Installing Wifi on a Pre-9/11 Laptop


I have acquired a brand new laptop. Actually, it's 10 years old, but at least it's better than my 15 year old laptop. The old one, with 64MiB of RAM, could barely run a graphical environment. This new one has 320MiB of RAM. It runs Xfce very well. But, it's still probably not good enough to run GNOME.

It's still too old to have built in wifi, though. I would assume that dialup Internet must have been more popular than wifi in 2000, because the laptop had a dialup modem. Fortunately, the modem was installed in a mini-PCI slot, rather than integrated into the motherboard. That meant that I could replace the modem with an internal wifi card. So, I bought a mini-PCI wifi card and two antennae.

First, I disassembled the computer. Dell has a very helpful guide on their website. It has plenty of pictures, also warnings about how I'm voiding my long-expired warranty.

Then, I taped the antennae to the palmrest. This isn't the best place for them, because of all the metal on the palmrest, but it shouldn't be too bad, since the metal is only on one side. It's the only place I can easily route the antennae to.

[Palmrest and antennae]
Fig. 1: Palmrest, with antennae attached

I had to cut and bend a piece of the metal, to make an opening for the antenna to go through, to get to the mini-PCI slot.

[Hole in the palmrest]
Fig. 2: Palmrest mutilation to accomodate antenna routing

Getting to the important parts of any laptop always seems to require removing the processor's heatsink. Since this was the first time it had been removed in 10 years, the thermal pad had hardened, and needed to be replaced. I used a silver based compound, which should be much more conductive than the crappy thermal pad Dell provided. I don't mean to complain, though. A crappy thermal pad should be plenty sufficient to dissipate the heat of a low-power laptop processor. Essentially, I'm putting high-octane fuel in a minivan.

The image below shows the heatsink after test-fitting. The fractalish designs in the thermal compound show that it was spread thickly enough onto the processor, and fully contacted the heatsink.

[Heatsink, processor, and goo]
Fig. 3: Heatsink with silver thermal compound

After that, I routed the antennae through the floppy drive compartment, behind the battery, and into the mini-PCI slot compartment.

[Antenna leads]
Fig. 4: Antennae, ready to be connected

I've heard that full-sized mini-PCI devices don't fit into Dell laptops, so I selected this wifi card for its small size.

[Wifi card with attached antennae]
Fig. 5: Wifi card installed

The wifi card works fine with a stock Linux 2.6.32 kernel. I can connect to my access point two floors below, so the reception is fine. However, it's not as good as my other current (external) wifi cards, as it doesn't see as many wireless networks. I attribute this to the metal in the palmrest, right by the antennae. Also, since my wrists are right next to the antennae while I'm typing, it might be suffering from the iPhone 4 effect. Still, it's very good.

[A few wireless networks available]
Fig. 6: Configuration

There's still one extra screw, though. I hope it isn't important.

Fig. 7: Extra screw