Lesson for life, always do your research

Background story

When I bought my laptop, one of the things I realized was that the wi-fi was subpar. It has been dropping signals quite a bit as of late and the 5 GHz does not seem to be working at all. It is a Dell m4600 Precision and shipped with a Dell Wireless 1501, which seems to be far from satisfactory in performance. Apparently, the Dell forums have a few threads about this problem. Even the 2.4 GHz wi-fi has the tendency to drop.

My original (and very desktop-like) way of thinking was to buy just any wifi card and assume that it will fit. As it turns out there are actually at least two common standards. The Half Mini Card (HMC) and the M.2 (also known formerly as NGFF – Next Generation Form Factor). The HMC is the older form factor that was more commonly used previously and although there are adapters, the M.2 wi-fi cards would not fit. Anyways, you can find lists for manufacturers of wi-fi cards in places like WikiDev. Here is an example for Intel.

I then considered the alternatives. I did not know at the time that there were so many Intel 7260 wireless variants – I had thought there might be 3 or 4, but as it turns out it has undergone several revisions. My laptop is capable of 3×3 wi-fi output, something that the 7260 was not capable of, but right now I believe the Dell 1501, being a Broadcom BCM94313HMG2L, is only in 1×1 mode. After that, I looked up the possibilities. The Intel Centrino 6300 was the only Intel 3×3 capable Wifi, but no wireless AC support (they do have an M.2 9260 that is supposed to come out later with MU MIMO support), which is a disappointment. I settled on the Intel 7260 HMW, which has 2×2 support, wireless AC, and decent reviews. I decided that there had to be other vendors. Broadcom, Marvell, Qualcomm (which also owns the Killer line), and  Realtek also make their own wi-fi models.

After a lengthy search, I looked up the best version (I had been hoping for 802.11ac support, 3×3 support, and a wireless HMC card with good reviews), I was able to find the Broadcom BCM94360HMB, which is used commonly in the MacBook Pro and Asus X99 Rampage V. It seemed to have all I was looking for and especially 3×3 support. I then looked up where I could buy such a card and it turns out another company, AzureWare, a company I had never previously heard about sold such wireless cards. Anyways, they sold an implementation of the Broadcom model, known as the AzureWave AW-CB160H, which right now is the only 3×3 HMC Wireless AC at time of this writing (2016). Anyways, after more searching, I learned that this Broadcom/AzureWare might not be compatible without an adapter! The Broadcom cards ship with a different standard of antenna called MHF4 and the standard Intel is U.FL. A quick check of the Dell Wireless 1501 and the Intel 7260 HMW show that both had U.FL antennas.

Upon further research, adapters of course did exist, but there was one other nail in the coffin. The Broadcom wifi adapters are generally not considered reliable (see post 24). Not sure if this person is representative though, as you can find bad reviews of any products, but it would be a disappointment if that were true.

X99A XPower Wifi Comparison

A comparison of the Wifi cards of the different motherboards. These motherboards will ship with the same wifi cards that are currently available on modern laptops. Source eTeknix.

 

I decided to see if there were reviews and they suggested that the Broadcom is competitive.  In the pictures, the MSI X99A Godlike Carbon has the Killer E1535, the MSI X99A XPower has the Intel 7260, and the Asus X99 Rampage.  The Asus X99 Rampage (which has the Broadcom/AzureWare card) actually does pretty well, beating the competition at TCP. However, at UDP the Broadcom doesn’t do so well. I should mention that perhaps it is unfair to compare the E1535 to the Intel 7260, as it is a much newer wireless card, and the Intel 8265 would be a more fair comparison. However it is not theoretical performance that is the bottleneck here, but rather the big problem is drivers and that is where I decided against the Broadcom because of my previous experiences with Killer networking equipment.

For those who are unfamiliar with PC building, the Bigfoot Killer, although very heavily marketed, became notorious for its poor drivers due to unreliability and high CPU usage. Although it did theoretically better in many cases (as you can see the Killer 1535 is outperforming the Intel 7260), they have historically had driver problems. Since Qualcomm purchased Bigfoot and spun them off into Rivet, they have improved, but I want to give it a few generations before I make any efforts. A bit off topic, but for those who have Killer NICs, Whenever you check out the comments about any Rivet networks product, they are filled with stories about poor quality Killer networking software. Apparently according to one comment, Linux support is lacking as well for Killer hardware and I knew that Intel had good Linux support. For those with the misfortune of having Killer hardware, I highly recommend getting the driver only or the Qualcomm equal.

In the end, for the sake of compatible and stability, which are more important than performance, I opted for the Intel 7260 HMW to play it save and gave up 3×3 wifi streaming. The card is coming in a few weeks (I paid approximately $12 CAD or just under $10 USD) to have it shipped from Hong Kong. I had originally wanted to get something much faster, but it looks like it will not be possible and besides, the newer cards, like newer everything, tend to cost a lot more.

Summary of all features that I had to consider

I have to admit this has been a very illuminating experience.

  • Brand and reliability of drivers
  • Form factor (HMC vs M.2)
  • Streams (2×2 vs 3×3)
  • Features (availability of 802.11ac and MU MIMO support)
  • Antenna size (U.FL vs MHF4)
  • Benchmarks of real world speeds
  • Linux software support
  • Price

They say that they hardest part about buying a computer is researching the parts. I did not even fully realize what criteria I had to choose when purchasing a wireless card.

I had initially thought that a wireless  card would be a simple, inexpensive purchase and there was a universal compatibility like PCIe on desktops. It would be a simple matter of a little bit of research, purchase, then install the driver to enjoy smooth wifi performance. Little did I know that it would be about as complex as buying a CPU, where you have to consider many factors as well. It has been quite a learning experience.

Some lessons learned

Had I bought what I thought would be compatible, I would likely have purchased the Intel 8265, which has all the latest technology, 2×2 wireless, MU MIMO, and of course full compatible with past wireless systems. I would also have considered waiting for the 3×3 Intel 9260.

That would likely have been a costly, albeit educational learning experience. I did not know that there were so many factors to consider when purchasing a wireless card. Unlike in desktops, which were built for upgrades (since the whole wireless card is a PCIe slot card), wireless cards on laptops were much more restrictive in upgrade potential.

One reason why I had the ability to do all of this was that I had the technical skill to do it. Before I pursued a major in accounting, I took networking courses in high school and almost pursued the Cisco CCNA. Not everyone will have this level of technical knowledge and I think that yes, everyone wins if it becomes easier to build a computer.

I think that as a whole, perhaps there needs to be a way to make it easier for people to research what to upgrade. I suppose the reason why this is not more widely available is due to planned obsolescence. Manufacturers do not want people to upgrade existing hardware, but purchase new hardware. It is one reason why I opted to purchase a workstation notebook over the mainstream consumer notebooks or whatever is “hip”. Workstations are designed for intensive use, have better build quality, and were designed with upgrades in mind.

That is the thing about life though, there are always things that you did not consider or did not realize that you had to consider before you dive in. Just be careful in life and try to avoid expensive and time consuming mistakes.

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