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Laptop WiFi upgrade: success! [Sunday 14th December 2014 at 12:15 am]

[Tags|, ]
[Feeling |accomplishedaccomplished]

In the meantime, I should report on the other upgrade that I've done to Aether: replacing the WiFi daughterboard, which I did after finally getting the new SSD to boot.

About the only thing I got wrong with the spec of the R50e that I had at university was not including onboard WiFi. Instead I thought that I'd be smart and, since I already had a 802.11b PCMCIA card, I'd just reuse that and so save a bit on the cost of the laptop.

Three WiFi cards and many years later... no, that wasn't that smart a decision. Having to stick a card in the side of the laptop just to use WiFi is awkward, and it leaves a lump sticking out which will eventually get broken off at which point you now have no Internet.

The Gnu, on the other hand, was smarter when he spec'd out his R50p and included onboard WiFi in the form of an Intel 2100B. It's one of the reasons why I happily switched over to it when he passed it on to me, as it's just so much more convenient. There was a slight downside though in that it's only 802.11b (top speed 5Mb/s on a good day), but that's generally fast enough for web browsing.

I'd previously tried upgrading to a spare Netgear WAG311 (officially a PCI card, but in reality a mini-PCI card in a mini-PCI-to-PCI adapter - that was quite common in the early WiFi days). This is slightly tricky as the ThinkPad BIOS has a whitelist of authorised mini-PCI and refuses to boot if it detects a different card... but there's a fix in the form of patching out the check in the BIOS. While the card worked it didn't support WPA2 and so was unusable in my network.

This time I did some more research and managed to find an Intel 2915ABG, which not only is capable of a/b/g connections but also supports WPA2 and is on the official support list. I even managed to find one with a correct FRU part number, for all of £13 (including postage!) from eBay:

Physically swapping the card is straightforward - just remove the keyboard and bezel, unplug the antennas, unclip and remove the old card, clip the new one in, reconnect the antennas, and put the laptop back together. And this being a ThinkPad there's no need to play "guess which screws to undo" - the Hardware Maintenance Manual lists all the steps.

Anyway, upgrade done, and now for the NUMBERS!

Before pulling the old card out, I did a very rough-and-ready speed test by pointing Firefox at speedtest.net and letting it rip. Running a speed test across the Internet is normally entirely the wrong way to test local network performance, but I knew for this test at least, my Internet connection would not be the weakest link:

Yep, that about the best one can expect for 802.11b WiFi. Theoretically that could do 11Mb/s, but generally you need to de-rate WiFi connections by 50% for a real-world max speed. Anyway, enough of that. Time for the new card, running in 802.11a mode:

FTP file transfer from the NAS: 27.77Mb/s

That's more like it. My Internet connection can and does run faster than that, but probably not in the evening when the universe is watching Netflix. The file transfer from the NAS is a better indication of true speed.

This has nothing on what Nyx can achieve, though it's hardly a fair comparison as Nyx has a 802.11n card with about 5 years of signal processing improvements. Still, it's a significant improvement over what Aether had before, and interestingly it also came with a decrease in power consumption - about 0.7W when idle, and a whole watt when running the actual speed test. Result!

Of course, there are some slight issues... most noticeably, the WiFi LED no longer lights. The consensus online is that this is due to a slight pinout change. The original Mini PCI spec had both sides of the LED connected to the card connector. However laptop manufacturers wanted to add a physical radio kill switch, and the way they chose to implement this was to change one pin from being the negative LED output to being the RF kill input. They then only connected one side of the LED to the Mini PCI connector and grounded the other side, so the card drove the positive output only. The upshot is if you fit a new card to a laptop that predates this change, nothing drives the negative LED output. The fix is to ground pin 13 on the Mini PCI connector, but without grounding pin 13 on the card that's plugged in (otherwise it thinks the radio kill switch is on). Simples (not)!

This will all be for naught though unless I can repair that screen...
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[User Picture]From: crschmidt
Tuesday 16th December 2014 at 12:27 am (UTC)
You're in the UK. I bet there's more people watching YouTube than Netflix, even by bandwidth. ;) Though it looks like you're actually a lot better off than the average sky user already, and sky doesn't vary as much as some others do...
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[User Picture]From: boggyb
Tuesday 16th December 2014 at 12:48 am (UTC)
UK internet is often ADSL (almost universally sold as "up to 20Mb/s or so") and so the speed depends more on how far you are from the BT exchange than anything else. In my case the sync speed is about 15Mb/s, so a real-world speed of 12.5Mb/s is pretty reasonable and certainly more than enough for HD YouTube :)

That is unless you're lucky enough to live in an area with FTTC (80Mb/s) or even better, cable (which these days tops out at a crazy 152Mb/s).

And yeah, we're probably not as much into streaming Netflix in the UK. I wouldn't be surprised though if the main bandwidth eaters here were the TV catch-up services from the main providers - BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4od, and demand5.
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