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Feature: Wireless & Mobile

Hunting for wireless networking solutions

By Bruce Byfield on April 02, 2008 (4:00:00 PM)

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While most basic hardware support for GNU/Linux is improving constantly, wireless support remains dismal. Few manufacturers make an effort to support the operating system, or to publicize what support they have. Moreover, the components of wireless devices change so fast that one version of a device may offer support while a second version doesn't -- even though both versions share the same model number. And if, in addition to functionality, you also want a device with free drivers and no reliance on proprietary firmware, your choices are even more limited. Fortunately, no matter what your preferences, online resources exist to help you find the card that's right for you or get your existing wireless network adapter to work with Linux.

Before you start looking for alternatives, you should be aware of what you are up against. In particular, you should know that some modern laptops, including most recent Lenovo Thinkpads, check for the original mini-PCI wireless card, and will not boot if it is changed or removed.

You can get around this limitation by editing the CMOS or modifying the BIOS. But the consequences if you make a mistake there can include an unusable computer, so these solutions are not for the inexperienced or faint of heart. Most people are probably better off looking for a wireless PCMCIA, ExpressCard, or CardBus adapter, or one on a USB dongle, which can be added without any consequence. The loss of an external port may be a small price compared to the dangers of changing the mini-PCI card.

Once you have decided what form your wireless support will take, identify your device either from the documentation that ships with it or by running the lspci command. Then look it up in Ubuntu's detailed wireless documentation, which includes a list of mini-PCI and PCMCIA adapters, and another one of USB devices. These lists will tell you whether your card is supported by one of three non-free solutions -- Ndiswrapper, the Broadcom Firmware-Cutter, or the MadWifi drivers -- or supported by a driver that is installed automatically with Ubuntu. While your distribution may not include the same defaults, if Ubuntu supports a driver you need, at least in theory you should be able to get your wireless device working on your distribution as well. No matter what your solution, other pages in Ubuntu's documentation should provide most, if not all, the information you need to enable wireless.

The one drawback to the Ubuntu lists is that the information about ExpressCard and Cardbus adapters tends to be limited. To find more current information, go to the information about ExpressCard and Cardbus on the TuxMobil site. However, be aware that these lists include more than just wireless cards.

Non-free solutions

Given the current state of wireless support, the odds are overwhelming that the device that comes with your computer will only work with a non-free solution. If you decide to focus on functionality and try to live with what you have, you should be able to enable it by using Ndiswrapper or, if you have a Broadcom card, the Broadcom Firmware Cutter. Both Ndiswrapper and the Firmware Cutter are hacks that wrap a layer of code around the Windows driver for your card so that you can use it under GNU/Linux. Either method involves identifying the card and following a relatively simple set of steps, but both can give mixed results. More importantly, if you are committed to free software, then the use of a Windows driver will make these solutions unacceptable to you.

Another non-free alternative is the Madwifi drivers for the Atheros chipset, which can be found in many distributions. Like Ndiswrapper and the Firmware Cutter, the Madwifi drivers are free software in themselves, but dependent on non-free software. Madwifi developers are working on a free version of the binary-only Hardware Abstraction Layer that the software depends on. Until that effort reaches maturity, however, in many cases Madwifi will not be acceptable to those who prefer free software.

Finding free alternatives

In fact, many free drivers for GNU/Linux are dependent on non-free firmware, which makes them unacceptable for completely free distributions such as gNewSense or for individuals who want a free operating system.

According to the Free Software Foundation's hardware pages, the only devices that are completely free are those that use the Ralink RT2500/RT2400 chipset or the Realtek RTL8180 chipset with the driver compiled from source. The trouble is, not all devices that use these chipsets work with GNU/Linux, if user experiences described on the Internet can be trusted. Nor do all distributions include drivers for those that do, which is why the wireless page also includes a link to the rt2x00 Project that develops them. To further complicate matters, the chipset is almost never mentioned in the specifications for wireless devices.

The simplest approach is to use one of the devices that the Free Software Foundation has tested, such as the Asus WL-107G PCMCIA card and the Linksys WUSB54G USB 2.0 dongle. However, if you want more alternatives, look at the lists of manufacturers and devices maintained at Rapla.net, which are conveniently divided into device types.

Some items on the list are marked with an asterisk, and whether they use the chipset depends on the version of the device, so you should be careful to buy only the version specified (if one is). Items unmarked by an asterisk should be usable regardless of version, although, just to be safe, you might want to avoid recent models to avoid undocumented changes.

Having come so far, you should also take the time to search on the manufacturer and model of the devices you are interested in and see what experience others have had with them. For instance, in searching for a USB dongle, I decided against the Buffalo WLI-U2-KG54-AI and Gigabyte GN-WBKG because of reported problems I found discussed on the Internet. Instead, I identified the OvisLink Evo-W54USB and Sweex LC100060 as adapters that other users had enabled successfully.

