Where to Buy USB Wi-Fi Adapters

I use Wi-Fi. I use USB. I use Linux. Why not all of them at once? That used to work. It stopped. Why? And what do I do about it?

A network interface card (NIC) or adapter depends on a chipset. Only a few chipsets work well with certain Linux distributions (distros), but most Wi-Fi adapters don’t. That would be okay, not great but at least okay, if finding adapters that worked was not difficult. I went through the offerings of Newegg and Amazon and various other online sources and bought a couple that were Linux-compatible, and they probably really were Linux-compatible. But both were too difficult for me to get to work with Linux. The instructions were not clear (possibly the authors were not fluent in English) and going online did not help. I probably would have to recompile the Linux kernel, a massive project that maybe takes an hour plus or minus each time and works for only one installation. I have a couple of machines, update with a new kernel every couple of weeks or so, and sometimes run Linux from live optical discs, so I’d have to recompile for each one of them and then do it again anytime I need a new distro, version, or kernel. I don’t have time for this. Those adapters are now in storage, useless for now.

My solution for the moment was at one retailer. I bought three adapters there, all the same model. Two are fine. One doesn’t work as it should. The price was okay and I only need one or two at a time, so the not-so-good third one is a tolerable expense for a sometime-spare (the retailer provided email support, pointing to possibilities of a USB controller issue that may require not using any adapter with an afflicted computer and a network application bug that may need an upstream patch).

The retailer explained that even a single model of adapter may have been made with different chipsets and that they stocked all the ones that were made with the compatible chipset, so that trying now to buy from a manufacturer may not be successful. That may be. I wasn’t successful.

By one explanation, Linux software developers rarely use USB Wi-Fi but many everyday consumers often use it and the result is that there’s not much pressure to increase compatibility from people who can and the everyday consumers are not being heard from much. At the same time, there may be intellectual property issues, because Linux drivers are needed and developing them may require access to intellectual property in chipsets, and that may be expensive and, even if not expensive but still be nonfree, Linux developers may be unwilling to pay and thereby encourage other sources to add to the expense of developing and using Linux through, e.g., license fees and royalties, which could reduce the cost-competitiveness of Linux against Microsoft Windows or reduce the ability to devote funds to other areas of Linux development. And part of the movement for free software is to reduce global poverty by increasing children’s access to the Internet and learning.

The retailer is ThinkPenguin. The model I bought is listed with a list of Linux distros and versions considered compatible and no driver has to be installed by the user. It was about $22 plus shipping (the price went up a lot since then). I recognize that most people in business tend to make arguments that favor buying from them and no one else, but the failures with other Linux-compatible adapters led to this choice and it worked out well for me, and the retailer seems to be right about the underlying issue.

A similar view was stated by a programmer, Will Haley.