Resolved: nVidia NIC problems with Realtek HD audio in Vista

I’ve written before about my nVidia NIC problems and I’ve tentatively fixed things:  the nVidia NIC driver and the Realtek HD chipset driver apparently have a conflict, resolved by an update of both the NIC driver and the Realtek driver.

Here’s the background:  I have an MSI K9N Neo-F Athlon 64 motherboard.  This board has an nVidia chipset, the 550 series.  Like almost all nVidia boards, it has an onboard NIC, in this case a gigabit NIC.  It also has a Realtek HD audio chipset, which is important to the story.  nVidia doesn’t bundle any particular audio chipset with its chips, so the problem is very dependent on what audio chip goes on the motherboard.  MSI uses Realtek for this and many of its AMD-based boards.

In Vista Business, I was able to use the NIC with the Vista drivers "out of the box", the ones included in Vista itself.  I wanted to get new Vista drivers.   But ever since I’ve had Vista, I could never get the nVidia-provided NIC drivers to work.   The network connection would be disabled, and the only way I could restore my network was to roll back to the original driver included in Vista.  

The (then-new) driver would only work in safe mode with networking.  This tipped me off that perhaps there was a conflict with another driver, probably audio since sound is not on in safe mode.

When the system was run normally, Device Manager reported that the NIC was working, meaning just that the driver loaded and started without error.  But when I tried to change settings such as duplex, or when I tried to roll back to the previous driver, the system would hang.  This also implied a conflict of some kind.

I ran many tests with various combinations of drivers.  I had suspected the audio driver from the start, but I was never able to conclusively prove that.  The NIC driver would sometimes work properly with the audio driver and sometimes not.

nVidia drivers have had frustrating, well-known, teething problems under Vista.  Their RAID drivers did not work out of the box, and their other drivers were not well-performing.  The nVidia disk drivers that came with Vista weren’t optimized at all, and between crashes, were not especially fast.

(My video card is an nVidia product as well, but it’s not been a factor at all in my driver troubles.  nVidia did resolve their disk driver problems and eventually, they published a very good driver on Windows Update that fixed my disk problems, after I had to swap a cable.)

My NIC problems persisted, even after I swapped the network cable for a new one and replaced my 10/100 switch that makes up my network with a Zyxel gigabit switch.

I had had to update my audio drivers;  I was running the driver that came with Vista and couldn’t get it to recognize my line input.  I regularly feed the audio from my various ham radios to do things like decode packet and RTTY through my sound card.  I got the latest driver from Realtek, all went well.

Later on, I did my usual routine check through Windows Update to get updates that weren’t on my WSUS server (my SBS box), and noted a new NIC driver. 

I was expecting the worst.  Windows Update drivers have had a bad reputation for installing themselves on servers, through inattentive sysadmins who leave automatic-update settings at their defaults, and then dying horribly.  I was so not looking forward to a system down situation, but I knew my computer well and knew I could get it running again if I had to.

I installed the NIC driver and it worked.  Power down, power up, still worked!  Powered down and turned off the power supply, turned it on and powered up:  still worked. 

It’s been three days and no problems noted.  I conclude that my problem must have resolved itself.  I’ll never know for sure, but I believe there may have been a race condition between the NIC driver and the Realtek when the system was booted and both devices were initialized.

With all the anti-Vista memes running around out of control, I’m very happy to close the book on this problem on a positive note!

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