Monday, 20 June 2011

Upgrading the Wireless LAN on a Vaio

Just recently, I upgraded my internet connection to 100mbps, but I found I wasn't getting the full speed over wireless.  I was downloading at around 80mbps max despite the fact both my wireless card in the laptop, and the modem/router itself are both wireless N devices and connected at a supposed 300mbps.

Surely if it's connecting at 300mbps, and is in the same room, it should reach 100mbps download no problem, right?

That's what I thought too.  I decided to look into it, and it turns out that this is just the way wireless is.  There are a number of reasons for this and I don't know them all, but I'll offer some suggestions as to why.  The first thing that I found is because wireless is effectively half duple - that means it cannot transmit and recieve at the same time, so that halves your bandwith to 150mbps right there.  The next big one is the CPU in the router itself.  Right now they are operating at around ~500MHz and it has to deal with everything from routing to encryption.  Another thing that will have an effect on quoted speeds are retransmissions due to transmission errors.

The theoretical quoted output of 300mbps is something you never see in real world situations, and in fact, you are lucky if you get 1/3 of that.  Just take a look at this chart.  Not even the fastest dual band wireless N device breaks 90mbps, so where does that leave me?

Well fortunately there are wireless N devices starting to come out that offer higher bandwidths up to 450mbps (which I'll take to mean a real world maximum of 150mbps if my previous experiences are anything to go by).  It is much the same as the current 300mbps wireless N, but where the 300mbps variant of wireless N uses 2 antennas (known as dual/two band/stream), 450mbps uses 3 antennas.  However as you might expect, it's not simply a case of buying a three stream router and expecting it to work.  You need a wireless card with three antennas too.

That presents me with a little problem.  Swapping a two stream wireless card like for like is easy.  Just take the back cover off, remove the old card, install the new card and connect the antennas.  However if I want to upgrade the wireless in my laptop to three stream, not only do I have to take the back off to install the card, I also have to remove the media keys, keyboard, LCD assembly and eventually the LCD panel itself to install the new antenna, since they are installed behind the display.  This was an ambitious upgrade, and essentially entailed a complete teardown of my laptop.

This guide details the process of upgrading a Vaio F12 (but should also work for F11 and F13 models) from the stock wireless card (in this case a dual stream 300mbps Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6200) to a three stream 450mbps Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300.  If you are simply swapping a dual stream (2 antenna) card for another dual stream card, you may still find this guide of use.

Please note that this upgrade may not be an option for some laptops.  Some manufacturers (eg. HP) lock the BIOS to only recognise certain brands and model numbers of wireless cards and will reject upgrades.  Even if this isn't the case, there is always the possibility that there will not be enough room in your case, cable path or behind the display to install the extra antenna.  Proceed at your own risk.

The Upgrade Process
Replacing the wireless card is easy, but the difficult part is installing the new antenna.  Do not proceed if you are uncomfortable with taking your LCD apart.

Make sure that you have earthed yourself and that you are not wearing any clothing that generates static electricity.

Things you will need:
  • A PZ0 Screwdriver.  Must have a thin shaft to fit inside the recessed holes.
  • Something thin and flat to push tabs in (eg a flat screwdriver).
  • A knife or something sharp to remove LCD screw covers.
  • Some sticky tape (not required on the Vaio if you use the original sticky tabs).
  • The service manual or a laptop with this website for more detailed information.
  • A three stream wireless card (eg Intel Ultimate-N 6300).
  • An extra antenna.
  • Drivers for your wireless card.
  • A backup of your drive just in case.
The service manual is for the Vaio VPCF1 series, which appears to cover the F11, F12 and F13.  It contains exploded views and part numbers, so it's worth keeping just in case.
Drivers should be downloaded before hand unless you plan to connect via ethernet.

Please refer to this website for detailed images on opening the laptop.  It's fairly simple, so I shall just talk through the process.  Refer to this other website for details on removing the LCD later.

