My son’s desktop PC is a Haswell-vintage version of the excellent Dell XPS2720 touchscreen All-in-One. Mostly, it’s a solid, stable, and dependable machine. But in the last two weeks, the network connection — which comes through a Killer N1202 wireless 802.11n interface, there being no GbE access readily available in his bedroom — has gotten increasingly flaky. Last night, he told me he couldn’t get on the network at all, so while he was getting ready for bed, I launched into a little impromptu troubleshooting. In a clear-cut case of hubris, I thought to myself “How hard can this be?” And sure enough, it turned out to be pretty darn difficult.
The Symptoms and the Trouble
Each time I reboot the machine, the network comes up with the warning asterisk on the signal strength icon in the notification area. At first, I’m able to connect to our target home network (but the “View Connections” display shows far fewer local hotspots than usual; 2 instead of the usual screen full and more). But once the machine runs for two or three minutes, the network connection drops, and I’m unable to restore it without another reboot, and the same thing repeats ad nauseam.
At this point, I’m thinking “corrupt or failing driver,” so I start researching others reporting similar trouble. I find numerous posts on the community.dell.com servers from users running the N1202 on Windows 8.1 Update 1 and newer who are reporting similar symptoms, and even when Dell recommends uninstalling the current driver, then installing the latest version from the Qualcomm servers (the makers of the Killer N1202, having taken over the BigFoot operation a couple of years back), the problems aren’t always fixed.
First thing I try is the uninstall/install latest driver approach. The Killer N1202 works with a collection of software called the Killer Suite. It’s a Windows Store (Modern) UI app, and there’s no way to uninstall it through Programs and Features, nor does the program collection itself come with an uninstall utility. So I try out the newer version of that software (184.108.40.2063) to replace the current version (1.0.30…). That installer is smart enough to uninstall the old version before installing the new one, but that requires two reboots along the way: once after uninstalling the old version, and again after installing the new one. I grind through the process, then try to establish a network connection using the new driver. No joy, as so many other online users reported.
This is when things could get really interesting, in the sense of the famous Chinese curse (“may you live in interesting times”). But I don’t feel like a deep dive into driver troubleshooting, and the Dell Support Tech’s instructions to “restore to factory default settings” can’t work for me, because I’ve long since blown away that restore partition, en route to switching from a configuration with a small SSD acting as a cache for a large conventional HD, to a configuration with a 256 GB boot SSD, and using the 2GB HD solely as a data drive. If you want to see a pretty complete litany of troubleshooting approaches, check out this set of Microsoft Social Forums postings, with special attention to the sequence described by FelixLII on 4/27/2014.
Recalling the famous tale of the Gordian knot, I decide to adopt the “Alexandrine solution.” Because I keep a couple of cheapo, low-profile 802.11n USB NICs around (I picked them up from Newegg late last year for the entirely unimpressive price of $10 a pop), I simply installed one of them in one of the three unused USB3 ports on the back of the Dell unit. The OS immediately recognized the device, loaded the appropriate driver, and I was able to connect to my home’s WAP without difficulty. It’s hard to justify hours of extended troubleshooting when for $10 (which I can cheerfully confess is significantly lower than the value of an hour of my time) you can sidestep the issue completely and effectively. As an added bonus, overall performance is at least on par with the Killer NIC; better, if you factor in non-stop, ongoing operation without intermittent failures!
This approach — namely, blow off difficult troubleshooting with a balky peripheral, and replace said peripheral with a cheapo replacement — may not be viable in all situations, but it’s certainly something to bear in mind when replacement devices are inexpensive, easy to come by and install, and don’t impose much of a burden on the users who must live with the solution. If we were talking about a Surface Pro 3 with only a couple of USB3 ports on the tablet (and only 1 port into which the device will plug without a mini-USB to conventional-USB converter), it would be a totally different story. But for this story, I’m more than happy to accept this outcome and move on to other, more pressing problems. Wouldn’t you do the same, given those options?