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2010.09.17 WEP vs WPA vs OMG! Just Let Me Connect, Already!

posted Sep 17, 2010, 10:39 AM by Troy Cheek   [ updated Sep 17, 2010, 12:20 PM ]
Not too long ago, I had a few days off because of a holiday.  I thought it would be a good time to go visit my girlfriend, Kitten.  Of course, her name isn't really Kitten.  It's just that if I don't refer to her as a small, cute, harmless, ball of fluff, she tries to claw my eyes out.

Kitten asked me to "bring the tools" as she wanted me to "fix the baby."  In the case, "the baby" is the notebook computer I loaned her several years ago.  It's an old eMachines notebook running Windows 2000.  As I recall, I bought the computer so I could do some vital computer work (okay, game and browse and write) while on the road.  Kitten had a lot of computer work to do for her job but didn't have access to a computer at work yet.  She had to borrow my notebook for a few weeks until she got her own work computer so she could work on some project.

I was looking forward to working on it as she hadn't let me see it since.  I suppose she was afraid that if she ever let me lay eyes on it, I'd want it back or something.  I didn't, of course.  By that time, I'd gone out an bought an Acer notebook with Windows Vista.  (I had been careful not to let Kitten see it.)  According to Kitten, "the baby" wasn't working.  She had decided that it was a problem with the power supply.  She said she could wiggle the cord and the light would come on, but it would go off as soon as she let go to actually try to use the computer.  I'd mailed her a new power supply, but she said that didn't fix it.  I brought a universal power supply, voltmeter, soldering iron, and a few other essential tools.

Kitten handed me "the baby."

"This isn't the notebook computer I lent you," I pointed out as I set it up.

"Oh, you're worse than Mom," Kitten complained.  "'We need a new name for the new laptop.  You can't call every computer we own the same name.  It gets confusing.  Blah!  Blah!  Blah!'"

"Okay, then," I said, after making sure all sharp objects were safely out of reach.  "Where did this Gateway notebook running... um...  Windows XP come from?"

"Oh, we bought that at a pawn shop."

"And the power supply isn't working?"

"What?  No!  The power supply works fine.  It's the one you sent me to try to fix the baby.  It didn't work, so we bought another one and used it on it.  It works fine but it doesn't work so we need you to fix it so we can use it before you fix it."

"Duh."  I think my eyes crossed at that point.  "Without using any more nicknames or pronouns, explain to me exactly what is wrong with this computer right here in front of me."

"Oh, I don't know the password."

After just a few minutes of questioning, not counting the time Kitten spent deriding me for actually drawing a diagram to try to keep track of which computer we were working on, I discovered that she had bought the Gateway at a pawn shop.  The Gateway had no power supply, but the power supply I'd mailed her to try to fix the eMachine had worked with the Gateway.  Everything was fine until about three months after purchase, when Windows XP started asking for a password upon loading.  Kitten had gone back to the pawn shop to ask for the password, but they'd told her "Oh, we didn't set a password.  You must have that virus that's going around.  We've got a guy who can fix that for you.  He charges $50."

Instead of paying $50, Kitten had instead decided to do without a notebook computer for a while.  It was a wise decision.  That should have worried me.

Windows XP has a few security glitches.  Of course, I hadn't used XP in a while.  I had to break out my Acer to search the Internet for those glitches.  To do that, I had to connect to the Internet.  The hotel we were staying at advertised free WiFi.  All the connections appeared to be secured.  This struck me as odd.  Given the signal strength, you pretty much had to be inside the hotel to use the wireless.  Anyone inside the hotel was already a guest.  Any guest could ask the front desk for the password.  Why secure something if the only people who knew the password were the only people who could connect, anyway?

After getting the password from the front desk, I set it as my WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) key.  I still couldn't connect.  I tried it as a WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) key. Still no go.  WPA2?  Nope.  I forget the exact security setting, but it was the very last one in the drop down list.  Only after connecting did my computer recognize and display that this was the security setting I should have been attempting all along.

