Ask Dan: Network nuisances

Publication date: 8 September 2008
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Is it normal for my PC to be this thin?

If one of the PCI wireless networking cards here doesn't fit our PC, can we return it?

Alternatively, do you know of a card that'll fit a Dell OptiPlex 745?


Only half-height expansion cards fit in the OptiPlex 745, or in any other "pizza box" sort of PC.

The actual circuit board in many modern network cards is more than small enough to fit in your PC; they seem to be heading for the "tongue depressor" form factor. But the standard metal slot-cover piece at the back of normal expansion cards is always 18 by 120mm, and won't fit slimline cases.

Some expansion cards come with a pair of slot-cover pieces, one standard sized and one smaller. That'd probably fit your computer. It would probably also be physically possible to remove the metal piece from a normal card and install the card without it, but then you wouldn't be able to secure it properly and it'd just be flapping in the breeze. If you bumped the antenna and dislodged the card, your computer would crash hard. Needless to say, the vendor from whom you bought the network card would be less than totally enthusiastic about refunding your money should this result in damage.

I suggest you try a USB Wi-Fi adapter instead. Dell USB ports used to be famously incompatible, but they've been pretty decent lately. A USB network adapter is, I think, about as likely to work on a recent Dell as it is to work on any other random PC.

Note that if it turns out that a USB network adapter doesn't work, though, the standard fix of adding a cheap USB controller card to your PC will not be available to you, again because of the half-height-cards issue.

(Slimline PCs are great if you have no desire whatsoever to install anything in them that didn't come with them in the first place. Any expansion capability they turn out to have should be treated as an unexpected bonus. I therefore do not recommend them unless you are extremely short of space; it's not as if a slimline PC with a given amount of hardware in it even consumes any less electricity than would the same hardware in a bigger box.)


Not responding to hails

I have a situation where an Acer laptop can't pick up the wireless LAN, but various Asus and Apple machines can. Is this D-Link 802.11G/N card likely to be better than the inbuilt Acer wireless network receiver? It doesn't seem to have the asymmetry of ExpressCards - it looks symmetrical, like a PCMCIA card. Any comment here?


In general, the Wi-Fi adapters built into laptops are very good. They usually have quite large antennas built into the screen assembly, and often even have two antennas, and use whichever one seems to be working better. So you'll seldom be able to get better results from an add-on card even if it's got an external rubber-ducky antenna.

I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule, though. Sometimes it'll just be a fractured wire in a built-in antenna, or even one of the tiny connectors having popped off. But there's no rule that says that laptop makers have to put good antennas in their products. Perhaps your Acer just has a lousy one.

In that case, a simple add-on card (or even a USB Wi-Fi adapter; you can Velcro those to the top of the screen for slightly better reception) may indeed solve your problems. Do not, however, take this to be any sort of guarantee!

If the laptop can accept a PCMCIA card, and you can scam an 802.11g one off a friend or pick it up on eBay for five bucks delivered, try that first. A USB adapter may be just as good.

If you can only get hold of an old 802.11b card, bear in mind that 11g isn't just faster, but also generally gives much better reception. I'm not sure whether 11n has a similar advantage over 11g.

Regarding the unusual shape of the ExpressCard Wi-Fi adapter - there are two ExpressCard form factors. This card is one of the smaller ExpressCard 34s, which lacks the distinctive L-shape of the ExpressCard 54.

This doesn't mean the card will necessarily work any worse. The antennas in Wi-Fi add-on cards of all sorts are generally minuscule, and nothing else in there has to take up much room.

(Chester got back to me - he decided to try a Wi-Fi range extender instead. That can solve these sorts of problems too, but it of course only improves reception in one area. If you're having trouble connecting in more than one location, you need something better plugged into the laptop, not into just one network.)


Also compliant with FTW, DNF and several other TLAs

Is this cheap network card Preboot Execution Environment (PXE) compliant?


Probably, but I wouldn't bet my life on it. This is also not an Official Answer From Aus PC Market, so don't go buying 157 of those cards under the impression that AusPC have just guaranteed that they'll work.

Those disclaimers aside, I think it's quite likely that even cheap Realtek 8139 cards like this one are OK for PXE today, probably without even having to put a new ROM on them, or do the old-style half-baked version of the same thing where the computer still has to boot from a floppy.

I'm only basing this on people on the Web who report that Windows Remote Installation Services (which is PXE-based) works for them with basic 8139 cards, though.

Find more info here and here.


x86 toaster sought

I'm looking to put together a small, low power, fanless, headless PC for a home Linux firewall/squid proxy server/network-attached-file-transfer server. It'll be on all the time.

Would this little Shuttle box be a good option? I guess I could look at an old laptop with a dead screen....


Yeah, a Small Form Factor Shuttle box, or indeed a laptop, would work. If a laptop's got one integrated Ethernet adapter and you add one more via PCMCIA (or even USB), you'd be in business. Adding a lot of storage could be a pain, though.

Another option, since you don't need a lot of processor horsepower, is Via's various EPIA products. Aus PC Market have a bunch of them. You can get the fanless ML8000AG, for instance, for only $AU159.50 including delivery (Australian shoppers can click here to order one!). Add one memory module, one boot device and one box to keep the thing in, and you're away.

The 800MHz CPU on the ML8000 is one of the slowest 800MHz CPUs ever made (it's not a lot faster than the 800MHz CPU I reviewed ages ago here), but it's more than fast enough for network appliance and home/small-business file-serving purposes, and it only draws a redline peak of about five watts of power.

The little EPIA/Eden boards don't have a lot of expandability - one memory slot, one PCI slot - but the ML8000AG has two PATA sockets on it already, so even if you use the PCI slot for another network adapter you can still get a few terabytes of storage onto it without using any USB drives.

And, if you want to get fancy, you could boot the system from a CompactFlash card in a CF-to-IDE adapter, like the one I reviewed a thousand years ago here. AusPC have a rather expensive one here; similar items are close to free on eBay these days. With a CompactFlash boot device, when the hard drives spun down the box would be almost completely silent.

You could probably even hack up an enclosure to get such a system to run without even a PSU fan, but personally I'd be fine with a one-fan system; thermally-controlled PSU fans generally last forever.

Pretty much any old PC would be able to do the same job, of course. If you can underclock the processor, you'll be able to run it cool and quiet.

If you decide to draft some old motherboard for the job, though, give it a careful looking over first. If you pick a PC from the heyday of the Great Counterfeit Capacitor Scandal, it's unlikely to be as reliable as you'd like a network appliance to be.

Australian shoppers can purchase all sorts of PC networking hardware from Aus PC Market.
Click here to order!