With prices of last-generation gear tumbling, I decided it was time - at long last - to upgrade my wireless network to WPA security. What I didn't bank on was software that tries to be too clever for its own good - and then lies to you when it gets it wrong.
Once upon a time, WLAN adapter drivers would include spaces for you to manually enter things such as the SSID and WEP key, plus the vendor would provide some kind of wizard to make the task a bit simpler for the uninitiated. Not any more.
Now you get basic drivers, plus some kind of overlay software or connection manager. It's the latter that holds all the necessary info, and while that's nice because it lets you easily define multiple network set-ups, the downside is that you ain't going anywhere without it.
So there I was, with two IBM Thinkpads running Windows 2000 Pro, two shiny new 108Mbit/s-capable Linksys Wi-Fi cards, and a CD-ROM.
Taking the first Thinkpad, I ran the CD, inserted the card, and the Linksys Monitor utility fired up - saying "Adapter is inactive". I tried the other card, and then the other Thinkpad, all with the same result.
Linksys tech support wondered first if it might be an IRQ problem. Well, maybe - except that the machine had previously had an 11b Wi-Fi card working quite happily in that slot and on that IRQ.
It was the second suggestion which, while wrong in detail, gave me the impetus to look in the right direction. "Try using Wireless Zero Configuration", they said.
The detail point was that Windows 2000 doesn't have WZC - it's an XP-only feature. But it set me thinking.
I was already pretty sure that the Monitor utility was lying to me. It said "Adapter is inactive" yet the Windows hardware manager said it was fine, and I could see the card's power LED flashing every 5 seconds as it scanned the airwaves.
So out of curiosity, I launched Netstumbler on this supposedly inactive card, and bingo - it detected networks!
The question now was how to tell it what SSID and security settings to use. The Linksys drivers were useless in this respect, but a quick Google seeking a WZC equivalent for Windows 2000 came up trumps, with an article (on how to get around the poor design and general kludginess of WZC, ironically) that mentioned a couple of alternatives.
One of these was a free connection manager from Boingo, the W-Fi roaming people. The article said it was intended to help subscribers connect to hotspots, but could also be used without a Boingo subscription.
To my surprise, it worked. Even better - and unlike the lying Linksys utility - it handled suspend mode properly, disconnecting when I closed the laptop and reconnecting when I opened it again. 10 out of 10 for Boingo.
But how much easier it would have been if I could have simply entered the necessary settings into the driver...