Archiv für den Monat: Februar 2013

Replacing the Wifi card on a Lenovo Thinkpad T420

A journey has ended! I have finally replaced the wifi card on my Lenovo Thinkpad T420. This is my Story:

I bought this computer at the beginning of 2012 to replace my old Samsung R560, which was  three years old and still kicking, but it had a couple of those annoyances that laptops which are made for entertainment have: A glossy hull, useless extra media contol keys and the the inability to be opened with one hand. So I kept that machine as a secondary computer and purchased my T420 because I thought the Thinkpad T-Series are glamour free work horses. I also assumed the device would function under Linux without problems. And I was almost not let down: The T420 is performing like a beast, highly portable and has an insane battery lifetime even under Linux. The only problem was that the wifi seemed to have some problems.

I had random connection failures where no data would come trough even though the connection was still displayed as active, sometimes it wouldn’t connect at all and all that was dependent on the wifi infrastructure. (It worked almost flawlessly at home but problems arouse at any other place including my university (which is a big  deal obviously)).

Initially I thought it must be a linux/driver issue and searched around the web. Eventually I pinned the problem down to my Wifi card, a „Realtek 8188CE“. The sole mentioning of that name in a forum will get people to offer condolences. Apparently the issue is not Linux specific, but it’s worse there. I tried downloading and compiling the latest driver from Realtek with no success. So I quickly made the decision that the module has to be replaced. Replacing the hardware turned out to be easier than I expected. The real problem was to get the device to accept the new card.

Lenovo ships their laptops with built in white lists in the BIOS which checks Wifi and WWAN cards for a Lenovo branding, a so called FRU number. If  it finds an unbranded module it will refuse to work.

So I contacted Lenovo and asked where I could purchase such a branded card. The answered with a generic e-mail saying „please find a list of our licensed stores attached“ with a list of all online shops known to man as an attachment. So I found a fitting card at Cyberport.de where I also bought the Thinkpad, contacted them and asked about the branding. They said they were not sure but assumed it would work. When the card arrived I quickly put it in only to be greeted with a friendly message claiming to have found an „unauthorized network card“. „Computer says nah…“ (By the way: After I explained this to Cyberport on the phone they offered to take the card back. Thumbs up!)

When you see this... you're screwed!
When you see this… you’re screwed!

So no branding on that card. I contacted Lenovo support again this time via phone. The stressed lady with a foreign accent collected all my personal information before letting me ask any questions. After I told her about my problem I got an answer that boils down to this: „If you’r card is not from Lenovo it will not work. This is not a defect so I cannot help you! Linux??? We are not supporting Linux. Good bye.“

The weirdest thing is that neither her nor her colleagues answering to my e-mails could tell me where I could actually buy a Lenovo branded card. I made it explicitly clear that I do not want this to be treated as a warranty request or anything. I wanted to buy a wifi card… you know…. with money. No chance. All I got was the generic list of „authorized dealers“. Apparently Lenovo disallows the use of third party cards without offering cards themselves… so…. no cards for you!

Eventually someone in the Lenovo Forums provided me with the FRU numbers of some of the wifi cards Lenovo uses. Searching for those directly yielded some results and I was eventually able to buy a used „Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205“ from a German online store. The card arrived today and I was finally able to boot with a non crap card. Linux automatically loaded the drivers and all I had to do is re-entering the WPA-2 key for my home network. I have yet to test the card on other networks but I am really optimistic. The remainder of this article will be a short how to on the issue.

How to replace the card

If you want to replace your card you need to make sure that you chose a compatible one. The most obvious thing to check is the number of antennas: If the new card has more antennas than the current one, you need to install additional antennas behind the screen and I guess you don’t want that. So check how many antennas your card has (the Realtek 8188CE has two) and chose a replacement accordingly.

Then try to find out the FRU number of this device, I found my number in the Lenovo Forums but I guess contacting support is also worth a try.

Now search for the FRU number directly. It is my understanding that you can’t buy new Lenovo branded modules so you need to find a used one. If you live in Germany or do not fear shipping costs check out www.nbwn.com, they have a great selection of used notebooks and parts.

