Google looks for fix to Chromebook Wi-Fi 'disconnect bugs'

Some Chromebook users have been complaining for months that their machines get disconnected from Wi-Fi networks

Google is making changes to its Chrome OS to reduce the number of times that Chromebooks drop their connections to Wi-Fi networks, an issue some users have complained about for months.

It's not clear just how widespread the problem is at this point, but for affected users it's a critical issue because Chromebooks are designed to be used primarily with an Internet connection.

Affected users have experienced the problem in various ways, including being unable to reconnect after their Chromebook goes into sleep mode or getting abruptly disconnected while actively using their machine. Often, users have to completely reboot their Chromebooks in order to regain Wi-Fi connectivity, a major hassle that can also result in losing work that hadn't been saved.

At this point, Google believes that the problem is triggered when Chromebooks are connected in places with heavy Wi-Fi traffic or with a lot of electrical "noise," which may cause signal interference, scenarios that can also affect Windows and Mac OS PCs, according to a Google spokeswoman.

"We are constantly working on improving our users' experience with Chromebooks and take all feedback and complaints very seriously, and react as quickly as possible to concerns. Unlike other platforms, Chromebook users get updates every 6 weeks with new fixes and features," she said via email.

Affected customers have reported the issue in several discussion forums, as in this thread, which has been active since May 2011.

In that thread and others, some affected customers report having the problem in crowded public networks, but many others say they have also experienced it in their secured home networks with limited traffic.

Even if the problem were in fact limited to places with heavy Wi-Fi traffic, it would still be a big issue, since Chromebooks are by design lightweight machines intended to be mobile and thus be used on the go in busy networks at airports, hotels, coffee shops, corporate offices and universities.

In November, a Google employee identified as Jessica Johnson, a Chrome notebook specialist, posted a comment in one of the threads, referring to the issue as "disconnect bugs" and saying that Google was "looking at everything in the stack, from our Wi-Fi drivers and up" in order to fix the problem.

Some forum participants had used their Chromebooks for months before the problem started, leading some to suggest that the cause may lie with a Chrome OS software update. There are problem reports from customers on different Chromebook models, with different Wi-Fi hardware and different broadband networks.

Another common complaint from forum participants is that their Chromebooks are having the problem while their other PCs running Windows, Mac OS or other Linux versions remain connected to the Wi-Fi network. Chrome OS is based on Linux.

In addition to customers, members of the Chromium team that develops Chrome OS have documented the issue a number of times via trouble tickets posted on the project's website, including this entry, where a discussion went on between February and December of last year without an apparent resolution, and this entry, started in December of last year.

In a customer discussion thread started on Jan. 1 of this year, the most recent reply to date is from a Google "community manager" who stated on Jan. 11 that the issue is a known bug that's being worked on.

Asked for comment, Samsung and Acer, the two PC vendors who make Chromebooks, said separately via email that they are not aware of any Wi-Fi connection issues with their Chromebooks. There are also Chromebook units with the CR-48 model tag that have been distributed by Google. All Chromebooks are able to connect to Wi-Fi networks. Some additionally come equipped for 3G connectivity.

For now, affected users await the fix, including one customer identified as Michel McDonald, who posted a message earlier this month in a forum saying that his CR-48 worked fine for about a year, and then this problem cropped up in January of this year, crippling his machine. "My CR-48 is a very big paperweight now," he wrote.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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