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I have a Dell Inspiron 1545 laptop that recently started making a strange sound on a pretty regular basis (about once a minute for half a second) when playing music (from any source... iTunes, Pandora, Zune). I would describe the sound as that glitchy sound you occasionally get if your computer gets too busy and temporarily doesn't allocate enough cycles to the sound card, and it has to catch up.

It's a laptop, so I can't swap out the sound card, but the problem persists with the latest driver from Dell as well as the latest driver directly from IDT. I reloaded Windows, and the problem persists, and also occurs with headphones plugged in. That would make me think the hardware itself is failing, but I plugged in a set of USB headphones and it does the same thing, although the glitch is that the audio "skips" for half a second or so about once a minute (at random) rather than making a glitchy sound like it does with the onboard speakers or headphones. A USB headset should be bypassing the onboard audio card and driver, so I am at a loss as to why this is happening.

Any thoughts?

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This is a fairly typical scenario of failing hardware. Even if the onboard sound wasn't being used, due to USB audio (headphones, or external USB audio devices), the onboard sound card can still cause the system to behave abnormally.

Normally, if the hardware is failing, overheating, the system interupts are failing, etc, it can be shown on a tool call DPC latency. This tool shows any type of DPC lag spikes on the system (usually used to see if the system can handle live streaming audio and video in real time).

Here's a link to the tool: http://www.thesycon.de/dpclat/dpclat.exe

You can effectively disable the onboard audio, usually in BIOS on most modern laptops, or using windows to make it not process that onboard sound card, and not enable windows to communicate with it. This should cut down on the DPC spikes in the system.

However, there are a few other things that can cause that as well:

On systems that are highly overloaded with USB devices, or secondary peripherals, the system can simply lag to the point where it just wont behave. You can disable external devices, like printers, scanners, modems, mice, keyboard, etc. And see if the DPC lag spikes stop.

Chances are it's the onboard audio, but I'd recommend doing the above checks as well.

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