Wireless connectivity on Thinkpad T61


Updated: September 23, 2009

If you've followed my Linux articles, you may have noticed that very few Linux distributions have managed to have Wireless connectivity out of the box, in live CD session, on my T61. I did try a few tricks, like restarting the network interfaces, manually configuring the Wireless network adapter and even removing/inserting the Wireless driver, all without success. Most people would have left it that way.

But not me. I like to get problems solved - and solve them I do. A good example is the multiplayer mode via serial in old DOS games. It took me, what, nigh 20 years to get it done. But eventually, I had the problem solved. And so I also had the Wireless mystery on T61 unraveled. Read on.

What happened?

Just a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues installed Fedora 10 on a 4GB USB drive. He tried it on a few laptops, including T61. Lo and behold, he had Wireless! I said, no way. And this is how my investigation started. I appropriated the USB drive and tested on my T61. It worked! I had Wireless ...

Fedora

OK, so it seems my T61 did not like Wireless in live sessions, but when distros were installed, then it would play ball. But then, another colleague booted Fedora 10 live CD on his T61 - and he had Wireless, on a machine with identical hardware configuration as mine!

This precipitated a long series of testing, upon which I came to a staggering conclusion. But first, I tried all sorts of Linux distributions to see what results I'd have.

Booting the distributions when the laptop was undocked resulted in no Wireless connectivity. However, booting from the live CDs with laptop docked, the majority of distributions, including many featured here on Dedoimedo, had the Wireless adapter up and running. So far, the results were as follows:

I was as perplexed and angry as you are. I have been played foul by a laptop! My attempts to approach the problem from the software angle had been wrong.

Staggering conclusion

My laptop had a hardware problem - one of the most difficult ones: an intermittent issue with one of the hardware components. Because Wireless does work on the installed Windows and it did work here and there with Linux. This is the worst kind of problems. Unstable ones. No solid reference to align to.

Which explains why I was not able to get the Wireless running, despite my earnest hacking efforts. No matter how well you know the system, you won't get software running if the underlying hardware is bad. Inserting modules, restarting the network stack, all these can never possibly solve hardware issues.

I consulted our tech lab guys. They were as puzzled as I. So we started experimenting, booting one T61 after another. Some would have Wireless connection working in live sessions, others would not. Focusing on my laptop, we had the Wireless card replaced with an example from a working case, but this did not help. Eventually, replacing the entire casing solved the issue.

Armed with a fully functional laptop now, I started retesting a number of distributions. After successful attempts on Sabayon, PCLinuxOS, Mandriva, Ubuntu, Crunchbang, and openSUSE 11, I ended the brief retest, satisfied with the results.

Here's a couple of screenshots, from Sabayon 4.1 and Crunchbang:

Crunchbang

Sabayon

I hope you'll believe me these screenshots indeed come from my T61. I also included Webcam Cheese into the frame on Crunchbang, for good measure.

Why did I write this article?

Even though I come out as a sort of an oligophren after writing this article, I felt it important to explain what has been happening over the past few months and give you a crucial bit of advice when facing software problems:

Explore the software venue first. But once you have exhausted all software choices, examine your hardware. Do not be afraid to question the quality and compatibility of hardware components, even if they supposedly work.

In my case, in theory, the hardware did work. But only partially. These kinds of issues are a devil to detect, but booting a variety of operating systems might give you a good indication where you're at.

Investigation formula

Here's the methodology I've come up with to help you test your laptops and determine whether the lack of functionality you're facing is software- or hardware-related.

I'd like to emphasize the last point. When testing Linux Mint Felicia, I did not have Wireless, whereas it has worked on Ubuntu 8.10. Since Mint is derived from Ubuntu, this should have set off the alarm, but I did not pursue this thought as Wireless did work in Windows, and I naively assumed driver issues in Linux!

Semi-working hardware is the devil!

And an apology ...

I also feel I owe an unofficial apology to distribution vendors, to some of which I have sent detailed logs collected on my machine, in an attempt to solve the issue. The lack of results is not surprising, because there was nothing wrong with the logs! Everything from the software perspective was as it ought to be! The right drivers were there. They just could not initialize the bad parts.

I still have no idea what part inside the casing went wrong. But if you have a laptop that plays tricks with its hardware, sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, you may want to visit the support lab.

Conclusion

Software-hardware interaction can be difficult sometimes. In fact, it can be so tricky that you will have to a special kind of a person with a personal grudge to get them ironed out.

When testing your hardware, never rely on what others people tell you or on the official reports provided by vendors. As in my case, these results would have been completely and utterly true, but useless to me. Make sure it works for you!

While I may have just told you to take someone else's review results with a pinch of salt, as what works for them may not work for you, I've also proven my uncanny ability to solve problems. I never let them rest and I always nail them down. Damn, I'm good.

Anyhow, along with my new laptop, plus a handful of 16GB USB drives I bought, you should lots of new, exciting stuff in the future. I may even test all distros with installation of physical hardware, without going virtual at all.

That would be all.

Cheers.

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