Once you have done this research, your final obstacle is to buy the device of your choice. If my experience is typical, you will have to order your adapter rather than run down to your local retailer. You should also go shopping armed with several alternatives, since your first choice might not be available. You will probably have more luck ordering from an independent store than a member of a chain. Frequently, chain stores will order only limited inventory or deal only with certain suppliers, and may refuse to order any of your choices.

Making a choice

Is tracking down a free wireless adapter worth the effort? That depends on your priorities. If you only want your computer to work, then probably you should be content using Ndiswrapper, the Firmware-Cutter, or the Madwifi drivers -- at least for a while. As the forums for major distributions attest, these utilities can be tempermental. They not only have to be reapplied with every major version change in your kernel, but, sometimes, with minor version changes as well. At times, a revised kernel may stop them working altogether, at least temporarily.

For such reasons, choosing a free solution may be less quixotic than you might first imagine. The non-free solutions to GNU/Linux's lack of consistent wireless support are ingenious hacks, but, if a free solution takes more research in the short run, in the long term, your idealism may result in more trouble-free computing and be the wiser choice.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

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on Hunting for wireless networking solutions

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or you could just buy one

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.49.136.36] on April 02, 2008 05:02 PM
linux shops sell wifi cards that are linux compatible, for example I purchased mine from:

http://www.linuxemporium.co.uk/products/wireless/

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Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 208.47.135.227] on April 02, 2008 06:05 PM
Madwifi has other advantages. I guess most people wouldn't be needing it but madwifi allows you to have multiple virtual adapters and be an access point and a client at the same time. Finding open source drivers for USB devices was a pain, but very useful and can be used on any platform(other than x86, like arm). I needed a open source
USB that supported WPA I only found the zd1211rw at the time. The best page I found to look for drivers, chipsets and what they support is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_open_source_wireless_drivers
Good luck to people looking for drivers. Good article

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Re: Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 84.90.182.83] on April 03, 2008 11:23 AM
I have a usb dongle that uses the zd1211rw module, and it works ok with WEP or on open networks. But if I connect to WPA or WPA2 networks I experience system freezes when the card starts authentication.
Or if authentication actually succeeds, then it freezes up when the connection is broken.

Ndiswrapper works ok with the zydas chip though, but then I lose all the extras that and open card gives me :(

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Re(1): Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 208.47.135.227] on April 03, 2008 10:55 PM
That is a problem with your distro/installation I have tested it to work on fedora and a custom install on my gumstix both worked

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Re(2): Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.137.219.1] on April 09, 2008 07:49 PM
Actually, it wasnt a problem with my distro.
The zd1211rw module I was using still worked on the old softmac stack.

So I checked out the downloads section on linuxwireless.org and they provide a tarball with the modules for basically all cards available, and that tarball included the zd1211rw driver working on the mac80211 stack.

Now it works perfectly, and it doesnt crash any more.
It still has quirks like having to manually set the rate with iwconfig, but its well worth it :)

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Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 165.155.200.82] on April 02, 2008 06:40 PM
Theres always linuxant.com they sell drivers for some pretty good wireless cards for linux.

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Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 83.226.108.225] on April 02, 2008 10:11 PM
The Intel drivers have been good to me: http://support.intel.com/support/notebook/sb/CS-006408.htm

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Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 217.233.252.240] on April 03, 2008 09:59 AM
I have a PCI RaLink RT2500 under Gentoo - but I don't get it to work. Meanwhile there is the rt2x00 driver in the vanilla-sources kernel, but it gives me only little bandwidth... has anyone of you managed networking with such a card?

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Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.28.248.223] on April 03, 2008 03:09 PM
I thought the problem with fwcutter wasn't that it wasn't free, but the issue was free redistribution. What it cuts out is the firmware from the windows driver -- code that runs on the wifi-card, and not actually in the kernel; the actual bcm driver is open source, etc.

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Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 63.173.0.195] on April 03, 2008 04:39 PM
Wireless support in Linux is getting better, but still not great. I really like how the author pointed out that some of these drivers are completely free. A lot of people miss that point. I know a lot of poeople use linux and don't care how it works. But there are even more that understand that it works because everything should be FOSS. Using a binary firmware simply moves part of the black box from the kernel to the card. This also is the reason why some wireless cards work with certain distros and why they won't with others. Some distros which really follow the GPL won't include these binary blobs. Personally i'd recommend a card that has completely FOSS drivers. This way you know it will work on any distro also long as the kernel is over a certain number.

