Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Windows Wireless Hell....

In the interest of doing something with this blog, I'll post this to try to save someone else's sanity.

So, we own a Dell Inspiron 600m - which came with an Intel 2200BG wireless chipset. Big deal, you say - so you have a laptop that can do wireless. Whoop-tee-do.

Except, that frequently, this laptop can't do wireless _reliably_. Why? Well, that is a long story.
To be specific, this laptop found it nearly impossible to get a DHCP address from a wireless router. Sure, the connection would come up. You could put in your password for whatever encryption scheme you were using on your wireless network. The wireless router would report that it issued an address to the laptop. Yet... the laptop, just sat there, in a state of utter uselessness, with no ip address. Isn't that special?

First stop, blame Microsoft, of course. I mean, come on. It's obvious. Microsoft completely hosed up the wireless GUI interfaces (not to mention the driver interfaces for us poor developers) back in Windows XP and earlier, so it seems plenty reasonable to me that Microsoft has also managed to screw up the DHCP protocol over wireless. From what I've seen, they still haven't wrote a decent one in Vista... so we still have this mess with all of these 3rd party developers writing their own wireless control programs.

So I switch over to the wireless management interface that Intel provides for the 2200BG chipset. Now, note that, at the time when I started this battle (several years ago) Intel's GUI sucked quite a bit too. But I was hopeful that it would fix the DHCP problem. It appeared to. Sometimes. Until you sneezed. And then the DHCP problem would come back. Sigh.

Perhaps it is a driver problem. Dell, in typical Dell fashion, had shipped this laptop with a rather old version of Intel's driver for the 2200BG wireless chipset. I think to myself - I'll bet Intel has fixed this. I mean, seriously - there is NO WAY they are shipping this chipset in millions of laptops when it can't even do DHCP more than 20% of the time. Go poke around Intel's website, and find - yes - there is a newer driver!

And it doesn't fix shit. GAH! Much internet searching later, I discover that this is a fairly common problem. Often times - it is caused by an encryption negoitation issue between the wireless router and the wireless driver. Or people just have their password wrong, etc. But yet, I still find a subset of people that seem to have my problem - and they never find a solution. For a while I go down a lot of roads checking to make sure all the necessary windows services are running, etc. But I can't get it to work.

At some point, I start suspecting that there is a compatibility problem between my particular wireless router (D-Link DI-624) and the Intel 2200BG wireless chipset. It seems that one of the companies, either D-Link or Intel has messed up the DHCP protocol. I start experimenting with different firmware versions on thd D-Link. One of the firmware upgrades even advertises that it fixes a DHCP issue. Yet... no dice. This problem refuses to go away. This entire time, another laptop in the house (with a D-Link card) works fine with the D-Link router.

I've wasted way to long on this, and I'm tired of it, so I just set up a static address on the wireless router, hard code the wireless address into the laptop, and all is good. Works fine when you don't ask it to do DHCP. Yet - every time I go to a hotspot outside of home, I have to switch it back to DHCP. Really annoying.

Every so often, I get hopeful and go through the process of upgrading Intel's drivers and management software as it becomes available. Problem never goes away. I blame the D-Link, since they stopped releasing firmware upgrades for it... and their firmware never did get very stable. I figure it has an obscure bug that the Intel driver happens to tickle.

Fast forward to the current time.

The D-Link melts down, becomes a paperweight. So I buy a new wireless router. A Linksys WRT54GL, to be exact. And then I put Tomato firmware on this great little linux box. Now, I _KNOW_ that this wireless router knows how to do DHCP properly. It doesn't get much more well-tested than this hardware \ linux-software combination.

I set the Dell back to DHCP... and it doesn't fricking work! WTF! I mean, seriously. There are literally MILLIONS of these 2200BG chipsets out in use. Why can't this wireless card get a DHCP address from a wireless router? I know that there is no way that Intel could ship a driver that is this broken for this long. And yet - the problem is even worse now. It doesn't really work at all. Go back to a static IP, and it works fine. This is _really_ frustrating.

At some point, I rolled the Intel driver back to a much older version of the driver - which actually worked better, for a little while. Then it started blue screening the system. In the process of blowing away all traces of the old drivers, and reinstalling the new ones, a dialog box comes up out of the blue.

The dialog box is "Dell Quick Set" asking me to connect to a wireless network for the first time. At this point, I have a vague understanding that "Dell Quick Set" handled power options, displayed the volume and contrast levels on the screen, etc. Quite frankly, never really paid any attention to it. And here it is, asking to taking over some portion of the wireless card management. I never knew it could do that... You don't suppose.... I think to myself.

I obliterate Dell Quick Set from the system with a vengeance. Reinstall the latest Intel Driver and Management tool - enable the wireless card - and BOOM! Almost instantly, the system connects and picks up a DHCP address. I cycle the wireless card off and on a few times with the hardware switch. Works perfectly, every time. Reboot the system. Still working perfectly. I can't believe it. For all of this time, the problem has been this POS useless Dell Quick Set program, hiding in the background hosing the DHCP request to the wireless router!

So there you have it. If you have a wireless card that can't pick up a DHCP address from your wireless router - especially an Intel 2200BG wireless chipset - make sure that you disable/uninstall/obliterate Dell Quick Set from your system. Dell Quick Set is a useless piece of crap churned out by crappy Dell developers that makes a half-assed attempt to control your wireless card - and breaks DHCP in the process.

Hopefully I have captured enough of the DHCP / Intel 2200BG / no ip address / keywords into this post so that the next person that tries to figure this out doesn't go insane trying to fix it on their laptop...

Nice detective work Dan! I had issues with my previous Dell, but now that I am on Lenovo/Thinkpad, and soon moving to Mac I hope it wont be an issue! :-)
That card still sucks. I don't even have a Dell, using it with the default Windows wireless thing in Xp/Vista/7 breaks it. Works longer with the intel app, but still not perfect.
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