Any linux with good (easy) wireless support?
February 7, 2006 8:30 PM   Subscribe

Linux noob Filter: Is there a linux with REAL good wireless support (integrated Broadcom) and either Enlightenment or KDE as the defalt desktop? I _REALLY_ wanna get into Linux, but it's hard without a wireless connection.

Well, as the topic says, I am quite intrested in Linux, and I'm willing to limp around with many things not working right for a while 'till I get the hang of it, but I NEED wireless access. Well, at least for the long term. I can do wired for a few days, but it's too much of a pain with my setup. Buying an external wireless card isn't really a good option.

I have no problem with NDISWrapper, I just don't seem to have any luck with it (likely my own stupidity).

I've tried Kubuntu, Elive, Ultima Linux, and now PCLinuxOS, and still no luck. I don't mind starting out with a "noob" distro (no Gentoo for me :D), but what ever it is, wireless has to work for me.

Any recomendations? Or failing that, if I post up my hardware and the files in the driver folder on my CD, can some one hold my hand so to speak?

posted by TrueVox to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Crap. Probley should have mentioned it's a Gateway Laptop with that integrated card. Sorry!
posted by TrueVox at 8:31 PM on February 7, 2006

TrueVox - what is the card model, etc? I googled for gateway integrated wireless card linux distro which returns 190,000 results. I'd suggest doing a little more reading, more googling with your specific model numbers. I can guarantee you are not the first to try this. FWIW, I'm a fan of Debian & slackware.
posted by AllesKlar at 9:01 PM on February 7, 2006

Um, how do I find that out? In windows it defines itself under the device manager as a "Broadcom 802.11g Network Adapter" but I assume you need more detailed info then that. How do I find it for you?

Thanks for the quick reply by the way, AllesKlar. I appreciate it (btw, slackware is SO cool. Can't wait 'till my chops are up to it).
posted by TrueVox at 9:11 PM on February 7, 2006

It's most likely this one, a Broadcom/gemtek 802.11g (WMIB-158G).
I've got the exact same problem with my Gateway m360, running Ubuntu or DSLinux (Useless to say, with or without a VMware).
I found some hints about running it under Debian a while ago but it ended I was still helpless. I'm tech savvy but beginner with linux too...
posted by Bio11 at 9:18 PM on February 7, 2006

my own opinion is that linux's wireless support is not quite there yet. i actually bought a wireless card for my linux pc, which is my primary (read: only) pc, but i had to abandon the effort until a later date. we do have wireless in the house, but for now the linux pc plugs into a wired connection to access the network.

my guess is that a distro that would have good wireless support would be knoppix or ubuntu -- since they come with everything and the kitchen sink -- but i can't speak from experience.

i do run slackware, which i think is the most unixy of the bunch, but you really have to be willing to tinker.
posted by moz at 9:20 PM on February 7, 2006

Regarding ndiswrapper: I've never got it to work with WAP so I wouldn't even bother with that.

I don't know how far you've gotten with ndiswrapper, so pardon me if you already know all this. But generally you're going to go looking for the driver that windows uses. It's probably somewhere on the (windows) install disks that came with the laptop. Look at man ndiswrapper for how to install it.

Once you have found and install the .inf file for ndiswrapper you're going to modprobe ndiswrapper (or alias wlan0 ndiswrapper in modules.conf).

You'll need the wireless-tools package. To bring up the device, something like
iwconfig wlan0 essid jerky
where jerky is the name of your base station.

If the basestation supports dhcp and all that you should be good to go at this point.

Things to search the web for: ndiswrapper, wireless-tools

Also, with laptops I always have the best luck looking for a website/forum specifically for the make, and hopefully model, of the computer.

Oh, if you want to know more about the model of your wireless card I'd recommend looking at the "file" /proc/pci under linux. It lists all the devices on the bus and may give model numbers, etc. The command "lspci" also provides a lot of info, if you have that installed.