Installing the Wireless Card
1) Before you start doing anything to your laptop, create a system image and restore disk Windows backup and restore.  This can be found in Start > Control Panel > Backup and restore.

2) Next go into the device manager and uninstall the old wireless card.  You can get to this by right clicking the Computer icon and selecting Properties.  In Windows 7, there is a link to Device manager in the top left of the window.  Alternatively you can press the Windows key and type device manager in the search box.

Expand Network adapters, right click your wireless card and choose Uninstall.  When the next prompt is shown and it asks if you would like to delete the driver, select yes if you are installing a wireless card that is a different model or brand, or no if the wireless card uses a unified driver (for example, the Intel Advanced-N 6200 and Ultimate-N 6300 use the same driver).

3) Shut down, then remove the power cable and disconnect the battery.  I waited a few minutes with the battery out, and then held the power button in for about 10 seconds to drain any remaining power.

4) Now remove the DVD/Bluray drive.  This is secured by two screws, one in the top left near the power button, and one to the left of the RAM cover.  These have 3 small dots above the hole.

5) Proceed to remove the HDD.  Looking at the HDD cover, there are two screws at the bottom, remove these.  Again these have 2 small dots above the hole.  Once you have removed those screws, gently slide the door toward you to reveal the HDD.  Remove the two screws at the top securing the HDD and slide it left.  Once it is free from the connector, lift it out.

6) Remove the RAM cover.  The screw that secures the RAM cover does not actually come out as there is a retaining clip under it.  What you have to do here is unscrew the door as best you can and then lift it up from the screw side (you should be able to slide a nail under it).

Back in the lab.  Removing the HDD, BD and memory cover before removing the back cover

7) Remove the remaining screws from the back cover.  I placed them on a table in the same position that I removed them from the laptop, but it would be better to draw a quick diagram to save confusion.

8) Now to remove the back cover.  This was tricky at first as I wasn't sure what to expect.  The bottom 1/3 of the cover felt as though it was still secured by something.  I thought that maybe there were screws under the rubber pads but that wasn't the case.

Joe Bleau suggests working from the HDD side and carefully sliding the cover.  When I tried this it felt like it wasn't working (perhaps I was doing it wrong), so the method I used was to start from the opposite end and run my fingernail down the front of the case carefully forcing it apart, working from right to left.  I stopped just as I got to the HDD bay and lifted the case at the right hand end a little which also seemed to lift some of the PCB with it.  With the PCB clear of the lower half of the case, I was able to slide it right (as suggested) and get the back cover off.

I suggest going with the original instruction of Joe's of , "Starting from the hard drive bay side, slide the cover, shake & bake with care & patience & remove the cover."

Patience is definitely the key here.  Fortunately getting the case back on is rather easy.

9) You should be able to see the wireless card easily.  It's just to the left of the RAM and up a little.  Remove the screws securing it and slide it left to remove it.  Carefully turn it over and make a note of which antenna is connected to which port on the board.  The Intel boards are numbered.  It might not even matter which port you connect the antennas to, but if you can connect them to the same numbers, you might as well, right?

Wireless LAN card with the two antennas under it

10) Disconnect the antennas from the original wireless card and then connect them to the new one.  It's a very tight connection and you will find you have to apply a lot of pressure, so just be careful.  Once they have snapped on to the new card, slide it into the slot carefully.

11) Work back from step 8 to reassemble the laptop.  Put the back cover on and install all the drives and screws you took out so it is in original condition.

12) Power on and install the driver/software for your wireless card to ensure it works and is accepted by your laptop.  There is no point going to the trouble of installing a new antenna if the laptop BIOS is set to refuse other brands or models of wireless card after all.

If you are using a wireless card that uses a unified driver (like my upgrade from an Intel 6200 to 6300) and you chose not to delete the driver when you uninstalled it earlier, Windows will detect the card and install the driver automatically.  All that was left for me to do in my case was to enter my wireless password and  set my static IP settings.

