Quick! Run! My operating system just glitched! Photo: grizbass

Your ears and mind are incredibly sensitive to tiny details of sound. Result: if your operating system can’t keep up with sound output for any reason, you’ll get a noticeable “glitch” in the sound — and that’s a big deal. Windows Vista promised to be “glitch-free” in development, later reworded to “glitch-resistant” or “glitch-resilient.” Then it shipped, and a lot of us noticed it was, well, just plain glitchy, at least at the beginning of this year when Vista met up with half-finished, buggy drivers.

All operating systems will glitch under certain circumstances, though, and the causes are many. Microsoft has a great post on their Vista Team Blog today from Steve Ball, who seems to be a really sharp guy and has a great handle on how Vista can continue to improve in terms of audio performance.

An Overview of Windows Sound and Music “Glitching” Issues

Well worth reading, whether you’re a Windows user or not. (Linux and Mac can absolutely encounter the same issues, and as you look through the full list of possible causes you’ll see why.) There’s quite a lot missing from this discussion, but the blog promises this is part 1 of 2, and you’ll find some more meat in the discussion in comments.

I did enjoy this description of why we’re so bothered by glitches:

My colleague on the Windows Sound team, Larry Osterman, also pointed out to me recently that humans are actually “hard-wired” to be disturbed by audio glitches. In an exchange about this topic, Larry observed that audio glitches are more obvious than video glitches because the ear’s tuned to notice high frequency transients — his visceral example of this idea is an image of a stick snapping in the woods behind you as an audio event that wakes you up before a bear wanders into your path.

I think I have the same visceral reaction to software bugs. (Help! A bear!)

I’m writing this from Vista right now, and I have to say, I found all kinds of reproducible glitching problems early on. But now, various hotfixes and driver updates better, Vista’s audio performance is running really smoothly for me. I think the major culprit on Vista in the early months of the release was video drivers, an issue which for me, and many others, has finally been fixed. Yes, there are lots of other possible sources, but on my system, on other systems, on forums, etc., the common cause I kept hearing was video. Move a window, glitch. Open a window, glitch. And even switching from Aero to older video compatibility modes, I still saw performance problems. On my system, at least, all it took was installing NVIDIA’s July update to its unified video drivers, and all those problems went away. Vista for me is slicker, smoother, and more glitch-free than XP, which is what I was hoping for in the first place.

I’m sure this doesn’t apply to everyone, but on the NVIDIA side alone, the unified driver model means that those benefits should be felt by anyone with a supported NVIDIA card. It’s completely changed how I feel about Vista; for all the talk of slick, new features, my feeling is that users of all operating systems most want their systems to run better.

Anyway, desktop operating systems — all of them — are complicated. So have a look at the article, and since we have a community of developers here (some of whom have worked on these kinds of drivers on Linux), I’d love to hear your thoughts. CDM will be covering Vista’s progress through the month of November to see how (or whether) the OS has matured in its first year.

And Vista users, I’m equally curious to hear if your performance matches mine. Some of you I know were doing really well early on with audio performance — and for some, the common thread was that you didn’t have NVIDIA cards. (In fairness, ATI had some early driver issues of its own.)