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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A button which creates nothing but trouble

I do tech support for family. Yes, it's something of a curse, but it's something I just have to do. Nobody else is going to do it or do it properly. Even though there are all sorts of weird bits of hardware all over the country and I had nothing to do with the acquisition, I still wind up helping out. The alternative would be to never hear from them again as they fall offline and remain so, and that's just not acceptable to me.

So imagine the latest report: someone was unable to get online. She hadn't been able to get online in quite some time. This is a machine on the other side of the country, so during one of my prior visits, I put some remote-access magic on it. It checks in every time it gets online and that time is logged.

I looked, and sure enough, it hadn't checked in for several days. Something was obviously wrong, and it wasn't just a perception issue. That box was definitely offline. I got on the phone and started asking questions. It was powered up and running Windows but it couldn't get out to the rest of the world. Chrome and friends were all complaining about the lack of connectivity.

I happened to remember about where the combination cable modem and gateway lived in that house, so I directed this person over there. As I listened to a description of a device which is unlike anything I've ever owned myself, it all sounded fine. Still, I requested one simple thing just in case it was localized to that box and not the laptop itself. Yep, I asked for a hard reboot of the box by yanking power, waiting, and restoring it. Nothing happened.

This was actually mildly useful since nothing changed on the laptop itself. You'd think that kicking the wireless access point offline would make Windows change states somehow, but nothing of the sort happened. The next step was to get down into the network control panel and start poking around at things. I don't have that particular flavor of Windows here, but some quick searching turned up a few screenshots. My thanks to people who put such things online. It's the only way to direct people when you can't see the screen yourself.

While poking around in here, it became evident that Windows wasn't seeing any wireless networks. There should have been at least one (the router we just rebooted), plus possibly a neighbor or two. Seeing nothing at all gave me an idea. Maybe that stupid hardware switch had been turned off. The question was: where did it live?

I asked for a description of the device: what sort of physical buttons, latches, and sliders are there besides the keyboard itself? This actually wasn't enough to localize the problem, but I did get lucky with a search using the model number and "wifi switch". This is what I found:

Wireless hardware power switch

Take a good look at this. There's a round button in the center which is pressed regularly to wake the machine up, put it to sleep, or turn it on and off. It just happens to be right next to another round button. This second button is smaller, but they are sufficiently close to where one might be confused for the other.

If you wear glasses or contacts, do you ever sometimes do things without wearing them? I suspect many people do, especially early in the morning or late at night. Now imagine reaching for that button, pushing it, and turning off your wireless adapter without realizing it. The next time you try to use the machine, nothing works, but as far as you know, nothing changed.

I took a guess and assumed that's what happened, so I asked about its color, and it sounded wrong. I asked what happens if it is pushed, and heard back that it had changed color. Then a whole bunch of stuff started changing on the screen (in the still-open network control panel), and unsurprisingly, it got back online.

That's all it was. A strange little button which basically exists to make life difficult for people. I only knew about the possibility of this switch existing because my own cheap Windows laptop has it as a slider on its front panel, right next to headphone and mic jacks. If not for that, I'm sure it never would have occurred to me.

My first laptop didn't have wireless. I had to add it with a little card. My current laptop is a Mac and doesn't have a switch to turn off the wireless. If I want to shut it down, I twiddle a setting on the top bar or dig around in the preferences.

Let's say there's a good reason to make this a hardware switch. Why put it right next to the power button? This is something which is only going to cause pain unless you really want to push it.

Of course, it wouldn't hurt if Windows could actually read the state of this switch and say something about it on the screen. Sure, the user would still have to see it and read it (good luck!) but it's better than nothing.