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WiFi on an up to date Debian 11.2 works very badly compared to an old Ubuntu 18.04 on the same hardware and same testing conditions. I'm wondering what would be a sensible way of isolating the cause?

As far as I can see both OSes use the ath5k driver for WiFi so my guess is a difference between driver versions, but even so I don't know how I'd confirm that. Is there an easy way?

And if it turns out it's the driver, are there any viable fixes?

  • I've ruled out hardware problems; it's one and the same machine, and it's repeatable. Same symptoms using different access points. The machine is stationary during testing.
  • Symptoms in Debian 11 include very slow browsing of folder structure over SMB, and constant interruptions when playing a low def video over SMB using VLC. None of that in Ubuntu (Mate) 18.04.
  • Can't really update Ubuntu since it dropped 32 bit support. Hoping for an alternative solution.
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    Driver differences would be my first guess as well. At least ath5k doesn't need any binary firmware blobs to work - but also, it's been a very stable driver, since around 2017, so it's not quite sure what changed (It's part of upstream Linux). Hm. Mar 8 at 7:42
  • @MarcusMüller Thanks for the input! You say it's been stable, that's good to know. I think I'll take a step back then, and attribute the experienced problem to some coincidences, like how the OS doesn't seem to abstract away SMB for applications (i.e. actually mounting shares into the local file system), thereby requiring every app I use to test (VLC) to support the smb:// protocol independently. That gives us a more likely source of unfortunate changes. The browsing experience I'll have to ascribe to chance and coincidence, considering the tiny amounts of data involved.
    – Andreas
    Mar 8 at 14:35

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Ubuntu 18 uses gvfs-fuse to mount SMB shares into the local directory tree (/run/user/<uid>/gvfs/...) making access snappy and transparent for applications like VLC. Debian 11, by default, doesn't.

First you need to apt install gvfs-fuse, and then reboot. systemctl list-units --all \*vfs\* will then show a gvfs unit for your user. SMB shares should now mount and work more like in Ubuntu.

Launch VLC through the file manager's context menu and VLC will use the file:// protocol instead of its own less satisfactory implementation of smb://.

This also makes it possible to play files directly from iOS devices like iPhone, where VLC would otherwise have complained about the afc:// protocol.

To make things more interesting, if instead of opening VLC through a file in the OS file manager you drag a file into VLC, it'll try to use the SMB (or AFC) protocol for that file, and you're back where you started. Ahh... simplicity.

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