I'd recommond 2 cards and am evaluationg a third.
I have an asus wl-107g which uses the rt2500 chipset. Its funny ralinks older cards are the ones i'd recoommend. Anything newer needs a binary firmware. To answer someoens questions poster earlier about this card. There were a few bugs in the earlier version of the rt2x00 driver. Many issues with speed should be resolved with the 2.6.25 version of the kernel. This card also supports wpa2 with aes. I got mine at newegg http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16833320105

Second I'd recommend most cards with atheros chipset. The atherso cards with ar5212 chipsets work exceptionally well with madwifi driver. They support many features included wpa2 with aes. I bought a trendnet TEW441-PC. Now you ask didn't you just say you should buy cards that are fully free. Well with the 2.6.25 version of the kernel there will be a completely foss driver for this card (ath5). You can download rc8 to begin testing now.

I'm also just ordered a chiefmax usb dongle with the realtek 8187L chipset. This was the first chipset to be included with the mainline kernel that was written using the mac80211 wireless stack. From all reports this card is well supported after kernel 2.6.24. And can handle wpa2 with aes. I just orderded this card at http://3btech.net/ch20hi80wimi.html. I have heard the netgear wg111v2 uses this chipset as well, BUT I think some of these cards use the prism chipset. That is so annoying when a vendor changes chipsets but keeps the same name.

Some newer cards with the realtek 8187b chipset should work if you get the drivers at. http://www.datanorth.net/~cuervo/rtl8187b/ I have not tested these derivers but I do have a card.
http://shop1.outpost.com/product/5349928 I figured for 9 bucks why not. This driver also does not require any binary firmware either.

I have heard in the 2.6.25 version of the kernel will support 8180 and 8185 realtek wireless chipsets. I believe these are the chipsets you will find in many versions of they're pcmcia and pci wireless cards.

If anyone knows of any other cards that use completely open source drivers please write back.

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Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 192.168.0.59] on April 03, 2008 05:34 PM
It just needs to work and stay current. I'd pay for drivers that work with out fail or flaw for wireless and video. I'd also pay for decent software that syncs phones/pda's/smartphones with linux. Linux progress is being held hostage by two groups: proprietary software makers who fear their profits will be somehow hurt by selling products that work on linux and purists who feel that there is something holy about "pure" open source and actively work against proprietary involvement.

Just make it work damn it.

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Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 63.173.0.195] on April 03, 2008 10:41 PM
Above comment is a little miss informed. First off I will not take a hostile tone. Were all here using Linux lets take our frustrations out on closed source venders. I was the one who posted the rather long reply. Why don't you complain to broadcom,intel,marvell,ti. I'm assuming you have one of they're cards. They're the ones who decided they don't want they're hardware to work with OS's other then windows. You should be complaining to these companies to release specifications for they're equipment. I mean we don't need them to write drivers we in the Linux community can do that. "Linux progress is being held hostage by two groups: proprietary software makers who fear their profits will be somehow hurt by selling products that work on linux and purists who feel that there is something holy about "pure" open source and actively work against proprietary involvement." Well first off these are hardware vendors. They could release specifications for they're hardware so it could work on multiple operating systems. Hell these hardware vendors don't even want you using Linux to begin with. Now your complaining it dosen't work under linux. Of course it dosen't right out of the box and thats not the linux developers fault. Have you ever taken any assemly level course work. DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW HARD IT IS TO REVERSE ENGINEER SOMETHING!!! Second point "Linux purists" are holding Linux back. What like the people who wrote the GPL, have done most of the programming in the Linux Kernel. Linux is about 4 freedoms and you can look them up on the FSF. Long history has shown that incorporating these binary blobs is not the best approach in the long run. Where do you stop incorporating binary only features, the wireless lan, the video card, the sound card, networking, the kernel. If you keep accepting these features your eventually going to move away from the advantages of Linux. The ability to examine code for errors. You cannot do that with binary blobs. "Just make it work damn it" Try Vista then. You can just make it work but it might break and you won't know why. I want more people using Linux but not at the expense that it compromises it core values. I really don't want property involvment with the Kernel. What happens when you have tons of code in binary and your company goes under. Example Diamon/S3 anyone have one of they're video cards. But like I said were here to help. I posted earlier you get one of the above mentioned cards and you won't have these issues. IT WILL WORK WITH ANY DISTRO!!! I'm not here to start a flame war. I want to help and I can see your frustration but lets take out on the vendors who are Linux unfriendly.

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Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.253.102.54] on April 09, 2008 01:57 PM
We need to stick to one vendor, sell the rest, because of incompatible fears I only use the mini-pci wireless cards from Intel. They are instantly recognized with Linux.

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Hunting for wireless networking solutions

Posted by: KRB on May 01, 2008 11:12 AM
Having come so far, you should also take the time to search on the manufacturer and model of the devices you are interested in and see what experience others have had with them.

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