Dell laptops intermittently dropping internet connection: the case of 5 systems and 1 solution.

Recently, one of our clients, a business consultancy in Dublin, experienced a rather odd problem. Last week, they procured five new Dell Inspiron laptops for their team to replace some aging HP systems.

Upon delivery, we assisted them in installing software such as Office 365 along with their endpoint security software. Printer drivers and other ancillary software were also installed and configured.  After migrating data from their old systems, we then connected their shiny new systems to their wireless network (WLAN).

Wireless Teething Problems Emerge

However, less than twenty-four hours later, teething problems began to emerge. To our surprise, some of their users were already experiencing issues with their wireless network connection intermittently dropping.  For example, one of the users was trying to email a business proposal to a client when their wireless connection abruptly cut off. Whilst another user, when trying to upload data to a cloud server was greeted with a “page cannot be displayed” error message.    Understandably, this was very frustrating. And, it was not just one user affected, but all of them. This should not have been happening on brand new laptops.

Troubleshooting Wireless Connectivity

Troubleshooting an intermittent wireless problem like this necessitates a methodical approach. (A liberal dollop of experience and intuition can undoubtedly help too) Taking into account that their network had remained the same, we did not suspect any problems with their network infrastructure per se. After all, it worked great with their previous laptops. There was no obvious reason why the addition of new client devices (in this case laptops) should cause a problem. (Just in case, we tested the connection on our own laptops and it worked fine!)  The TCP/IP settings on all the laptops were configured in DHCP mode. This means they were getting an IP address automatically assigned by the modem-router. However, when pinging the modem-router, a 25% “packet loss” would sometimes occur. Pinging is like a small network connection test where you send a tiny “data packet” to the router to see if it can reach its destination intact. In this case, something was interrupting these packets causing the internet/network connection to drop. We were determined to find out the root cause of this.

We decided to use one of the Dell laptops as the test system. On it, the background “services” needed for WLAN networks were running. We disabled their endpoint security software. No effect. In rare cases, Bluetooth can even interrupt TCP/IP transmissions over wireless, so we disabled it. No effect. We then visited the drivers and downloads section of the Dell website to see if any driver updates were available for the Qualcomm 802.11ac WLAN card which the laptop was using. At last, a glimmer of light. We discovered that in December, for this particular model of laptop, Dell uploaded a new WLAN driver which they designated as “urgent”. So, the old WLAN drivers were uninstalled and the new drivers installed. The test system was rebooted. The internet worked for about 10 minutes until, alas, the connection just randomly timed-out again.

Going Deeper…

We would have to dig a little bit deeper to solve this problem. We deployed a sophisticated packet sniffer or tracer tool to pinpoint the root cause. A packet tracer is an application which forensically traces and logs data packets as enter or leave a computer. We installed it on your test system. Then just like David Attenborough studying wilderbeest on The Serengeti, we sat back and watched. Even when an operating system like Windows 10 is not in use, there will still be loads of network or data packet activity.  So, whilst observing packet activity, we had to look out for anomalies. Experience is key here because there will be a copious numbers of background processes running which have the potential to be just red-herring events. These are background data transmissions which look suspicious or anomalous, but are in fact perfectly legitimate. So, after around 30 minutes of observing packet transmissions through the GUI of our tracer, one application kept on appearing. This network-related application called “SmartByte” seemed to be quite active sending packets over the network. This was happening even when the computer was idle. A quick sleuth on Google revealed it to be non-essential bloatware.

Resolution

So, on our test system, we quickly uninstalled it via the Window’s 10 Control Panel. We rebooted the system. Internet browsing speed using Firefox seemed to have more pep straight away. After a further hour of testing, just to be sure, no packet loss was experienced and no more wireless internet drops. The SmartByte software was uninstalled from the other four laptops. Problem solved!

Comment    

Bloatware, or the practice of computer manufacturers pre-installing their own or third-party software onto Windows has been going on for years. Third-party software companies paying computer manufacturers to have their products pre-installed on operating systems means they can create awareness of their products with a captive audience. While this has always been more of an annoyance than anything else, in this case, bloatware caused a critical computer function, namely network and wireless connectivity, to fail. For an manufacturer like Dell, which relative to other brands take quality control seriously, allowing an application onto their systems which causes internet dropouts is a serious technical faux-pas. Not only does it waste the time of their own technical support staff, it also has the potential to frustrate their customers. We hope this blog post helps someone else who encounters the same problem!

RealClear are based in Dublin, Ireland and provide remote and on-site IT support service for Dublin. Our remote IT support service is delivered via TeamViewer (or equivalent) and covers the whole of Ireland is a safe, quick and painless way to get your Windows 10, Office 365, Apple (macOS) problems or software installation problems solved from the comfort of your home-office or business. Call us on 01 685 4833. We’re here to help.