ltd 1997). It has occurred to me that if I shift the stacks of books off the coffee table next to the desk and move the printer (Hewlett Packard OfficeJet LX) onto the coffee table, that would make room for the spare monitor (Viewsonic E653). Then I could slot the older video card into the PC and see if it runs Tux Racer any better. I might even be able, eventually, to split my KDE desktop over two monitors. This wouldn't get the sound card working but I'd be impressed enough with myself enough to believe that I can still do technical stuff, at a pinch.

Except when it comes to sound cards based on the ESS Technology ES1868F AudioDrive chip, FCC ID KWX-SND21-W, manufactured by Formosa Industrial Computing Inc. When it comes to getting this little bugger to work with the Fedora Core 2 distribution of Linux, I'm stuffed, no matter how vigorously I wave around my Phillips head screwdriver (Stanley Australia, Model No 65-522). Slightly more intelligent approaches, involving reading the documentation, using the system tools and a lot of Googling, haven't worked either.

Once or twice a day, I hit the Soundcard Detection option on the "System Settings" menu, type in the root password in the dialog box and wait. What happens? Nothing - unless you count the disappearance of the password dialogue box, followed by a little chuntering from the hard drive. There's a fine little program (system-config-sound card) at work there somewhere; the programmer obviously put a lot of thought into the question of how best to make simple things difficult and difficult things impossible.

Frustrated by the way the sound card detector would simply slink away in disgrace each time it failed, I tried hacking modules.conf. No luck there either - probably because I was working from some seriously out of date documentation, the example given was for a SoundBlaster card and most of the hacking was on the basis of inspired guesswork.

Next, via some frantic Googling, I located a downloadable copy of sndconfig, the command line tool for setting up recalcitrant soundcards. It worked a little better than system-config-sound card had. sndconfig at least had the gumption to tell me that it couldn't detect a sound card. Then, as I more or less expected from what I had read about the program, it came up with a screen which asked me to select a driver from a list of possible alternatives. The only problem now was that there didn't seem to be a suitable driver for the ES1868F AudioDrive in the list. Nor was there a driver for the SoundBlaster, should I choose to slip that into the PC case. So it wasn't a particularly helpful list. Well, there wasn't really a list at all, just a blank blue rectangle where the list should have been.

No matter what I do, Linux just refuses to recognise the KWX-SND-21, or whatever it calls itself, as a sound card. This might have something to do with the fact that ESS don't actually list an "ES1868F AudioDrive" in their product range - they have an ES1868. This might point to the root of the problem; maybe expecting the card to work is like expecting a Bolex watch to give the correct time more than twice a day or Charnel No. 5 to smell better that a blend of patchouli and cat's piss.

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