Oh, and try booting from a Knoppix CD. Knoppix is famous for "just working" with everything, out of the box. It is not a distribution that you install really, just a single-cd up-and-running thing. I use it all the time to figure out how to configure things, because it often does such a good job of automatically configuring stuff. If you boot to Knoppix you might just get lucky and have the network stuff work off the bat (ok, not all that likely). From there you may be able to figure some stuff out.
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:24 PM on February 7, 2006

This guy has an internal Broadcom that works with an OpenSUSE 10.0 release candidate. The final release, or even a 10.1 beta, might be worth a try .

Disclaimer: I work for SUSE/Novell
posted by cmonkey at 12:18 AM on February 8, 2006

I've not had good experiences with internal Broadcom WiFi solutions, even under Windows, and Broadcom's lack of interest in Linux is legendary. Basically, they produce chipsets which provide low cost, low end solutions, by offloading some processing to the CPU, much like the old Winmodems used to do. So, they'll release the Intellectual Property needed to write drivers for their chipsets only to vendors with contractual relationships that protect that IP. That pretty much flies in the face of the spirit of Open Source, and much love is not flowing back to Broadcom over this.

So, grasshopper, you may have no problem with ndiswrapper, but that doesn't mean ndiswrapper has no problems with Broadcom. It's just a hack (albeit a pervasive and somewhat useful one) for getting Windows drivers to talk to the kernel. And since network access seems pretty fundemental to what you want to do, I, for one, find it surprising you want to base your Linux installation on this tower of bad karma. But all that said, if you're hellbent for doing things your way, get out your wallet and look at Linuxant.
posted by paulsc at 3:16 AM on February 8, 2006

I'll second Linuxant if you don't find out-of-the-box support somewhere. I've relied on them while learning Linux and they've made something crucial actually possible.
posted by john m at 4:07 AM on February 8, 2006

It's not so much I'm hell bent, more that I don't have the cash for another card right now, and REALLY want to start supporting Linux. Once I have net access from Linux I'll have the tools to get other stuff working through forums and such, but I just don't wanna keep comming back and forth every five minutes to get it up and running.

And now, I'm off to check out some of these suggestions. Of course, if anyone else has some more hints, keep 'em comming! :D

Thanks everyone!
posted by TrueVox at 4:44 AM on February 8, 2006

I've actually beaten ndiswrapper into submission before, on Ubuntu. I can't say, unfortunately, that I exactly remember how, but it involves trial and error and many many tears. So it is possible.

But I kept having the problem of my connection dropping--then again, it could be just that I'm using a Linksys router for wifi and my connection tends to do that...still, sometimes The Ubuntu-maquina would drop but mine wouldn't.

Donno. If you really need to, keep at it, but I would also be interested in the answer to this as it's keeping me from fully using Linux, really.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 5:10 AM on February 8, 2006

Hmm. I have a laptop and I recently set up Kubuntu. Getting ndiswrapper to work was a breeze. It was so easy that I forgot how I did it. Let's see. I think all I had to do was install ndiswrapper-utils, since the kernel module was already installed, downloaded the Windows driver, did "ndiswrapper -i bcmwl5.inf", and I was good to go. Next reboot, everything was set up automatically.
posted by zsazsa at 5:40 AM on February 8, 2006

Truevox, I understand your enthusiasm, and applaud your energy, and what I'm going to say here isn't intended, in any way, to dampen that. Indeed, I hope you'll recognize it as having some value to your situation, and I think that, a year or two from now, you'll appreciate it as wisdom, much more than you might at the moment. For now, just give it a listen.

