Must-have Wi-Fi troubleshooting and management tools

Designing, maintaining and troubleshooting Wi-Fi networks aren’t simple tasks. Several tools, including Wi-Fi stumblers, Wi-Fi analyzers, RF spectrum analyzers and Wi-Fi survey heatmapping software, can help.

Wi-Fi tools

As you may know all too well, Wi-Fi is a very fickle technology. It requires diligent configuration to work well and doesn’t like sharing the airwaves. In a past article, I discussed specific things to do (or not do), such as adjusting or enabling certain settings, to help Wi-Fi performance. And in another article, I went in-depth on Wi-Fi channels.

Now I want to discuss the tools you can use to evaluate, design and troubleshoot wireless networks, from simple stumblers to the latest sensor-based products.

Wi-Fi stumbler apps

Stumblers give you the basic Wi-Fi details of wireless access points (AP): the service set identifier (SSID), channel, security status and MAC address. This always includes a numerical readout or table of the details. Many times, stumblers also give some sort of graphs to help you visualize the channel usage of the frequency bands.

inSSIDer Wi-Fi stumbler MetaGeek, LLC

InSSIDer is one of my favorite Windows-based Wi-Fi stumblers.

Stumblers are a must-have for anyone in IT who deals with Wi-Fi. Even if you have high-end tools that can tell you similar details, a simple stumbler on your mobile device or laptop almost always comes in handy. When troubleshooting Wi-Fi performance, you can get a quick idea of the channel usage of the APs and any neighboring networks. Most stumblers also show you the MAC address of the AP you’re connected to, so you can identify APs before running any tests and verify APs while roaming.

Wifi Analyzer Wi-Fi stumbler app for Android Eric Geier / IDG

I always have the Wifi Analyzer app installed on my Android devices.

Keep in mind that most stumblers do nothing but detect Wi-Fi signals. They can’t report the general noise or signal-to-noise (SNR) levels on the frequencies, which would provide an idea of any interference that might exist. However, there are some exceptions. For instance, Acrylic WiFi Professional does report noise and SNR levels, but it’s more of a Wi-Fi analyzer (see below). Some stumbler tools, such as inSSIDer Office, can integrate with an RF spectrum analyzer, though, which would detect noise, SNR and other non-Wi-Fi signals as well.

Another caveat: Some stumblers, especially the free ones, don’t show the precise channels used by APs using 40MHz or larger channel widths. So you might not be able to properly identify channel usage on networks using 802.11n or 802.11ac. Additionally, some stumblers don’t recognize APs that have the SSID broadcasting disabled. Even if the AP is detected, most stumblers can’t reveal the hidden SSID the way Wi-Fi analyzers can.

Check out the free stumbler options I’ve previously discussed for use on Windows and macOS computers and Android devices. There are also premium apps, mentioned in a prior review, that range from $20 to $100.

Wi-Fi analyzer software

Wi-Fi analyzers go a step further than stumblers. Along with the basic AP details and channel usage graphs, they provide other details and analysis. In addition to providing noise and SNR ratio, they typically capture the raw Wi-Fi traffic so you can inspect the data packets. Even better, most provide some type of analysis of the Wi-Fi traffic to help you audit or troubleshoot the network performance, interference, security and other health aspects. They often will also recognize and reveal any hidden SSIDs: APs that aren’t broadcasting their SSID.

AirMagnet WiFi Analyzer Pro Eric Geier / IDG

AirMagnet WiFi Analyzer Pro is my go-to wireless analyzer.

Wi-Fi analyzers such as AirMagnet WiFi Analyzer Pro and Savvius Omnipeek are targeted at enterprises and can cost thousands of dollars. However, there are some lower-cost options for smaller businesses or IT providers, such as CommView for WiFi, starting at $499, and Acrylic WiFi Professional, for just $40.

Hardware-based Wi-Fi analyzers

There are also a few hardware-based Wi-Fi analyzers out there, as seen in a past review. Functionality and pricing vary, but these handheld tools run into the thousands of dollars. They are great for enterprises or IT service providers who do enough Wi-Fi work to justify the purchase, offering some convenience over using software on your own mobile device. Instead of having to wait for your laptop to start up and then lugging it around, you can easily carry one of these tools and check out the airwaves in minimal time.

