Review: AirMagnet's OQO Analyzer/Survey Bundle

By Lisa Phifer

March 21, 2008

Popular Wi-Fi analyzer and survey tools go "ultra mobile" in this symbiotic package from AirMagnet and OQO.

Product: AirMagnet's Ultra Mobile Solution: 
OQO Model 02/e2 UMPC, running AirMagnet Laptop Analyzer 7.6 and AirMagnet Survey 5.1

Manufacturer’s URL: http://www.airmagnet.com/products/umpc
Retail Price: $9,654 (PacketLogix, February 2008)
Pros: Small but powerful - handier than notebook, hardier than PDA
Cons: Pricey if UMPC not otherwise needed, limited real estate

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I am a long-time fan of AirMagnet's Laptop and Handheld Analyzers, generally acknowledged to be among the most successful commercial Wi-Fi diagnostic tools on the market. But I have carried AirMagnet on site surveys and trouble-shooting calls long enough to know that balancing a notebook on your palm or knee can be inconvenient, even risky. On the other hand, lengthy PDA-based excursions are limited by storage, battery life, and eyesight. For on-the-move tasks where a notebook would prove clumsy and a PDA too limited, AirMagnet has teamed with OQO to deliver a handy alternative: AirMagnet's Ultra Mobile Solution.

Bundle up

The components of this symbiotic package—an OQO UMPC and AirMagnet software—can be purchased separately or as a bundle from resellers like PacketLogix, ProSys Information Systems, and ProDefence.

It all starts with an OQO Model 02/e2 ultra-mobile PC. I tested a "better" OQO configuration, running Windows XP Professional on a 1.5GHz CPU, 600GB hard disk drive, 1GB SDRAM memory, with integrated Bluetooth, Novatel Expedite EV-DO, and Atheros AR5006XS 802.11abg wireless. MSRP for this device alone is $1,699—slightly less than a compact notebook with similar horsepower.

UMPCs have struggled to find their sweet spot in the computing market, squeezing between traditional PDAs like the HP iPAQ and compact notebooks like the Toshiba Portege S500. When performing tasks like wireless site surveys and trouble-shooting, there is a clear difference between what can be accomplished with a PC or a PDA, creating a gap for the OQO to fill. In my experience, AirMagnet on the OQO is not a substitute for AirMagnet on a notebook (or desktop). However, it definitely made me think about retiring AirMagnet Handheld Analyzer, which I run on an aging iPAQ Pocket PC.

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Why? As shown here (right), the OQO has a bright little five-inch LCD screen, slightly bigger than a PDA, but nowhere near the size of a notebook display. The OQO I tested ran a full install of Windows XP, using a small QWERTY keyboard for text and mouse-click entry, and an integrated "eraser head" track stick. The keyboard slides out from beneath the screen when you want to interact with the OQO, but remains neatly tucked out of sight otherwise. The result is a 5" x 3.3" x 1.0" device that can easily be carried in one hand while running full-featured Windows programs. Weighing one pound (with standard battery), the OQO won't tire your wrist, although it is quite a lump when carried in your pocket.

After using AirMagnet Analyzers on a compact notebook, PDA, and OQO side-by-side, the only thing I missed from my PDA was touch-screen input. These programs are navigated primarily through mouse-clicks or stylus taps--text entry is relatively infrequent (e.g., saving files, entering hostnames). Even though the OQO's track stick and mouse buttons are quite easy to use with two hands, I found myself wishing that I didn't have to leave the OQO's keyboard open to navigate AirMagnet. It turns out that I didn't. AirMagnet also runs under Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, supporting active digitizer pen input on the OQO. I did not test that configuration, but suspect it would have delivered the best of both worlds.

Making more of the OQO

I would immediately swap my PDA for the OQO if not for the price tag. The OQO by itself is at least four times as expensive as a PDA running Pocket PC 2003 or Windows Mobile 5.0 (the operating systems supported by AirMagnet Handheld Analyzer.)

However, the OQO has considerably more storage space (up to 120 GB)—a valuable commodity when performing lengthy, data-intensive tasks like Wi-Fi traffic analysis. Moreover, the OQO runs ordinary Win32 applications—not just AirMagnet Laptop and AirMagnet Survey, but Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat and other Win32 Wi-Fi tools. This extensibility is what makes the OQO attractive for mobile network debugging. There are WinCE tools that I love, but there are many more for Windows XP. (Yes, the OQO can also run Linux.)

I had no trouble installing and using common Win32 TCP/IP audit tools like Nmap or that perennial shareware favorite, NetStumbler. This brings us to perhaps the only really noteworthy limitation in using the OQO for Wi-Fi analysis: its Wi-Fi adapter.

