New aluminum keyboard: Problems with Mute and volume keys

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
September 21st, 2007 • 9:25 am

As indicated earlier on, Apple’s new aluminum keyboard is a fine piece of hardware, but there are a number of software-level problems in Mac OS X and third-party applications that will need to be addressed through software updates, and that will probably take some time, unfortunately.

Here is one of those problems. I use a different sound port for my sound effects and alerts than for other sounds produced by my Mac. In other words, in the “Sound” preference pane in System Preferences, under the “Ouput” tab I have the “Headphones” port selected as the output port, whereas under the “Sound Effects” tab, for the “Play alerts and sound effects through:” option, I have “PowerWave Composite,” which pipes the alert sounds and sound effects made by Mac OS X and other applications through my PowerWave USB device to a pair of Apple speakers.

Now, when I press the Mute key (F10) on the new aluminum keyboard, Mac OS X correctly mutes everything, i.e. both the general output port (headphones) and the speakers connected to the PowerWave (for alerts and sound effects).

But when I press the Volume Up key to unmute Mac OS X, Mac OS X only unmutes the main output port (headphones). The speakers connected to the PowerWave stay mute, which means that all the alert sound and sound effects produced by Mac OS X fails to be heard on the speakers.

There is nothing in the Mac OS X interface that indicates that the PowerWave is still muted. On the contrary, everything in the “Sound Effects” tab of the “Sound” preference pane appears to be working normally… except that there is no sound coming out of the speakers.

The only solution at this point is to change the output port for the alerts and sound effects to something else, and then back to the PowerWave. This forces Mac OS X to unmute the PowerWave and start playing the sounds again. (Alternatively, using the Mute key again twice in a row correctly unmutes everything.)

The problem never happened (that I can remember) with previous keyboards, which also had a Mute key. It only happens with the Mute key and the volume keys on this new (wired) aluminum keyboard.

Unfortunately, since the location of the Mute key has changed, hitting this key unintentionally, by accident, is now much more likely to happen than it was on previous keyboards, where the Mute key was above the numeric pad.

That is how I discovered the problem—accidentally. (I don’t really use the Mute key intentionally very often.)

Fortunately, the problem can be avoided by using the Mute key again a second time—rather than the volume keys—to unmute the sound. If the Mute key is used a second time to unmute the sound, then Mac OS X correctly unmutes both the main output port and the port for sound effects and alerts. But quite frequently when I don’t hear a sound my first reflex is to think that the volume is too low, and then I press the Volume Up key rather than the Mute key. When I do that, then I encounter the problem described above.

I have submitted a bug report via Bug Reporter, but of course, since the problem involves a non-standard configuration and the use of a third-party device to play sound effects and alerts through, I suspect that it won’t be a high priority and that I will have to live with it for many months, if not years.

5 Responses to “New aluminum keyboard: Problems with Mute and volume keys”

  1. MacDesigner says:

    The real question is, is this a bug? As you say in your post, because of the new position of the mute key you hit it accidentally and have no recollection of this being a problem when the mute was above the numeric keys.

    Perhaps this is a designed function of the OS and you never encountered it before because you never accidentally muted the sound. Previously you would mute the sound and unmute it intentionally, therefore never hitting the volume while sound was muted, so it went unnoticed.

    Look at it this way, the headphone connector works with the buttons at all times. If I have as you do USB speakers connected and route sound through them and have a set of headphones connected to the connector, with the way the buttons work, I can disable the external speakers, put on the headphones and use the volume key to unmute the headphones. In order to reactivate the external speakers, I tap the mute key twice.

    I believe this falls into the undocumented feature category. Although it still may be, in reality, a bug. Also it may not only happen with the new keyboard. When I get home tonight I’ll try it with my speakers and USB headphones as I do not have the new keyboard, yet.

    Can you set the mute key to require a modifier?

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Well, it’s a bug in so far as the OS X interface has no distinction between a system-wide mute and a mute specific to alerts. If there is a single mute, then any change in the volume should unmute both the general output and the alerts output (which it does when they both use the same port).

    But you’re right about one thing: the problem is actually not new with the alu keyboard. I just checked with my old white keyboard, and the same problem occurs. Like you said, it’s probably because I rarely hit the Mute key by accident when it was above the numpad. I guess I need to update my bug report :).

