By Eric Griffith
May 17, 2004
Inarguable this product is the smallest WLAN locater out there; arguably, it’s also the best.
Price: $29.99 (depends on who’s selling it)
Pros: Geiger counter-like function for Wi-Fi, goes on keychain
Cons: Doesn’t tell you if nodes are open
Even if you haven’t experienced the problem yet, wireless users on the road will someday: You take out a laptop and boot it up, hoping to find a Wi-Fi signal you can use to go online — and only then do you discover there’s nary an 802.11 network in range.
That’s where the new breed of Wi-Fi signal locators come in. They include products like the WiFi Detector, a unit we looked at favorably a few months ago. The latest generation in this category clobbers the competition with one specific aspect: it’s smaller. It’s about a quarter of the size, and designed to go on a keychain. Its other claims, however, are less substantiated (see below).
The product I’m talking about will come under various names, depending on who is selling it. The hardware was designed by a company named Chrysalis Development. The features are the same no matter who sells it — only the color of the plastic and the logo on the outside differ.
The model I got was from PCTEL and goes by the name WiFi Seeker. PCTEL plans to provide these units to corporations that use its software. The individual companies decide when and how to sell it. The same unit will also be sold in retail by computer luggage maker Mobile Edge for $29.99 under the name “WiFi Signal Locator” starting in June. Chryslalis is also taking orders for the unit at WiFiSeeker.com, and says it will ship them in the third quarter.
Like the competition, the little unit does what it says it will. Push a button and you’ll see a nice Cylon-esque lighting effect (for fans of the original Battlestar Galactica), as the four red light emitting diodes (LEDs) on the face seem to travel back and forth. Once the signal is found they’ll hold steady to indicate if a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network (802.11b or 11g) is present. The more lights that show up, the stronger the signal. It’s that simple.
Unlike other detectors, the Chrysalis device claims to be able to tell the difference between a true Wi-Fi network and the interference caused by other 2.4GHz devices, such as cordless phones and microwaves.
In my tests around the home, this didn’t pan out. I unplugged the wireless access point, powered off all laptops using Wi-Fi cards, and cranked up the microwave — and the detector pinned the needle (so to speak) as if it was standing next to a high-powered AP. In fact, my test unit seemed to believe there was a signal present even when the microwave turned off. (Perhaps I live constantly in the presence of 2.4GHz radio waves…) It seemed to work fine with the AP back on, showing a weaker signal two floors away, for example.
Traveling around the local mall the unit showed intermittent signals present, as would be expected, and a strong signal at the Borders anchor store, which is home to a T-Mobile Hotspot. That was more like it.
Like its competition, the Chrysalis device is great at telling you if Wi-Fi is around, but it is unable to tell the difference between an open, free hotspot or a secure, enterprise WLAN. To all of these detector products, such WLANs are all the same. That certainly isn’t the case for the end user, and limits their use in some respects. However, they are great for doing a quick security oriented scan to see just how far your Wi-Fi signal is traveling.
In the end, functionally, the unit doesn’t stand out much from the competition. It’s about the same price, and seems to offer about the same abilities. Based on its size alone, however, it’s the best choice around.