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Internet connection failures only on laptops

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I work with older donated equipment and prefer to bring it home to add software, etc and generally get it in running condition. The problem seems to be that only laptops are incapable of obtaining an IP address automatically. Right now I have a Dell Inspiron 1200 next to my personal computer which is connected correctly. The laptop however reads limited or not connectivity or cable unplugged! I had an identical problem with an Inspiron 6000 but when I took it up to the school it worked fine. Earlier this evening when I couldn't connect, I found a driver, not from Dell, and it worked just fine. After being turned off awhile, I now get the same error message with that driver also. Then I installed a PCMCIA cardbus adapter, it worked only momentarily. Any clues to what are causing this problem would be of great help as working at home is a lot easier and convenient. My personal computer is set obtain an IP automatically.
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