Once you obtained a card follow the instructions in this video to replace the old card or my following step-by-step instruction pictures:

Flip the notebook over and remove the screw from the memory cover.
Flip the notebook over and remove the screw from the memory cover.
Remove the screw that keeps the keyboard in place.
Remove the screw that keeps the keyboard in place.
Flip over the device again, push the keyboard towards the screen and lift it up. Be careful not to damage or disconnect the cable.
Flip over the device again, push the keyboard towards the screen and lift it up. Be careful not to damage or disconnect the cable.
Remove the antennas (blue circles) and the screw.
Remove the antennas (blue circles) and the screw.
Take out the card.
Take out the card.

Now insert your new card and re-assemble your device.

So I left Arch Linux… what’s up with that?

About a year ago I started this blog, primarily as a sort of public collection of notes on how to do things on Linux, especially Arch Linux.

At the time I was annoyed by a lot of decisions Canonical made with Ubuntu, which I had been using for quite a while. So I made the decision to retake the control I felt canonical was taking away from users by switching to Arch Linux. This article is essentially a summary of my experiences with it and an explanation on why I am not using it anymore.

When my new laptop arrived in January of last year I immediately installed Arch Linux on it. For someone like me who’s Linux installation experience is basically „insert an Ubuntu live CD and click install“ it was quite a challenge, but the Arch Wiki provides an amazing guide that made me succeed eventually (The Arch Wiki and Forum are in my opinion two of the best places in the internet to get help with Linux, not only Arch).

The Awesomeness

  • It’s customizable: The main reason for me to try Arch Linux, as I said earlier, is it’s customizability. You have to hand pick the software packages you want to be installed. This includes the Window Manager or Desktop Environment of your choice. So in the end you wind up with an operating system really suited for your needs.
  • It’s up-to-date: Arch is a rolling release distribution, which means that once an update for any package becomes available it will (almost) immediately be available for Arch users. Release cycle oriented distributions like Ubuntu also have an update function for bug fixes and security updates, but „bigger“ updates will only be introduced in the next release of the distro. (There are of course ways to still get the latest version of almost everything, but it requires knowledge and work and kinda conflicts with the whole idea of a release based distribution)
  • It’s a great source of knowledge: The process of installing Arch Linux alone is probably one of the most effective ways to learn how Linux works and is configured. And even the running system sometimes requires you to dig deep into the file system to tweak a config file. I have learned much about Linux during my time with Arch, most of it on the Arch Wiki and forum.

So I ran Arch for the better part of 2012 and was quite pleased with the things I mentioned earlier, but there were also some things I did not like so much.

The Annoyances

  • Stuff breaks… often: Arch is bleeding edge. You get every update almost instantly… what?… I said that already? Yeah, it’s a big plus, but also in stability and convenience terms it’s a pain in the butt. You have to be on guard every time you update your system, you have to follow the mailing list and there is a good chance you have to fix something after the update. Again, thanks to the Arch Community those fixes are almost always available in the forums, but you still have to do them.
  • Your system is unique: And that makes it sometimes a bit harder to troubleshoot stuff. Especially if you are not sure what’s causing your problem. Other peoples solutions might or might not apply to your setup. Of course this is not an Arch exclusive problem, but my guess is that is happens more often than with more restrictive distributions.

The last two points are only a problem if you do not have fun fixing problems and learning stuff (which I did) or if you simply don’t have the time (this one applies to me). I do all my work for the university on my laptop and it needs to work all the time. Also I use it as an entertainment device to watch movies, listen to music or play games. (Boy, has Linux gaming taken off lately 😀 ) And if I want to do one of those things, it needs to work.
I hate it to sit down and write some code only to find out that the last system update has broken the compiler or something.
So, Arch Linux, it’s not you, it’s me! There is nothing wrong with how Arch is, but it has just turned out not to be the right thing for me now.

That’s why I eventually decided to ditch Arch and switch to Linux Mint for now. I am now running Mint 13 Maya Cinnamon Edition and am quite happy with it.
I am almost sure that I will come back to Arch someday though!