No matter.  Once I got on the Internet, I was able to look up the XP security glitch I remembered and had the Gateway password changed in minutes.

"Thanks!  You're a genius!" gushed Kitten.  Thirty seconds later, it was "You idiot!  It doesn't work!"

"What's the problem?"

"I can't connect to the hotel wireless!"

"They have some weird security settings.  You can't just connect.  Didn't you notice it took me 15 minutes to get my computer connected?"

"Oh, I just thought you were tweaking it so nobody else could see your computer files or something."

I let Kitten use the Acer to check her email while I worked on the Gateway.  It took much less than 15 minutes to find the problem.  Apparently, Windows XP pre-dates the invention of whatever security setting the motel wireless was using.  The only option I had was WEP, which I knew wasn't going to work.  That sucked.  Kitten was going to want to borrow the Acer.

I remembered then that we had stayed at that hotel before.  Back then, WiFi wasn't the big thing it was now.  The hotel still advertised as providing free Internet, however.  Every room was wired with an ethernet connection.  A quick call to the front desk revealed that the clerk had no idea what an ethernet connection was.  She was young enough that I don't think she realized the Internet came through wires.  However, after moving the furniture around a bit, I found a port that looked about the right size.

Never go anywhere without a spare network cable.  I had the Gateway hooked up in no time.  The Gateway said it was connected, but couldn't actually find the Internet.  In fact, after fiddling with it a while, it seemed that the Gateway said it was connected as soon as a cable was connected to that port, regardless of whether the other end was plugged into something or not.  I suspected that the wired connection wasn't connected to anything on the other side, but borrowing back the Acer showed an instant connection.

Acer can connect but the Gateway can't?  Different network cards?  Different protocols?  Nope.  Different versions of Windows.  The Acer had Vista while the Gateway had XP.  I stared messing with the network and workgroup settings in XP.  It was particularly frustrating because every time I made a change, I had to reboot for it to take effect.  I suddenly remembered why I'd upgraded all the computers on my home network to Vista.  After about the millionth reboot, suddenly the Gateway realized it could talk to the Internet.

I checked for Windows Updates and found that there were about 300 pending updates, upgrades, service packs, and security fixes.  "Why haven't you installed any of these?"

"Oh, well, you know, viruses and stuff.  You told me not to just install anything that asked!"

"So, you decided it was okay to install so many toolbars and buddies and helpers that your Internet Explorer screen is about half the size it should be, but you haven't updated your virus scanner since you got this computer?"

"I have a virus scanner?"

It took about two hours, but I finally got most of the unneeded crap uninstalled and most of the Windows Update crap up to date.  I even got it fixed so that loading a single instance of Internet Explorer didn't overload the meager 512MB of RAM the Gateway had, meaning that she could surf the web without endless virtual memory disk thrashing.  I never did convince her to let me install Mozilla Firefox.  She'd seen it on my Acer and had decided she didn't like it.

I let her start using the Gateway, still connected to the Internet by wire as it was faster and didn't conk out every five minutes like the wireless did.  The momentary interruptions were messing up her Farmville game.

"It's not working again."

"What's the problem?"

"It's slowing down again.  See?"  Indeed, Internet Explorer was slow and the hard drive was thrashing again.  I saw that she had several copies of Internet Explorer running.  I also saw that her solution to IE running slowly was to load up more copies.  After a reboot, I showed her how Internet Explorer had the same multiple tab feature that Firefox did, meaning that she didn't have to run multiple copies to show multiple websites.  It turns out that the tabs were the reason she didn't like Firefox.  I then showed her how Internet Explorer had the same multiple window feature that Firefox did, meaning that she didn't have to run multiple copies to show multiple websites.  She was finally happy.

She was so happy, in fact, that next time I visit, she's going to let me fix the baby.  I assume she means the eMachines Windows 2000 notebook.

Or maybe she actually has a baby she hasn't told me about.