For the last few months, I have been having intermittent problems accessing my wireless network with my early model MacBook Pro 2.0 GHz laptop. The problem began soon after applying the 10.5.3 system update so I thought it was software. There were some connectivity issues with that update. Often, I could connect to my wireless network for several hours and then lose the connection after I put the machine to sleep. Often, the Airport menu would show no networks and the top line would say “Airport: Scanning…” Sometimes, I would get a dialog box asking to join a new network. My home network would be displayed and I could select it but the connection would time out.

I lived with this problem for several months. Usually I work at my desk where I use several external drives so it was no problem to plug into a wired network. After I got my iPhone I would often couch surf with it. Hot Wife had no connectivity problems with her work MacBook Pro and the iPhone connected just fine as well. I closely followed some advice on MacFixIt but was unable to solve the problem by deleting and reinstalling network connections, deleting plist files and other voodoo.

A few weeks ago, I bought a 230GB hard drive to replace my cramped 100GB OEM drive. When I was in the machine, I double checked the antenna connection to internal airport and reseated it just in case. I still had the connection problems. Finally, I did an archive and install of 10.5 and for a few hours, I thought the problem was gone. However, later that day, the wireless connection dropped and could not be restored. As a final check I used the shotgun approach and tried everything: I swapped out to different Airport Express Base Station and played with its settings. I upgraded the firmware on my Linksys wired router. Finally, I did a clean install of Mac OS 10.5 on a USB drive and the problem persisted. The problem had to be hardware.

Since Hot Wife are going to be sharing a computer with me for a while after her job change next month, I needed to have a computer that was more lap friendly. So on Friday, I took my AppleCare protected investment to the Apple Store. I told the soul-patch sporting Mac Genius I was having wireless connectivity issues and that it was consistent between different user accounts and OS versions and he gravely shook my hand and said “You’ve done all my troubleshooting for me. It’s hardware.” He said it was probably a loose antenna cable but they would order a new Airport card as well. I didn’t tell him that I had already checked the cable. While we were talking, we both noticed that the signal strength in the Apple Store was fluctuating from 5 bars to 1. I think they have a pretty strong signal in that store. There was no way it should have been fluctuating like that.

So I gave the machine up Friday night and they called me back this evening said that although they couldn’t duplicate the problem (I guess it never totally died like it does at my house where the wireless network is much simpler than at the Apple Store), they replaced the Airport Card anyway. I took the Girl Child to store and picked up a new laptop battery as well so Hot Wife could have more than 15 minutes unplugged time.

It’s been working great for the last few hours. It’s nice to take over the dining room table again. The moral of the story is that when you eliminate or reduce the likelihood of a software problem, start looking at the hardware.

Update: 9/9/08. After a few more hours of working great, my MacBook Pro is back to intermittent failed connections to Airport. The signal strength seems a bit stronger and I am seeing more of my neighbor’s networks but connecting to my Airport Express or a borrowed Linksys router usually times out or just stays on scanning. It’s quite frustrating and it looks like it will be time to go back to the Apple Store for more repairs.

Update: 10/6/08. I took the MacBook Pro back to the genius bar at the Apple Store and turned it for service again. After four days, I got the machine back and the wireless is working great. They replaced the wireless 802.11 antenna which in the 2.0 GHz MBP is located on the back of the machine between the hinges under the gray plastic cover. If you are having this intermittent problem, I could be a broken antenna. The part is available for $29.95 at iFixit, but they list the repair as “very difficult (requires disassembling almost all of the computer. Not recommended for non-professionals).

Since the repair, my MBP has been working great. It’s so nice not to be tied to the ethernet port on my desk.

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