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Re: [GNU-linux-libre] Internal USB WiFi on laptops.

From: Christopher Waid
Subject: Re: [GNU-linux-libre] Internal USB WiFi on laptops.
Date: Wed, 02 Mar 2016 17:06:30 -0500

Many laptops do have mini-PCIe connectors internally.
Theses connectors also have pins for USB (D+ and D-).

On some laptops[2], the BIOS refuses to boot if the internal PCIe WiFi
card is not in its white-list[1].
Some laptop's BIOS[2] even go so far that they will refuse to boot if no
card found in the white-list is present.

In the case where the BIOS doesn't check for the presence of a card,
but still checks it against its white-list, using an USB card in a
mini-pcie form factor could work.

A wiki page on the elinux wiki[4] may suggest that it might exist.
Does ath9k_htc compatible WiFi cards exist in that format?

If so, shops selling RYF hardware such as ThinkPenguin and Tehnoetic
may be able to also sell it.

Internal cards have the advantage of not breaking easily during
External cards also have a dilemma where the user has to choose between
compactness and good range.

It's a great idea, but unfortunately no such designs/cards that exist with an ath9k-htc USB chipset already in the PCIE form and there is zero chance that one will exist. ath9k-htc is history at this point. The last run of cards to be manufactured is fast approaching. We'll hopefully get one last run in before the AR9271 chipset is discontinued. The other chipset supported by this ath9k-htc driver is the AR7010+AR9280.

That said it might be possible to simply combine our mini USB dongle with a USB half height mini PCIE card depending on the amount of space inside the machine to get around the problem.

Here is what such a USB half height card looks like:

Here is our mini USB wifi adapter with the AR9271 chipset:

At a minimum testing could be done to see how well this works. There are a number of factors which make it less than desirable or not workable including the size of the adapter, implementation of the BIOS white listing functionality, range, and potentially further reduction in range due to the laptop's enclosure.

I don't think we actually have any laptops with the DRM encumbered software and slot still in place to play with so I can't really test this easily conceptually. Otherwise I probably would.

This said I'm not entirely sure this is a great solution for those with a DRM encumbered BIOS. It's a hack that might barely be better than an external USB wifi dongle only in that it does eliminate the external obtrusion.

There is actually a better solution for some users that have one of these encumbered systems. While it doesn't work for newer systems (because the slot has been phased out) if you have a system with a 34MM or 54MM ExpressCard slot we're going to be stocking ath9k (not ath9k-htc) cards shortly. This should work around not being able to replace the internal card due to the BIOS white listing. At least I'm pretty sure it will. The ath9k PCIE chipsets are better than the ath9k-htc chipsets. I don't believe the white lists are implemented to check every PCIE/ExpressCard slot, but rather only the main mini PCIE card slot where the wifi card is expected in the systems where BIOS white listing exists.

[1]It usually does that by checking the PCI ids of the card.
[2]I've laptops fitting each of theses case:
   The Lenovo X60 default BIOS[3] only checks if the card is not in the
   Also, I was given a broken HP Envy laptop that refuses to boot when
   you remove its (Intel) WiFi card.
[3]Libreboot doesn't have such restrictions and is compatible with
   that machine.


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