Avoiding Wireless Network Driver and Firmware Gotchas

Avoiding Wireless Network Driver and Firmware Gotchas

When it comes to wireless network compatibility with new operating systems and more reliable operation, it's "all about the drivers" - and, when it comes to routers, the firmware. Unfortunately, getting driver and firmware updates for your gear isn't getting any easier. Vendors love to keep the same model number on the outside while the chipset inside might be a different revision or from a different vendor altogether.

How can you avoid frying your router or finding out that your wireless adapter just won't work with the new OS you're eyeing?

Revision Numbers Mean a Lot 

Make sure you know the revision number as well as the model number of your wireless network hardware. Sometimes the revision number is on the same label as the model number, but other times the sticker is elsewhere. Don't overlook markings on the box. You will need to specify this information to get the correct driver or firmware version for your device.

Remember, installing the wrong driver is merely annoying (your adapter stops working until you install the correct driver), but installing the wrong firmware fries your router. Don't make a $50-100 mistake.

"Duplicates" Aren't Necessarily So - Check the Box 

If you're wanting to buy duplicate hardware, it's essential to check the box for the device's revision number. It's frustrating to juggle different driver CDs or downloads to maintain your network - and if your new wireless hardware uses a chipset that doesn't work as well as your old hardware, you'd better keep a bottle of aspirin handy.

Chipset Clues 

Sometimes you need to do a bit of sleuthing to figure out who made the chipset used by a particular network device. The compatibility_drivers page at the Aircrack website provides tables, links, and suggestions to help you determine your adapter's chipset. The Linux wireless LAN support page is one of the most comprehensive solutions provided. Don't bother asking the wireless vendors: they've taken solemn vows never to reveal whose hardware is under those bright plastic shells.

No Driver? Never Say Never

Even after you're armed with the exact model number and revision number of your wireless hardware, your problems might not be over. When you visit your vendor's download site, you may discover that your revision won't work with the new OS - or, at least, won't seem to. Don't give up yet: you have these possibilities:

- You may be able to use a Windows XP driver with your adapter under Windows Vista.

- If your hardware uses a Ralink chipset (a number of Belkin, D-Link and Linksys adapters do), Ralink provides driver downloads.

- If you're running Linux, there are lots of open-source driver projects for the more popular chipsets. You'll find plenty of links online.

- If you're running Linux and can't find a native driver, you may be able to use NDISwrapper, which enables many wireless network adapters to run, using their Windows drivers, under Linux. Get it from the NDISwrapper Sourceforge website.

- For more help in tracking down your hardware's exact chipset under Linux, see How do you determine your chipset?  at LinuxQuestions.org.

- Even if you're a Windows loyalist, booting up a live Linux distro gives you access to the Linux tools and techniques in the previous tip.

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