If you were upgrading an old two stream card to a newer two stream card, this is all you need to do up to this point.  All further instructions will relate to installing a third antenna for three stream cards.

Installing Another Antenna
1) Power down the laptop and remove the battery and AC adapter.  Hold the power button in for around 5 seconds to drain any remaining power.

2) Flip the laptop over and remove the screws show below.  You do not need to remove any drives for this part of the install, just the battery (for safety, but there are some screws under that which we need to remove).  Removing these will allow us to remove the keyboard, media keys/speaker cover and eventually the LCD assembly.

There are two screws under the battery that you need to get.

3) Turn the laptop back over and open the LCD in the normal positon for use.  Starting with the media keys/speaker cover, start from the side nearest the power switch on the right.  Using a sharp object or your fingernails, push it in and gently lift upward.  Do the same to the left hand side, then run your fingernails across the front of the speaker cover to push in the rest of the tabs.  Carefully lift it upwards once it is free.  You may need to move it around a little or angle the LCD to get it free.

Speaker cover removed.  Excuse the dust, it gets everywhere once you've had the back cover off.

4) Now to remove the keyboard.  Carefully lift up one corner for example near the escape key, then insert your thumbnail and work toward the bottom of the keyboard.  You should feel the tabs pop out.  Do the same for the opposite side.  Carefully lift the keyboard up slightly, and pull it towards the LCD at the same time.  You should feel it pop free of the chassis, but be careful not to damage the connector.  Turn the keyboard over so it is resting on the palm rest.

Now would have been a great time to install a sexy backlit keyboard.  Why do I never think of these things ahead of time?

5) Next we have to remove the media keys as the wifi antennas are actually routed underneath them.  Just remove the three wide screws and unclip the power button connector on the right.  This will give us enough space to move the media keys out of the way so we can lay the new antenna cable.

6) Now remove the screws securing the speakers.  Do not worry if your right speaker only appears to have one screw, this is because it is secured from the other side with the screws that hold the back cover in place.  Fold the speakers inward so they are resting face down.  This will give you access to the LCD hinge screws, but we will come to that later.

7) Now that you have the speakers and media keys out of the way, you should be able to disconnect the wireless antennas and the LCD cables.  The LCD cables are on the left.  The leftmost cable should be pulled upwards gently, and the two smaller cables should slide towards the LCD itself.  It's a really fiddly job and you may find it easier if you pull the cable out of it's trench first.  Moving over to the wireless antennas, this is equally fiddly.  I found it easier to ease them out with a sharp object, or if you want to be careful, whip the back cover off and disconnect them there.  If in doubt, knife them out.

These are the only cables you really need to bother removing

8) With the LCD and antenna cables free, you can now seperate the LCD from the base of the laptop.  If you haven't already, move the speakers aside and that will reveal the hinge screws, 2 on the left and 2 on the right.  They are really long screws and tougher than the others to remove.  Be sure to support the weight of the LCD assembly with your other hand while unscrewing the hinges.  Get someone to help is possible, or use a magnetic screwdriver to make life a little easier.  Once that is done, you should be able to pull the display free from the base.

This is how the iPad was born, when Mr. Jobs thought, "Hey, let's take a laptop and remove everything good about it".  Probably.

9) Now it's time to work on removing the bezel (that's the surrounding of the LCD).  It is very flimsy, so be careful at all times.  First take a sharp object for example a knife and prise out the screw covers.  There are 4 in total, two square covers at the bottom left and bottom right, and 2 round covers in the top left and top right.  Once those are out, remove the screws and place them somewhere safe.

