Tuesday, September 12, 2006

WiFi on Wintel - only a geek could work it out and no one could love it

I recently installed a generic WiFi card in the Wintel PC I retired as a game machine and gave to my girls to play educational games on. Talk about an experience in frustration.

It's not that I was unable to figure it out. I did get it working. And I certainly forgot one thing while doing so that slowed me down for a bit. But the completely opaque manner in which the install went and the total lack of helpful information while troubleshooting the configuration was such a strong reminder of why I can't stand Wintel PCs that it's put me on a quest to replace the girls' machine with a Mac (running Bootcamp if necessary to play any educational PC-only games).

Things started out innocently enough. I opened up the PC and installed the WiFi card. After carefullly hooking everything back up, I turned on the PC, driver disk in hand. Things seemed alright at first, with the hardware wizard finding the new hardware (though it's announcement that it found an 'ethernet controller' presaged many similarly misleading or missing messages). I chose the innocuous radio button that said I had a driver disk (I had one, after all). That's when things started going south.

The new hardware wizard found the drivers. That's right: drivers. Five of them to be exact. They all had wonderful names with seemingly random letters and numbers, and different suffixes. I sighed and chose to move on with the default choice of the first driver. To my surprise, this seemed to work okay. Once I rebooted, the WiFi network 'connection' (which said it wasn't connected) showed up.

I've had some experience configuring wireless connections, due to helping a friend get his wireless connection working at St. Louis Bread Company a couple of years ago, because I've had a wireless network at home for a few years, and I've used WiFi from my old PowerBook G4 for years. Otherwise, I think what I managed to work out in about two hours would have taken days and a great deal of pain.

I knew everything I needed to know to connect to the wireless network, since I manage the wireless base stations that make up the network. I knew the network name (called SSID in technical parlance), I knew the password to join the network, I knew that it was a WPA2 Personal network, and I knew it was within range (the PC was no more than eight feet from two base stations).

The first symptom was that the PC failed to find the network. I knew it was there (the iMac eight feet from the PC and the laptop I could walk around with both could connect to the network fine). I also knew it wasn't a problem with some Mac-only solution, since one of the base stations is a LinkSys WRT45GL (an open-source based router). After about half an out I finally decided to make the base station publish it's network name (less secure but I suspected it might be preventing the PC from finding the network, even though I'd given it the network name).

Sure enough, publishing the network name allowed the PC to find the network. But even though the PC said it was 'connected' to the network, it then asked me if I wanted to connect to it (sigh), and when I clicked yes, it spent about a minute 'connecting' to the network it said it was connected to and then silently failed (no dialog message, no error message, nothing).

Tweny minutes of poking around the maze of dialog boxes, tab panes, and options (with many circular trips through them) finally revealed that the installation had defaulted the card to use 802.11b networking only. I have my network configured for 802.11g only because it helps performance of the network. It would seem to me that the correct default is that which allows the most chance of success (support for both B and G). It was an option, it just wasn't the default. Go figure. I changed the setting to 802.11g only and tried again.

I got almost the same results. This time, Windows claimed to have successfully connected to the network, but any attempt to use the network to communicate failed. There was no error message, and I was disconnected from the network each time I tried to use it. After about 20 minutes I remembered that I had MAC address filtering turned on (so that only the wireless network cards with ethernet addresses I specified could join the network). It took me at least five minutes to track down the network ID on the PC, but once I did I added it to the list of devices allowed to join the network. A similar thing happened when I tried to first connect my iMac to the wireless network. But in that case, I got an error message stating that my computer (the iMac) was not in the list of devices authorized to join the network. Much better than a silent failure.

So, after that change, I was finally able to join the network with the PC. But to my dismay, it didn't automatically connect to the network when I logged in under one of my daughter's accounts, even though I specified in the properties for the network that it should do so. I joined the network, and I think that it's now going to join it automatically from now on. But it's a PC, so who really knows.

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