A Tale of Technological Woe…

Every once in a while, even as a computer geek, the vagaries of the hardware world combine in such a way so that the varied, random, brownian motion takes a malevolent and perverse turn, leaving us mere mortals humbled.

Let me introduce the main player in this scenario: A P-III based Windows 98 machine that we call “Simone.” It was bought in Germany and has since had W98SE installed on it (english version) and a standard english keyboard attached. Not the fastest machine on the block, but more than fast enough for the kids to web-surf via the proxy server.

The goal was to get this machine back on the network. It had previously used a Linksys 802.11b wireless card, which could not be upgraded to use WPA encryption. I wasn’t willing to move my network back to WEP, an older encryption format, because of security concerns, as well as the fact that my wireless repeaters were much more stable using WPA (haven’t locked up yet) than using WEP (once a day).

Innocently, I walk into Staples, and pick up the available Linksys 802.11g card. The only version in stock. I get it home, install it, and look for the WPA setup features, puzzled by a strange inability to find them. Hey, it’s a brand new card, still in the plastic. WPA has been around a while, and has been a standard feature of Linksys wireless access points for something like a year now. No dice.

I cross-check the manual. No mention of WPA. No mention of it on the box either but it didn’t mention any specifics re: encryption on the box. I go online, and discover that not only is the card I bought, brand new, one version out of date, but that there is no driver upgrade to handle WPA. either.

So I take it back, and get a Netgear WG311t. This one does specifically state that it handles WPA. So I take it home, install the software, and then install the card. I fire the computer back up. I run the configuration utility. I specify the network name and the WPA-key. It starts to connect. It connects!

My eye wanders over the indications as it finishes pulling down an address from the network and I click on the Firefox icon. Just before the web browser takes over the screen I note with some unease that the “signal” level is actually displayed as the “singal” level. Sure enough, before you can say, “Not the best QA work on the drivers,” only half of the home web page loads, the rest of the images time out. The wireless icon is flashing a disconnected red.

Oops.

Some research later I discover that the drivers for the card, and it’s controlling software, are considered at best utter dreck. Multitudes of people have had problems with the card, and the best workaround has been to use the built-in Windows XP wireless zeroconfig utility, the generic chipset drivers (software) for the radio circuitry built into the card, and bypass the Netgear software entirely.

Not having XP, that is obviously not going to be a solution. Back to the store I go.

One last PCI card presents itself, made by Belkin. They make pretty good adapters for serial ports and such, but don’t have quite so good a record with more complicated stuff like PCI cards, though I must say I have used their internal PCI firewire adapter cards on many occasions and found them to be reliable, stable, and easy to use and setup. I carefully check the box, yet again scrutinizing it for security protocols, and as always checking the minimum requirements, which turn out to be the “Windows 98 SE, 32-bit PCI slot” requirements that are standard for Wi-Fi cards. So I buy it and take it home.

Lather, rinse, repeat. This time (what, you thought it would work?) the computer cannot even see the card. Double check the specs. Yep, they’re correct, yep, my computer meets them. After some research I discover there is a known issue, though not listed on the manufacturer’s site, manual, or minimum requirements, that the card will simply not be recognized on older motherboards that are not at least up to version 2 of the PCI spec. This includes your typical Pentium-III mothrboards, like mine.

So back to the store I’ll be going…….