Thinkpad Wireless Headaches

Last year I obtained a new Lenovo x201i laptop to replace my aging Libretto – it’s been going pretty well, with one glaring exception – thanks to the “Thinkpad Wireless” 802.11n wifi card.

Lenovo sell their laptops with several wifi options – I didn’t do my research into the differences at the time and went for the default – turns out that “Thinkpad Wireless” is actually an Realtek RTL8192SE card.

This card has wonderful features like:

  • Unreliable and out-of-upstream Linux drivers – I find that currently I can only use version linux_2.6.0018.1025.2010, any other version introduces even more extreme unreliability.
  • Inability to stay reliability connected at 40Mhz band when available, instead jumping between 20Mhz and 40Mhz frequently.
  • When connected to an Apple Airport wireless access point, it will like to randomly drop the connection and re-connect every hour or so.
  • When connected to an Engenius wireless access point, it will work fine for 90% of traffic – but inexplicably, drops packets to just a select number of websites.
  • When connected to a Mikrotik R52 access point, it will work fine sometimes, but at other times suffers latency on all traffic types of around 5,000milliseconds (that’s 5 seconds for a packet return trip!)

I use my laptop a lot – pretty much 12 hours+ a day, at work, at home and on the go and have had nothing but problems with this wireless card on access points wherever I go, so I know it’s not AP, or even interference, specific.

So I made the decision to replace the card with something decent, ordering myself an Intel 633ANHMW mini-pcie card – low profile to fit into the laptop easily, and with support for 802.11n in both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz ranges .

I had *hoped* to get this card to not only resolve my reliability issues, but also to provide more performance and to allow me to move my wifi network to 5Ghz to get around frequency clashes at the flat.

Except that I can’t – Lenovo have locked the BIOS on these laptops, so that only official Lenovo cards are permitted to be used.

I couldn’t even *boot* the laptop without removing the card – even disabling the card in the BIOS will still throw up the same “Error 1802 : unauthorized network card is plugged in – Power off and remove the miniPCI network card” error. :-(

Turns out that this is a long known issue with IBM’s (and now Lenovo’s) laptop series – many different workarounds have been developed for it:

  • Linux-based C application to change a bit in the BIOS to disable the check – sadly, doesn’t work on the X201i.
  • Taping over pin 20 and installing into the WWAN slot – unfortunately I’m using the slot already for the WWAN card, so no good to me.
  • Patching the BIOS with a hex editor to disable the whitelist.

That last one should work even for me – there’s annacdotial evidence floating around online suggesting it’s possible…

But it’s too risky – this is a work laptop, I can’t afford to be without it, and bricking the BIOS by making a mistake will leave me with a very expensive repair bill.

I ended up ranting about the issue on Twitter and @Lenovo_ANZ send me a message asking for more information about the problem – this has lead to an email conversation with them, but I’m not too optimistic about a large company being able to change their policies based on customer feedback.

All I know is, I’d be very, very, weary about buying anything made by Lenovo ever again – if I’m going to get locked down unchangable hardware, I might as well consider other vendors making shinier equipment, or go for someone like Dell who don’t seem to lock the wifi cards.

Pretty unhappy with it right now…. only options left seem either to buy a vastly over priced Lenovo branded Intel card, or go with an Expresscard device, such as an Ubiquiti SR71-X.

Will update this page with where I get to with Lenovo, if I don’t demolish my laptop in frustration first.

4 thoughts on “Thinkpad Wireless Headaches

  1. Kyhwana

    I’ve still got that 2.4ghz N intel card out of my friends Lenovo, if you want, we can bring it down with us to Wellington. Otherwise grab a 5ghz intel N one off ebay?

    1. Jethro Carr Post author

      That would be great – I’m a little wary of buying any more cards of ebay ATM – I the one I brought was Intel, but isn’t permitted, so I’m assuming it means I need to find a specific Lenovo card for that model laptop. :-/

  2. sameissues

    Hey, I’m running into a similar problem with my wireless. It’s dropping packets to the router, and losing the connection. Just started happening out of nowhere.

    I was about to go pick up a new wireless card from Fry’s on the way home from work, but your post gives me pause. What’d you end up doing?


    1. Jethro Carr Post author

      Didn’t come up with a good solution for the wifi card, I ended up acquiring a wifi card out of another Lenovo laptop which was accepted by the BIOS checks, but sadly wasn’t the card that I really wanted. :-(


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