Aircheck G2 handheld Wi-Fi analyzer NetScout

The Aircheck G2 is my favorite handheld Wi-Fi analyzer.

NetScout, the same company that produces AirMagnet, offers a handheld analyzer called the Aircheck G2. It’s a fully customized piece of hardware offering functionality that’s just a bit more than what you’d get from a Wi-Fi stumbler app. In addition to the basic AP details and channel analysis, you can detect noise and SNR ratio and even perform Ethernet tests for AP backhaul verification.

Another hardware-based solution is the Yellowjacket-BANG Wi-Fi Analyzer. It’s basically a Pocket PC with a rugged casing and loaded with software from the tool’s vendor, Berkeley Varitronics Systems. It offers stumbling functionality similar to the Aircheck G2 but also offers more RF spectrum analysis, useful in identifying non-Wi-Fi signals.

RF spectrum analyzers

Spectrum analyzers allow you to visualize the signals from more than just Wi-Fi. They can help you detect and find other wireless devices that may be interfering with Wi-Fi, such as Bluetooth and Zigbee devices, wireless video cameras, cordless phones and non-wireless interferers such as microwaves. Since standard Wi-Fi adapters can’t distinguish those other signals, spectrum analyzers typically require some type of separate hardware device.

One of the most popular entry-level spectrum analyzers is the Wi-Spy dongle, from MetaGeek. It can be used with MetaGeek’s Chanalyzer software, with pricing starting at $849. It also integrates with other third-party Wi-Fi surveying software, such as TamoGraph Site Survey Pro.

There are also enterprise-level spectrum analyzer software/hardware products such as AirMagnet Spectrum XT and Ekahau Wi-Fi Spectrum Analyzer. For a small business budget, consider WiFi Surveyor with pricing starting at just $49.

Wi-Fi survey heatmapping software

Wi-Fi surveying tools allow you to better visualize signals and interference, as I discussed in a prior review. General stumblers and analyzers typically show you a numerical readout or flat graph. However, with surveying apps you can load your floor plans or maps, walk around and capture signals, and it will create visual heatmaps. These can be used for evaluating coverage or performance of an existing network, during surveying to find new AP locations, or to prove a newly operational network meets defined specs.

AirMagnet Survey Wi-Fi software Eric Geier / IDG

I usually go with AirMagnet Survey when performing Wi-Fi surveying.

Many of the surveying tools integrate with some type of spectrum analyzer, so you can simultaneously capture and heatmap Wi-Fi and spectrum scans. Additionally, most of the surveying tools also offer capacity planning. You can input the number of users and types of devices, for instance, to see heatmaps of capacity predictions.

Most of the surveying tools also provide a simulation feature that lets you place virtual APs on the floor plan, define wall types and other attenuators, and then see estimated coverage and interference. This can be done off-site, allowing you to perform quick rough site surveys.

AirMagnet Survey, Ekahau Site Survey and iBwave are Windows-based, enterprise-level surveying tools, with pricing in the thousands of dollars. TamoGraph Site Survey Pro, Acrylic WiFi Heatmaps, VisiWave Site Survey and iSite are products more appropriate to small-business budgets. For even less expensive options, consider NetSpot (for Windows or macOS) or Android-based surveying apps.

Hardware-based Wi-Fi sensors

The airwaves are certainly not static; they’re always changing. Thus, you’ll see fluctuations in Wi-Fi coverage and performance. If your APs don’t provide monitoring capabilities to let you know when there’s issues, you could install Wi-Fi sensors to keep an eye on your Wi-Fi.

AirScout Wi-Fi sensor Greenlee Textron Inc.

Though I haven’t used AirScout, it looks like a useful tool.

Functionality varies among sensors, but products that are meant to provide long-term monitoring of Wi-Fi, such as NetBeez and Cape Networks, allow you to track signal levels, AP uptimes and ping times against local or external services and to conduct internet speed tests. Tools such as AirScout are meant to be used only during the design or testing phase to prove the reliability and performance of the wireless network. They can simulate multiple client devices and traffic types, giving you an idea of how the network will act based upon their particular usage.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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