December 3, 2008

KNDISwrapper is half-done, but far from half-baked

Author: Bruce Byfield

If any process ever cried out for a graphical interface, it is using NDISwrapper to enable wireless devices to run on GNU/Linux using Windows drivers. The process is often torturous, especially for first-time users, who are unsure whether any problems are due to NDISwrapper's limitations or their own inexperience. By organizing and explaining the process, KNDISwrapper promises to remove much of the labor. But, so far, it only partly delivers on that promise by neglecting the hardest part of working with NDISwrapper -- finding the right Windows driver.

Now at version 0.3.6, KNDISwrapper is in rapid development. You can find packages for Mandriva and SUSE 10.3, and source code is also available. However, before installing, you also need at least the minimal libraries for KDE 3.5x, which requires installing a few extra megabytes if you are using KDE 4.x. In addition, you need NDISwrapper, which, depending on your distribution's policies about including free software that works with proprietary code, may require you to enable non-official repositories (on Fedora, for example, you need to set up the RPMFusion repository).

As KNDISwrapper opens, it offers you a chance to set your language, then detects whether you have loaded NDISwrapper into the kernel. If you haven't yet, it offers to do so for you. If you don't agree, there's not much point to continuing, except perhaps to poke through the program. Still, the fact that the program provides a confirmation dialog rather than automatically changing your system suggests that the developer at least has the right idea, especially since you can only run KNDISwrapper as root.

After NDISwrapper is enabled, KNDISwrapper opens on a well-organized window. On the left is a clearly written help pane, although its use of italics reduces readability. In the middle it displays current information or dialogs. On the right are function buttons, arranged in the order that you will want them.

An initial stumbling block

Almost immediately, you find that KNDISwrapper does not automate the first and hardest part of the process -- finding the driver that you need. The help pane does explain that you must look for a file with an .inf extension, and that the best place to find it is either on a Windows system or its installation files or CD, but this information won't help you much if you have no access to such things.

If you don't, this is a bad time to be hunting for Windows drivers -- though the developer of KNDISwrapper is not to blame. It used to be that you could identify your wireless device's card by running lspci, then using the first column entry for the device to determine the chipset via the third or fourth column of the results of lspci -n. Armed with this information, you could check the list of supported chipsets on the NDISwrapper site, so you could at least note what you are looking for.

Unfortunately, as I write, this list is unavailable as the Ndiswrapper project reorganizes its Web page. Instead, you need to find the Windows XP driver for your device and download it from the manufacturer's site. In most cases, it will be in the form of an executable compressed file, from which you can extract the necessary .inf file using most archive tools without decompressing the entire driver.

A fast comeback

Once you have a likely driver, KNDISwrapper makes everything simple. When you click the Install Driver button you can use your desktop file manager to navigate to your .inf file. Installation takes less than 20 seconds, and the driver appears in the middle pane, along with a notation about whether it is valid for the selected device.

The next three buttons below Install Driver imply an implicit acknowledgement of how hard finding the correct driver can be. You get a Remove Driver button, followed by Reload List, which gives you a second chance of trying the driver. Below that is the Restore Driver button, which re-installs a removed driver from the archived copy that KNDISwrapper keeps in the /.kndiswrapper folder of the /root directory.

When you're happy with the driver you've installed, clicking the Config Network button opens a dialog that you can use to configure your Internet connection and the default wireless connection. Some of the choices here may be beyond the knowledge of newer users, but the help pane provides a reasonable summary of the possible choices.

So far as it goes

For the parts of the process that it covers, KNDISwrapper offers one of the best graphical interfaces I've seen in an administrative utility. However, unless it can be more help with the difficulties of hunting down the driver, it will remain less useful than it could be.

Granted, helping track down the driver would require some well-organized code. Yet it should not be impossible for the program to help you detect the device and navigate to a Windows partition or CD. Granted, helping you find the manufacturer's site would require more research by the developers. And perhaps, too, the different versions of Windows XP and of drivers, to say nothing of the constant shifting of download pages on the Internet, might mean that the program could only make suggestions. Still, the effort might be worth a try.

By offering such assistance, KNDISwrapper could complete the process of simplification that it has already undertaken. Without it, KNDISwrapper is a good start, but only does half of what users actually need.


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