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No surround sound in Vista? Creative tries a little ALchemy

You thought Vista was super-clever didn't you? Well it's not -- it can barely manage surround-sound audio on even the most basic of games

2 min read

Our enthusiasm for Vista took a knock today as we realised it has serious audio playback issues.

According to audio experts Creative, Windows Vista will not support surround sound or EAX audio on a huge number of PC games. Nor will DVD movie surround sound be possible unless users splash out on expensive Dolby-enabled versions of their playback software.

The reason: Microsoft has removed the hardware abstraction layer (HAL) for Vista -- a piece of software that lets applications talk to your sound card. Games such as Call of Duty 2, World of Warcraft, F.E.A.R. and any other title that uses DirectSound3D (part of the DirectX application programming interface used to create many games) will have no surround sound or advanced hardware audio features as a result.

No HAL or EAX means gamers are stuck with plain old stereo. This may not sound like a major issue, but it's significant -- DirectSound3D (DS3D) games won't respond to events in real time: walk into a church, derelict building or tunnel and you won't get any funky echoing effects, nor will you get any hardware-powered spot effects such as ricocheting bullets.

It's not all bad news, though. While pointing out Vista's flaws, Creative on Monday released a piece of software known as ALchemy which magically fixes the problems -- but only if you own a high-end Creative X-Fi sound card. Naturally.

ALchemy detects the presence of 'old' DS3D games and converts their DS3D calls into an audio language Vista can understand -- OpenAL. We've yet to test the software, but we've seen it demonstrated and it seems to work fine -- provided you're willing to spend £80 on an X-Fi card.

This turn of events begs the question: why did Microsoft omit the HAL from Vista? Some may argue it's a ploy to encourage developers and gamers to move over to the new breed of DirectX 10 games. But the more cynical among us may argue it was a joint ploy between Microsoft and Creative to squeeze more cash from sound-obsessed gamers.

Microsoft had no official comment at the time of writing (unless "Really? That's news to me" counts), but our Creative spies say MS has removed the HAL for stability reasons -- there may be a risk Vista will crash in the middle of a heated gaming session.

Whatever the case, it's bad news for gamers and great news for Creative, whose dominance of the sound-card market is akin to Apple's dominance in the portable audio player industry.

As things stand, the only way you can enjoy surround-sound audio in your favourite games is to wait for developers to release bespoke OpenAL drivers or buy an X-Fi card and download ALchemy. It could be there's another side to this, but until someone from Microsoft gives us a call, that's what we got. -RR