June 9, 2008

Cracking Hotspots and Boosting Laptop Wi-Fi: Part 2
Miami Beach, United States

This is a continuation of part one.

Hunting for Laptop Wi-Fi Boost Options

Since a software solution for opening up a wireless access point wasn't easily presenting itself, I looked to the hardware side of things.

I've heard plenty about homemade antennas made out of Pringles cans and wardriving over the past few years—some get their jollies signal-hunting from a car—though news of both seem to have tapered out now that open Wi-Fi hotspots are becoming more prevalent. I knew that if I couldn't easily find a way open up the encryption of a wireless network, I'd need to increase the signal range of my laptop to see others that might not be protected.

I think that most people that travel with laptops find themselves asking how they can get better signal strength out of their wireless connections (or get a connection at all). Perhaps you're in a hotel or hostel that keeps their router in the lobby, and you're on the fourth floor. Perhaps the access point is at the end of a quarter-mile long hallway. Perhaps the concrete is so thick that the Wi-Fi radio waves have a problem penetrating your room from only a few meters away. Or perhaps your desired access point is across the street, or around the block—as is my case here in Miami.

I researched and sifted through the options. I was looking for something inexpensive to try and portable enough to keep should it work—it had to fit in my backpack and occupy as little weight and volume as possible.

There are all sorts of bogus range-extending devices on the market, but in my mind, an external antenna was what I really needed. Although a directional (focused) antenna would give better signal, an omnidirectional antenna would be best for me (since I wouldn't always know where the wireless signal was coming from).

PCMCIA compared to ExpressCard

Attaching the antenna to the laptop required some additional thought. My first inclination was to purchase a new Wi-Fi adapter that would plug into the PC card slot (and also provide a hookup to the external antenna). The problem with this is that my laptop only accepts the new ExpressCard 32/54 standard—a standard not backwards-compatible with the older PCMCIA variety. And not only are the PCMCIA cards the most prevalent on the market, but most every Wi-Fi adapter that uses ExpressCard is over the $100 mark. No thanks.

With the expansion card out, I turned to USB. Yes, there are loads of inexpensive wireless USB adapters out there, and a small handful even have the proper external antenna sockets needed, but none of them are currently compatible with the afore mentioned software for breaking WEP/WAP.

The thought of purchasing a USB adapter was even less appealing after I came across this Web site, which depicts an external antenna attaching directly to the wireless card inside a laptop. I knew I didn't have the space inside my system to permanently mount the socket, but figured it would be okay for testing purposes.

Inside my laptop

I also thought about replacing the Mini PCI wireless card in my laptop. I could get a better card for between $30-60 that would provide more power to the antennae and a chipset that would allow for WEP/WAP key auditing.

But first, I wanted to test the external antenna setup.

External Wi-Fi Antenna: Purchasing

I gathered an understanding of the equipment I'd need from various discussion forums, and started shopping. It turned out that eBay offered up better prices than any other retailer could give me, so I purchased my components there.

Items bought were a nine-decibel omnidirectional antenna and a short pigtail cable that turned the connection from the wireless card into one that the external antenna could connect to.

RP-SMA connections explained

The hardest part about this was ensuring the compatibility between the connection points. I was dealing with a rather confusing reverse polarity SMA coaxial cable connection that inverts the male/female contact pin (as typically related to its threading). Be careful when ordering.

Use these eBay searches if you're looking for similar (or the same) products:

External Wi-Fi Antenna: Results

I was finally able to test the setup out today, after waiting 12 long days for both USPS-mailed packages to arrive. All the pieces fit together perfectly, and appear to be of fine quality.

I connected everything together, added the external antenna to the main connection terminal on the wireless card, opened the window, and placed the antenna onto the wide concrete trim that wraps around each story of the building.

I excitedly hit the refresh button in the Windows wireless connection screen, hoping to see crazy gains in range and signal bars from the two nearby hotels offering free Wi-Fi.

…but what I saw on the screen instead was exquisitely anticlimactic. The beefy antenna hadn't given me the razzle-dazzle range increase I sought.

Yes, there are a few weak signals from networks that I couldn't detect with the laptop's built-in antennae (mostly weak echoes—radio waves bouncing off the concrete buildings), but even those that I could normally see didn't gain that much in signal strength.

Wireless card connections

I tried many positions, in many different parts of the hotel room. I climbed outside and onto the roof of the lobby (accessible from one of my windows), but still found no unsecured network. I tried all the connection permutations with the wireless card (main, aux, with and without the internal antenna connected), but there were no positive improvements.

To make matters more confusing, Windows (or my hardware) seems to juggle the wireless signal sampling by alternating between the main and aux antennas. This results in me picking up some signals with one refresh, and then none at all with a subsequent query (when the other internal connections aren't plugged in).

So… Mission failed. How depressing…

Comments:

Portugal

Jorge

March 1st, 2009

thanks for posting this. I didnt knew that PCMCIA cards were different from ExpressCards and I was about to buy 2 PCMCIA cards from Ebay. If I didnt read this I would buy them and later be disapointed. best regards Jorge (Portugal)

The United States

james

June 6th, 2009

why dont you try just using the antenna you made instead of both

Egypt

Craig | travelvice.com

June 8th, 2009

I tried all the connection permutations with the wireless card (main, aux, with and without the internal antenna connected), but there were no positive improvements.

The United States

Mattastic

August 11th, 2009

It's possible that your antenna is TOO large. In my investigation of this concept it seems that many people start to have negative effects beyond a certain point. You may want to consider making your own antenna, look into cantennas and helix and for omnidirectional: yagi antennas.

I never trust the quality of items for sale on ebay.

The United States

Wifi Guy

October 28th, 2009

In bi-directional wireless communications, remember that you have to have a fairly good balanced link between the laptop and hotspot. A good forward link connection (from Hotel to your house) and reverse link connection (from House to Hotel). If one link is stronger than the other, you may have problems communicating effectively. You may be showing up at the hotels hotspot, but your laptop is incapable of picking up a signal because the power level and low omni-directional antenna gain of the hotel's antenna, which is unable to reach you. It's important to remember this scenario.

Poland

Alex

August 9th, 2010

I found your post via Google. Thank You for useful information. I thought to buy some antenna, but as I see it does not help =(

The United Kingdom

simon ryback

August 3rd, 2011

erm… are you sure the manufacturer drivers installed?

I have had same issues with my laptop wireless and I purchased a extra strength antenna…tried many times but to no avail… and then finally someone directed me to different drivers for the card and voila …it worked for me.

The United Kingdom

Tracey Hammersmith

October 3rd, 2011

Really useful comments, I followed the above instructions and managed to get mine working. thank you!

The United Kingdom

Richard Lingard

October 19th, 2011

Thanks for this post, tried and tested the bi-directional method and worked for me, although could do with a stronger wireless card in laptop.

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