Realtek - Random Technology Lament

Ugh, Realtek. They do like to produce a gazillion slightly different versions of stuff that another, more sensible, company would produce only one or two variants of. It certainly allows them to sell stuff cheap, and most of it is reliable enough, but it makes driver support a nightmare. If you buy your kit with the operating system and all the hardware pre-installed, that's all very well, because the PC manufacturer will have collected together all the correct drivers. As soon as you wipe-and-reinstall the system, or install a different operating system, all too often you're on your own, with RTL kit misbehaving.

It's entirely possible, or perhaps even likely, that a lot of RTL's driver fail is partly the fault of it's bulk customers, who contract Realtek to produce, en-masse, a particular spin of a component to fit a manufacturer's esoteric laptop case, or to merge two components into one to free up a motherboard slot; if that component can only ever have come from laptop XYZ and laptop XYZ is only ever sold with one variant of operating system that has the drivers pre-installed, there's little impoetus to put any effort in to making the drivers available to second-market users, from who they derrive no profit. But when you examine that argument, it is actually an argument for publishing the source code of those drivers so that the secondary market can create their own driver packages; after all, if it was a one-off bulk run that has had its bill already paid, there's no money to be lost.

It's that lack of effort that makes me... well, not angry, not even annoyed, just... disappointed. Whenever I see a Realtek component, I involuntarily let out a little sigh, my shoulders droop a little, and I can't help but wonder whether the world would be a better place if Realtek actually gave a damn.

Take for example the rather lovely MSI Wind U100 netbook, sold in the UK as the PC World Advent 4211. A good 4 years old now, Grandad (my dad; once you've got kids, it becomes easier to set a standard naming convention using your children's point of view as a base path) very kindly gave me his netbook as he retired from his professorship. A very easy netbook to upgrade; one cover with 7 screws exposes everything; a standard SATA 1.8" hard drive (swapped out for an SSD), an unpopulated spare SODIMM RAM slot (added another gig for a tenner) and a Mini PCI Express slot for the wifi. The Realtek RTL 8187SE wireless network card in that Mini PCI Express slot, whilst perfectly well behaved under MSI's OEM branded variant of Windows XP, was an absolute bugger under Ubuntu. Y'see, RTL had not released proper Linux drivers, and they aren't ever likely to - the 8187 having had a very short manufacturing run in a few netbooks and as a no-brand USB wireless adapter. The best the Free Software community could come up with, was some awful half-breed backwards-engineered kernel module, or NDISWRAPPER (basically, install the Windows driver under Linux - that works exactly as mediocre as you'd expect).

Unsurprisingly, this didn't work well. With the native Linux driver installed, every so often, it would lose wifi connection. With the NDISWRAPPER driver, if the netbook went into suspend or hibernate, then the wifi would become completely non-functional when it came back up. Take your pick of either horrid situation.

On the plus side, RTL kit is usually very, very easy to remove and replace. They do, at least, stick to connection standards. Teasing the antenna connectors off the RTL8187 was easy, pulling it out of its Mini PCI Express slot a breeze.

Picked up a second-hand Intel 4965 wifi card on eBay for under a fiver inc. delivery; and of course, being Intel, the drivers are not only easy to find, but open-source. So Ubuntu has native support for that. Initially, the netbook's BIOS did lose track of whether the wireless should be on or off by default, but cycling through the bluetooth-wifi-airplane-mode FN-F11 key a few times, followed by a reboot, soon convinced the BIOS that it really should leave the wifi on even after shutdown-and-power-on. Hey presto, suspend and hibernate work perfectly, and no more wifi dropouts. And no need to put any effort into installing a driver - it's Intel, it's open source, so the OS just found the driver and carried on its way.

It's just really annoying that Realtek are such a random company. You can never really be sure that their kit is going to work on anything other than the OEM setup you received it in. But, hey-ho, they are cheap, and they will do a bulk run of whatever an OEM wishes, to their exact specification. But be careful what you wish for - with RTL it's a case of getting exactly what the OEM wished for, and nothing more.

I do wonder what amazing things the free software community might have created, if we hadn't wasted quite so much time sorting out Realtek drivers.

Public Domain - Andrew Oakley - 2012-09-04

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