Hacking your WiFi Card

Give your old laptop new life with a little WiFi boost.

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Sometimes it's necessary to modify existing technology. Sometimes it can be done for fun. Computers have a long history of being modified. However, as computers, namely laptops, have gotten more compact, it's become increasingly harder to perform any sort of modifications or fixes on them without the help of professionals. And, as the price of such technology increases, so to does the fear of cracking one open to meddle with any of the parts inside. I am of the belief that we have a right to do whatever we choose with the products we buy as consumers. We should have the right, and the access, to the necessary information, to not only modify goods but also to fix them should something go wrong. In a world stricken with planned obsolescence and ever increasing technological advances, it may seem impossible at times to work on and modify the technology that makes up our everyday lives. But, with a little know-how and the right tools, anyone is capable of taking that power back into their own hands.

I recently had such a problem. I had purchased a used Macbook from Craigslist. It functioned perfectly for over a year, and then, one day, the WiFi started acting up. While traveling in Boston, I discovered that I could not connect to the wireless internet provided by the hotel in which we were staying. I tried every trick I could think of, but ultimately nothing worked. I came to the conclusion that my wireless card had malfunctioned and began looking around for a replacement. Once I returned home, the WiFi started working, but only in select locations. I noticed that if I was close to the wireless router (such as in my home), I could connect just fine, but if I was far away from it (such as in a hotel), it would just not connect. Thus, I came to the conclusion that it was not my wireless card but the internal WiFi antenna. This made sense. The laptop was used and probably had been opened and closed hundreds, if not thousands, of times, wearing out the cable antenna that runs from the card up around the LCD.

Luckily for me, I had modded the wireless antenna on a laptop before. Many years back, I had purchased an Asus EeePC online. It was meant to be a laptop specifically for my vehicle. Wardriving was a popular pastime amongst my classmates in college. I was never big on the idea, or savvy enough to attempt it, but I was still intrigued by the idea of getting free internet on the road. I found some EeePC mod tutorials online and set about adding an external antenna connection to my laptop. Once complete, I used an external antenna atop my car to "borrow" internet from McDonalds and Starbucks around the neighborhood. It worked great, but it wasn't long before the smartphone in my pocket made my rig obsolete.

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The Asus EeePC with an external antenna connection protruding out the side.

Using the knowledge I had gained while hacking the EeePC, I decided I would try this fix on my Macbook before buying a new wireless card. Again, using some awesome tutorials I found on ifixit.com, I was able to easily take apart the computer and begin my hack. Using my trusty Dremel, I very carefully chiseled out a slot for my external antenna connection. I then used one of SparkFun's U.FL to RP-SMA connectors to replace one of the internal antenna connections. Finishing it up with some Sugru made for a sleek looking protrusion on my Mac.

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As you can see, there was little room inside the laptop for the connector, so the only choice was to have it live on the outside of the laptop.

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The modded Macbook. I had to form the Sugru just right so the power plug would fit in place

Once the Sugru had dried, I put everything back together to make sure the laptop still worked. Then, I attached one of our 2.4GHz duck antennas to the RP-SMA connector. I noticed an increased range in my WiFi right away. I took it to some other locations I had previously had trouble getting a connection, and, with my new mod, the laptop had no issues connecting whatsoever.

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The final mod has been in place for several months now. I was worried about it sticking out too far and breaking off, but the Sugru has proven to be very resilient, even when my laptop gets shuttled around in my bag. As you can see, bringing some new life to older products just takes a little ingenuity, some searching, and the right tools.

Comments 13 comments

  • Melt-O-Tronic / about 11 years ago / 3

    Bravo! Why didn't I think of that??? This is a truly useful tip!

  • diz / about 11 years ago / 2

    Nice hack, but it's FAR from "sleek looking".

  • Spokehedz / about 11 years ago / 2

    Most laptops have a crappy patch/fractal antenna behind the LCD. This sucks for two reasons. 1. The antenna wire is LONG and the signals degrade unless you have high quality shielding. and 2. They use the thinnest wire with the worst shielding ever. Honestly I am amazed that WiFi works at all... Your antenna wire looks LIGHT YEARS ahead of the thin stuff that Apple used. I would not be suprised if the wire helped more to boost the signal than the external antenna did.

    Good looking Mod though. Now, be a good boy and mod the other side in so you can have the diversity antennas again.

  • Earlz / about 11 years ago / 2

    @RyeMac Maybe he's like me an never really sells his computers later. I still have my first computer from 2002. I have yet to sell any of my computers. The closest thing to it I've done is give away 3 computers(which I had received for free at some earlier point) because I didn't want to deal with it when moving across the country

    • scharkalvin / about 11 years ago / 1

      I haven't ever sold any of my old computers either .... I give them away. I usually donate outdated (for me) computers on freecycle after wiping the HD clean and installing the latest flavor of 'buntu. (If I have a LEGAL copy of widowdoze that works on the machine I will re-install that). I'm in the process right now of burning in a cleanup on my old R60 thinkpad to donate to a needy teenager.

  • Member #846990 / about 8 years ago / 1

    hmmmmmm sounds good i will try to apply these to boost my <a href="http://www.acom.pk/laptop.html">Laptop</a> wifi speed. My Laptop is Elitebook and the wifi card mostly hangs may be when its heat up then it do such malfunctioning. But now i will try that to boost it.

  • Member #528941 / about 10 years ago / 1

    Wow. I found the u.fl to rp-sma adapter for $1 shipped on ebay. I am totally going to try this! Thank you for posting this! Literally going to cost me $1 to increase my internal wifi signal significantly. I used to have to use an external dongle to get good reception...not anymore! This will also be amazing for pen-testing, as it's hard to get wifi dongles to work for these purpouses.

  • JakeR / about 11 years ago / 1

    Now all you need is a 2.4GHz yagi antenna and you can grab Starbucks's free internet without leaving the expressway.

    Also, I'm assume "increasingly harder" means that it is not only becoming harder or increasingly hard but both. Thus it is becoming harder not linearly as harder would suppose, but actually quadratically. I can buy that.

  • Far_Seeker / about 11 years ago / 1

    Perhaps it's just me but, I would change one word of the following sentence in order to unequivocally agree with it.

    I am of the belief that we have a right to do whatever we choose with the products we buy as consumers.

    I'd change it to read as follows

    I am of the belief that we have a right to do whatever we choose to the products we buy as consumers.

    This is because there are a lot of things you could do with a product that most people would agree you don't normally have any right to do, for instance bashing a random stranger over the head with it. ;)

    • I think he meant it exactly like he wrote it. He's always walking around flinging sticks of old RAM into the wall like ninja stars.

  • RyeMAC3 / about 11 years ago * / 1

    Me personally, I've never been a big fan of non-reversible hacks. What if you wanted to sell it later on. A non-reversible hack might lower the resale value. In any case, 50 points for the cool use of ingenuity!

    • Joel_E_B / about 11 years ago / 2

      Yes, the resale value is reduced considerably with a mod such as this, but Earlz is correct in his assumption. Considering this one was used when I purchased it, I don't intend on selling it anytime soon if ever.

      • Karl Bielefeldt / about 11 years ago / 2

        Maybe the resale value is reduced from the original model with a working internal antenna, but I doubt it's reduced compared to one with a broken antenna.

        Anyway, people in our line of work tend to run our laptops into the ground, because we can work around individual component failures. In college I ran a laptop off of a Linux live CD for months, because I couldn't afford to replace a busted hard drive.

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