The OQO has three integrated wireless adapters, an Ethernet port, and a USB 2.0 port, but no PCMCIA or ExpressCard slot. Because different Wi-Fi adapters exhibit different behaviors, AirMagnet Laptop Analyzer supports dozens of popular Wi-Fi adapters, including pre-N adapters. AirMagnet Laptop Analyzer PRO can also be used with an external antenna or in tandem with an AirMagnet Spectrum Analyzer card—but not the AirMagnet/OQO. If you wish to perform these more advanced tasks (or use third-party tools that require something other than the OQO's Atheros AR5006XS a/b/g adapter), use a notebook instead.

Tiny tradeoffs

Beyond this, AirMagnet Laptop Analyzer and AirMagnet Survey products appear to deliver most of the same features when used on a Windows notebook, tablet PC, or OQO UMPC. (Analyzer can also be run on an Apple MacBook Pro.) This consistency is important for organizations and individuals that use multiple platforms, because it reduces the number of programs that must be learned and supported. Although AirMagnet Handheld Analyzer is very similar to the Laptop Analyzer, their GUIs have diverged somewhat over the years, and Pocket PC / Windows Mobile installation is entirely different.Fig3-OQO-Analyzer1.JPG

Customers can choose which AirMagnet products and versions are installed on each OQO. AirMagnet Laptop Analyzer (right) starts at $3495 (MSRP), for those users who need to perform real-time 802.11b/g traffic monitoring, capture, expert analysis, trouble-shooting, and compliance reporting. On the OQO, Analyzer PRO ($3695) adds 5 GHz 802.11a support. AirMagnet Survey (below) starts at $1995, for those who want an ultra-portable tool for taking passive or active site survey measurements and visualizing results (e.g., signal, noise, speed, loss, retry rate).     Fig3-OQO-Analyzer1.JPG            

Resellers offer OQO hardware and AirMagnet software together—for example, the OQO Model 02 bundled with Windows XP, AirMagnet Survey, and AirMagnet Laptop PRO retails for $9,654 at PacketLogix. Note that, because AirMagnet binds licenses to CPU or adapter, a license cannot be shared between an OQO and a notebook.

One, two, three

This begs the question: Do you need more than one form factor? Ultimately, the answer depends on your job and how you use AirMagnet. If you are responsible for diagnosing hard-to-find RF interference, break out your notebook to use both AirMagnet Laptop and Spectrum Analyzer. If you spend a lot of time trouble-shooting Wi-Fi connections in multiple locations, the OQO may be more convenient. If your job is taking site measurements, the OQO is (literally) handier. If you are designing a WLAN, you will want to review survey results and simulate changes on a big screen and perhaps tap the capabilities of AirMagnet Planner.Fig4-OQO-Survey1.JPG

In addition to factors previously described, two further considerations influence platform choice: power and display. As with any notebook, OQO battery life depends on activities performed. When running Laptop Analyzer in channel-scan mode or taking passive measurements with Survey, my standard lithium-ion battery lasted about an hour. (OQO's published battery life estimation is up to three hours.) Like many notebooks, the OQO supports a double-capacity battery, Windows Standby/Hibernation, and recharging through an AC adapter or docking station. In short, from a power standpoint, the OQO may not be that much different than your notebook.

The OQO display is an entirely different matter. The standard LCD screen is bright and crisp indoors; an optional sunlight optimized display ($199) is available for outdoor use. However, the OQO provides less than half the real-estate of a 12.1" compact notebook screen. I have always found display size to be a challenge when using AirMagnet on a PDA, and was pleasantly surprised to find the OQO easier to use.

Although the OQO runs the full-screen AirMagnet Laptop Analyzer, two zoom in/out buttons are located at the lower left corner of its keyboard. When zoomed in (right), the OQO's track stick lets you intuitively pan around the screen—holding the function key down speeds the pan.Fig5-OQO-Zoom.JPG

This took very little getting used to and was absolutely critical for reading small text, such as the detail displayed when mousing over any AP or client device. However, this technique does not work well everywhere. Some application windows require seeing "the big picture" while others do not. For example, I would not want to review Analyzer-generated reports on the OQO, nor would I want to spend much time comparing Surveyed coverage areas. The OQO can be docked with a full-sized monitor back at the office, but to perform full-screen tasks like these in the field, use a notebook.

The bottom line

AirMagnet is smart to support their most popular Wi-Fi field service tools on the OQO UMPC. The UMPC market may or may not take off, but this alternative form factor gives AirMagnet customers the option of using a device that's little bigger than a PDA, but considerably more capable. AirMagnet's ultra-mobile solution isn't cheap, and it will not meet every need. But those who survey and debug WLANs on-the-go just might find this platform ultra-cool. (Click here for a larger image.)

Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. She has been involved in the design, deployment, and testing of wireless/mobile products and services for over a dozen years.



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