Now work on unsnapping the bezel.  It is held in place by a number of tabs.  I suggest working it from the top left or top right where the round screw covers were and push it apart with your fingernail.  Once you have got a bit of a gap started, go around the bezel unhooking the tabs by pressing inward with a little pressure.  This is a long and frustrating job and is largely trial and error.  Just take your time and be careful not to apply pressure to the LCD itself or scratch it.  I had the most trouble unsnapping the lower half of the panel, in part thanks to the hinges.  It's a similar story with the removal.  Once you have everything unsnapped, pull the bezel toward you (if the hinges are facing away from you) and gently wriggle it free.  This is not an exact science, but you can rest easy knowing that putting the bezel back on is about the easiest part of this whole upgrade process.

10) Now the bezel has been removed, it's almost time to install the new antenna, but first we have to unscrew the LCD panel so we can get behind it to install the new antenna.  Just remove the four screws from the bracket securing the panel to the back of the case (two on the bottom left and two on the bottom right).  When it comes to reinstalling these screws, just look for the arrows pointing to the holes in case you forget where they came from.  You may also use this chance to disconnect the LCD from the inverter so you can completely remove it from the case, which would make life nice and easy, but I chose to leave it connected as the cable was slack enough to give me a enough space to work with.

The hinges seemed more trouble than they are worth to remove, but the new cable just pushes in from the side.

11) With the panel removed (or propped up on a roll of tape in my case), we can go about laying the new antenna cable.  We will concentrate on the connector end because we don't want too much slack cable in the laptop itself - slack cable is easier to store in the LCD as there is much more space.  Align the ends of the connectors according to the mounting position on the wireless board, for example the third antenna connector on my Intel 6300, is between the first and second, so the connector for the third antenna needs to be somewhere between the existing cables in length.

Once you have the connectors aligned as you want, push the remaining cable into the side of the hinge and follow the existing cables to see how it's routed.  This sounds like a pretty vague instruction, but once you see the hinge for yourself, you will know exactly what to do.  This method will be pretty easy if you have removed the panel totally, but if like me you was lazy, you might find it easier to run the whole cable under the panel first, route it through the hinge and then pull it through to suit the required length.  This part is mostly trial and error.

You may notice something that look like tabs.  These are very sticky, and if you pull them up carefully, you can run the new antenna cable under them with the existing ones to keep it nice and tidy.  If you don't have such tabs, normal sticky tape will probably do the job.

Be careful when lifting these tabs.  They are so sticky that they might tear.

12) Once you have your cable routed, it's time to stick the antenna on.  The suggestion is to place antennas at least 12cm apart.  I placed mine somewhere in the middle as it allowed me to get a decent distance from the existing antennas as well as not getting too close to the LCD inverter.  Unfortunately the cable is quite stiff and very curly so the finished result looks kind of rushed.  I tried to route it on the inside of the other cables but it didn't quite work out.  It probably would have been better to go to the right of the cables instead.

Rest your LCD panel in it's mounting position to make sure it fits flush and isn't affected by the new antenna (eg it's not resting on it).

Avoiding a cable crossover was next to impossible thanks to how short the cable for the antenna on the right is.

13) Work back from step 10 to get your laptop back into normal working order.  Pay particular attention at step 7 when reconnecting the cables associated with the panel (LCD cables and wireless antennas).  You may find that it's a bit of a tight fit when putting the antenna cables back into their trench due to the fact you have an extra one.  I was able to get around this by pushing them into the clips with a screwdriver.  Once you have worked your way back through all the steps, power on and enjoy your new speed, but remember that you need a three stream router if you don't already have one.

Not a bad job in the end.

Special thanks once again to Joe (check his website here) for his help.  Without his guide and the excellent links he gave me, I doubt I would have had the confidence to attempt this upgrade.


  1. does it have to go up in behind the monitor? can it just be run around anywhere in the laptop?

  2. You could possibly route it elsewhere but there are a number of reasons why the default location is better. First it's simply easier as there is the space for it - the insides of the laptop are pretty cramped and the heat from the CPU and motherboard could even cause the insulation on the antenna cable to melt. The other thing is that the components in the motherboard could possibly cause electronic interference and degrade the signal quality.