People jump into Linux for all kinds of reasons, and from all kinds of backgrounds. The world of Linux is large and diverse enough to meet the very different needs of people all over the planet, and it is no longer needful that every person who wants to use Linux know a lot about it. But if your aim is to be something more than a user of applications, you do need to commit to building a broad understanding of various distributions, software tools, and lore, beyond just the Linux kernel. To facilitate that, it will help you tremendously to put together a desktop system of plain description, containing the most generic, commonplace hardware available, so that you can be sure of native driver support, and maturity. That way, you can focus on the issues of learning the software, and the tools, and your time will be spent building useful and transferable experience, instead of trying to track down oddball problems, and improvise solutions.

Aim low in your hardware expectations, and be polite, and you'll be surprised how many decent PC's are available, pretty much for the asking. Ideally, you are looking for something with a mainboard and chipset by a mainline manufacturer like Intel or Asus, IDE drive of 20GB or more, CD-RW, and floppy. Any PIII or P4 should be fine (even Celerons). Nothing wrong with AMD based machines, but the motherboards and chipsets in older machines weren't (and still aren't) produced in the volumes that Intel based systems were, and so, you'll be drawing from a smaller base of experience and support. The idea is to find something that is very, very common, and absolutely mainline. Make sure you get a common network card, such as an Intel PRO100, and a common video card with broad Linux support, either AGP or PCI. Consult the Linux hardware compatibility lists, and stick to recommendations you find there.

Ask for old hardware, and it will come to you, believe me. And it will be a matter of days, not weeks, until you have your "plain jane" machine in hand, if you live in any urban setting, and aren't bashful who you ask. It may come to you in the form of 3 or 4 machines, which you have to scavenge for the best parts, but you'll know what you've got if you keep at it. Don't use anything in your final configuration you can't positively physically identify.

Once you've got your plain jane, make sure you have an up to date BIOS, a clean low level format of the disk, and as good a visual and functional check of the rest of the hardware as you can manage. Then, load your plain jane with a basic free mainstream distro, like Ubuntu or Fedora, set up as a desktop system. Take the defaults on installation, and keep an open mind about the utility of Gnome and such other general tools as the distro has packaged, because believe me, you will see them on plenty of other systems, whether they are your personal choice or not. Install CUPS, and get a printer working. Get comfortable with whatever package management system the distro relies on, and wait awhile to load up the machine with every odd ball package or server application you come across while exploring this. Install all man pages for the desktop packages you do have. Install Perl. Learn to manage users and groups, and set up user accounts for yourself, as project bases. Learn to use vi, from a shell. Add a second drive, and learn to backup your file system with rsync. Learn to restore from backups. Learn to set up a journaled file system, even ext3, and use it to recover from a crash. Learn a widely distributed shell, such as bash. Write some simple shell scripts, and extend your shell with some custom commands you write yourself. There are plenty of tutorials and example on the Web that cover all these basics, but you have to make the commitment to work them, either on your own, or by taking some classes.

Keep notes about what you learn. Make a system notebook, and add to it as you become familiar with your plain jane. Wipe out your first distro install, and install some other main line distro, and learn a bit about its alternate means of package management. Install CUPS, Perl, man pages, and whatever application packages you had on the other distro.

Give yourself a couple of months of this, an hour or two a day, and you'll have some real knowledge most new users never get. You won't be afraid of making mistakes, and you'll have ways of recovering from them. You won't be chasing flaky problems, and your time will be well spent, and probably pretty satisfying, because you'll feel yourself learning, and liking the feeling. You won't be frustrated, and you won't have a reason to quit trying to learn.

Then, tackle that notebook, and the wireless issues.
posted by paulsc at 6:29 AM on February 8, 2006

Paulsc, fear not. Your comment didn't come off as offensive. I also appreicate that my time would be more intelligently spent with a "plain Jane" desktop. However, my situation with my significant other precludes anything as "unsightly" (her words, not mine) as a desktop sitting in our little appartment. I had chosen my laptop in haste because we needed a computer. I saw AMD and assumed that because it was popular with geeks (myself included), it MUST be good with Linux as well (oops!).

I do have a passing familiarity with Bash and such (I took a quick course that covered PuTTY, shell scripts, and other stuff). Not in depth, but enough to muddle through.

