Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Techville: Wireless Windows Woes

I've never been a with-the-grain type of tech. This, I suspect, is because I tend to be a hacker in the original sense of the word. I want things to be efficient, even if that makes things a little ugly. Being a hacker, however, I usually manage to make things both functional and attractive. And speedy.

Also, I suspect it is because most people who come into IT jobs come straight out of a college education and into a corporate world, and both college and corporate are ruled by Windows. To many of these people, I suspect that a 20 GB operating system with no default usable software is acceptable, and I guess they think a fifteen minute boot time is worth the wait.

Fifteen minutes? Exaggeration?

Hardly. Not in this case.

See, we're all issued netbooks at my place of employment, and for good reason. We cover a lot of physical ground, and are often away from the office fixing computers for hours at a stretch. We need to update our trouble tickets in the meantime, so we bring along our netbooks with solid state drives (to improve mobility and decrease hardware damage from jostling) and update tickets while connected to the ubiquitous wireless network.

There are rules applied to the use of these netbooks, mostly surrounding security, and there's an image that gets blasted onto these machines that contains the OS (Windows XP SP2), a handful of useless software (does anybody still use iTunes 6, and what purpose does that hold at work if it's too old for iPhones?), and SafeBoot (disk encryption with some remote password recovery software). All of this software presumably meets the requirements of the security department, but it all conspired against me because (and I cannot stress this enough) I hate bloat.

Furthermore, wireless didn't work. This is a Dell Inspiron Mini 10 with a Broadcom wireless chipset in it, and I tried everything. I enabled and disabled services. I switched which applications were in control of the hardware. I fiddled with the wireless switch (which is Fn+F2 on this device). Nothing worked. In the end, every single program (including the Dell WLAN management software) informed me that although the hardware was present, recognized, had the proper drivers, and was working, it was detecting no wireless networks in range.

Every computer around me, including the expensive, oversized paperweight they call an iMac was detecting the aforementioned ubiquitous wireless networks (there are two). So why wouldn't my netbook see them?

I'd been planning on tartsenefeding my computer anyway (which is like defenestrating, but backward; I'm not throwing the device out of a window, I'm throwing Windows out of the device) because of my problem with the bloated OS image, but I decided to use this as a troubleshooting opportunity as well.

I put together a bootable flash drive with Ubuntu 10.04 on it and a 1 GB persistence file, and booted to it. I installed the Broadcom STA Wireless driver and rebooted. Thanks to the persistence file, the driver remained intact upon second boot, and I immediately had access to four wireless networks. For those not counting, that's two more than every other PC in the room saw. And for those wondering, both boots and the driver install took less time than it took to boot the native Windows image once.

Thanks to Ubuntu, my netbook runs faster and more stably than anybody else's in the office, and the hacker in me is satisfied without my ever having to hack anything. I realize, too, that Ubuntu isn't exactly a lightweight distro, and that Puppy (yes, I know it's really Ubuntu) or Knoppix or even a custom-built Slackware would almost certainly run faster and more stably. But considering the convenience factor of getting Ubuntu installed (20-30 minutes), its built-in support for encrypted file systems (a mandate for these netbooks), and its overall great appearance and performance, it's probably the best distro for this netbook at the moment.