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I'm a total novice to ubuntu. I've got a ralinlk 2870 usb wireless adapater.

I tried to install the drivers using the session menu and selecting System Settings in the Hardware section, click Additional Drivers and then waited a moment for Ubuntu to update its database, but it came back blank.

I then got the linux drivers for the ralink 2870 from mediatek: http://www.mediatek.com/_en/07_downloads/01_windows.php?sn=501

RT2870USB(RT2870/RT2770) 07/09/2010 2.4.0.1  
firmware RT28XX/RT30XX USB series (RT2870/RT2770/RT3572/RT3070) 03/31/2010 22 

Which do I use and how do I load them? Is there a special place to put them? Do I need to point to them on the desktop?

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I believe the one that you are looking for is the RT2870USB(RT2870/RT2770) download. When you do, what type of file does it download? Is is a .deb or a .tar or .gz? –  Leinardo Smith May 8 '13 at 0:49
    
You shouldn't need to compile anything. What is your device? lsusb –  chili555 May 8 '13 at 15:03
    
It is a .tar file. It has several text files in it: README_STA, sta_ate_iwpriv_usage.txt, iwpriv_usage.txt. The README_STA looks like loading instructions using the terminal, but I can't believe it's that hard. I would think Ubuntu could figure it out if I could point it to the right folder –  Bob May 8 '13 at 22:08
    
It isn't necessary to compile this driver in any recent Ubuntu version. Please open a terminal Ctrl+Alt+t and run: lsusb. Tell us what it reports about your wireless device and we'll proceed. –  chili555 May 11 '13 at 21:39
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