I have a spare tower sitting in a closet that I will someday be using as some sort of server (once I borrow a moniter long enough to set it up), or better to do a network install over the command line. But that's a ways away (too much work, too much school, and that doesn't even take into account family time).

So am I just stuck until I have the money to upgrade my laptop (at which point I'm gonna HAVE to do more research :D)? Well, I still haven't had time to try all of the stuff listed here (though I've downloaded Linuxant, and it looks quite promising).

And to everyone who's giving me quick little bits on what to type to pull off NDISWrapper, THANK YOU. However, I have 3-5 .inf files that came with my computer in the networking directory. Is it safe to just do the little snippets over and over again with each one until it just "works"? Or could I break something?

And what do I pay for with Linuxant? I was able to download it for free.

Bagh, this post is WAY too long. Sorry! Thanks everyone, and keep it comming!
posted by TrueVox at 7:19 AM on February 8, 2006

Truevox, the thing about laptops is that they are generally an engineered collection of components that are put together in pretty specific ways, and often rely on the operating system they are sold with for basic functionality, like power and heat management, screen display, network connectivity, etc. I'm not saying you can't come up with a Linux installation that would meet your needs, but it is always a bigger issue on a laptop than it is on a plain jane. So, especially if you've got any warranty coverage on the laptop, think carefully about how good an idea it is to be promoting yourself to system engineer, while you learn Linux...:-)

And you do have that tower machine in the closet...

If I were in your shoes, I might seriously think about digging that thing out for an afternoon, taking it where you could find a monitor, keyboard, etc. and putting a $15 wireless PCI NIC in it, for starters. Assuming it is otherwise a "plain jane," I'd then install Ubuntu on it, which will give you a pretty painless X installation, and a basic desktop system. Install SSH server, and give it a private IP you know, in the subnet range of your wireless network at home. Set it up for networking so it points at the private IP address of your wireless router at home, shut it down cleanly, and take it back and put it in the closet, headless, with no keyboard. Run an extension cord from the nearest AC outlet into the closet (neatly, of course, in respect of your SO's sensibilities). Fire it up. Close the closet door.

Over on the laptop, install Putty, and see if you can SSH into your closeted Linux plain jane. If that works (and there's no reason at all it shouldn't) you have shell access. If you want a desktop connection to your Linux box, look at Cygwin/X or other Window X client (actually X server, from the perspective of X, but...) Since your running over wireless, SSH into the box over X too.
posted by paulsc at 8:58 AM on February 8, 2006

You might want to check out Linux on Laptops for your specific model... they have links to individual sites that list the distrobution (and hopefully, the instructions) on how to get everything running smoothly.

I also recommend Ubuntu. I'm a relative newcomer to Linux, still using Windows but I've toyed around with Linux since 2000, and I was able to get it to recognize and configure an old Lucent/Orinoco PCMCIA wireless card out of the box.
posted by Jim T at 9:02 AM on February 8, 2006

eLive is the only distro I know with Enlightenment by default; lots of distros use KDE by default; in any distro, you can install a different desktop environment or window manager easily enough.

As for wireless, you won't find any distro for which everything just works out of the box all the time. Ubuntu Just Worked with a D-Link PCI card on one desktop machine; with my laptop, it recognized the card OK, but I had to edit /etc/network/interfaces by hand to be able to use it (and I still haven't researched how to get it to try to connect by Ethernet cable first and only look for a wireless connection if it can't.)

But for lots of hardware, there just aren't any free drivers. ndiswrapper works in a lot of those cases; I'm using it with a Linksys PCI card at home (still with Ubuntu -- it replaced the DLink card.)

So ditto the above... check for distro-specific hardware compatibility in advance; don't be afraid to try ndiswrapper again in cases where it's known to work. (I'm wasn't familiar with Linuxant -- it looks worth looking into, too.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:41 AM on February 8, 2006

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