    There is a more general problem on the software side with the Sound preference pane, which was introduced by the support for an alternate output port for the alerts and sound effects. When Apple introduced that option (which I really do like; I had to use a third-party tool, Rogue Amoeba’s Detour, before they introduced this feature), they also introduced a certain level of confusion in the interface about what the volume controls actually control. The general volume slider actually applies to both outputs, yet the output for alerts and sound effects also has its own volume slider. When you use the Volume Up/Down keys or move the general slider, you hear the little volume click noise in the main output, which makes it sound as if you are only adjusting the volume level on that output, when in fact you are also affecting the volume level for the alerts output. So in effect the alerts output has its own slider, and then the general slider comes on top of this and multiplies the effect of the alerts output’s volume slider.

    And to make things worse, visually the “Play feedback when volume is changed” option seems to belong to the alert volume slider, when in fact it belongs to the general volume slider underneath it, since it affects what happens when you use that slider. (I suppose that, technically, that “tick” sound feedback is a “sound effect” in OS X, which is why the setting is there, but it really does make things worse from an organizational point of view.)

    It’s all a bit confusing. It would be clearer if the alerts output had its own separate volume controls, with its own Mute key/control, and if there were clear visual demarcation between the two outputs.

    And no, as far as I can tell, you cannot change the shortcut for Mute. It’s hard-wired to F10, without a modifier key.

    Maybe I should change my entire approach altogether and actually use the F keys as standard function keys, with the corresponding option in the Keyboard pref pane. The only problem is that, if I do that, then in order to be able to use the “hardware” functions of these keys, I will need to press the Fn modifier key, which requires two hands for most of them.

  3. MacDesigner says:

    I’m going to disagree, and say this is not a bug.

    The mute button works properly. If any sound is on, mute turns them off with the first tap. Another tap turns all sounds back on. This is a consistent and predictable behavior. Tap 1: Any sound off. Tap 2: All sound on. I disagree with your statement that Alert volume should have its own mute key, this makes muting the computer twice as hard. When I hit the mute key I don’t want any sound left on. I do agree with your assessment of the dialog box design. The design can be confusing. If you hover your pointer over the sliders the pop-up description boxes give information at to what each selection means. Alert volume is a percentage of the output volume. The volume keys do not affect the Alert volume slider at all.

    The volume keys only affect the Output volume slider and in this case output through the “headphones” which I believe means the “Built-in Audio” port. When alert sounds are played through the line out the mute and volume keys work identically. The addition of the secondary output is where the problem, in your opinion, occurs.

    You assume it’s a bug and unintentional, where I see intentional behavior.

    If I have taken the time to setup my system as you have done, I think there is an assumption I want the headphone jack to play my music or videos through the built in audio port. If I am using headphones this prevents the system sounds from interrupting my listening pleasure. If I mute the system all sound is off. if I unmute the system all sound returns. If however after muting the system I hit the volume key only the “headphones” or “Built-in Audio” is turned back on.

    If you reverse the outputs, send Alert volume through the “Built-in Audio” and your Output through your USB device and the mute plus volume keys work the same, i.e. mute: all sound off, then volume key: and the USB sound, in this case the output volume, is returned, then you have a consistent behavior. The volume keys only affect the Output volume, regardless of which audio port they are using. If the sound reactivates the alert sounds and not the Output volume port, you still have a consistent behavior. The Volume keys affect output through the “Built-in Audio” port.

    Neither of these situations constitute a bug, perhaps a bad choice by the programmer, but not a bug. I would feel it was a bug if you had to go to the sound pane and reset the Alert volume output anytime you hit the mute key followed by the volume key. However, you say a double tap of the mute key returns the system to your normal setup, that argues an intended behavior.

    My idea for a fix to the lack of feedback about the Alert volume would be to reactivate the visual alert cue, as in OS 9. Screen flash any time the Alert volume is off, intentionally of not. It is available in the System Preferences under Universal Access, unfortunately that option activates wether sound is on or off.

    Also, on my iBook G4 I set the F keys as standard and find having to use the Fn key to change volume or brightness unobtrusive. Your experience may vary depending on how often do you need to change those settings?

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    I guess my main reason for seeing this as a bug is the interface in the Sound pref pane itself. When I mute, then unmute using the volume key, there is nothing visually in the Sound pref pane that indicates that the alerts are still muted, and there is certainly nothing that indicates that I should mute everything again, then unmute everything in order to unmute the alerts.

    There is something that should reflect visually the fact that the alerts are still muted.

    Other than that, I agree with you.

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    Well, I’ve just received an e-mail from the ADC saying that they have closed the bug report because it’s a duplicate for bug report #3976452. So they are treating it as a bug, and I am not the first to report it :).

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