March 11, 2008
Product: Canary Wireless Digital Hotspotter HS-20
Pros: Simple, informative, quick and reliable; saves time and hassle for road warriors.
Cons: One extra thing to carry, limited battery life.
Anyone who is on the road a lot is likely to have plenty of experience trying to find a suitable access point by opening up their laptop repeatedly and scanning for a good connection. Canary Wireless’s newly updated Hotspotter access point (AP) detection device, the HS20, saves time and laptop battery life by pinpointing hotspots quickly and easily.
What it does
The Canary Wireless Hotspotter HS20 is a very simple, reliable device for detecting wireless access points. The device is so simple that it only has just three buttons—Power, Previous, and Next— each one bright yellow and rubberized. On average, there is only a ten-second delay between when you power on the Hotspotter and when it shows you the access points it has detected—much faster than getting out your laptop, waking it up, and performing a scan.
The HS 20’s display is crammed with useful information. The small, backlit, black and white LCD screen indicates the name (SSID) of each of the APs it detects, along with signal strength, access point type (b, g, or n), encryption (open, WEP, WPA, or WPA2), data rate, and channel. The display also shows how many access points were detected during the scan. Tapping the power button again initiates a re-scan, which allows users to see newly detected APs in about a second. The strongest access points almost always appear, but weaker points come and go, so the rapid re-scan feature can be quite useful, though detrimental to the life of the included AAA Energizer batteries. Holding the HS20 from the bottom to avoid blocking the antenna significantly improves detection.
This upgrade of the Hotspotter improves on the previous version, the Hotspotter HS10 ($49.95), released three years ago, by adding the ability to detect 802.11n networks and by slimming the device from one inch thick to almost half that (5/8″ or 1.6 cm). The screen is now backlit and has three lines of text that can be read at a glance.
Canary Wireless has paid attention to power savings, too. It powers off after 30 seconds of idle time and the backlight turns off after only ten seconds. Despite these efforts, after in a couple of weeks of testing, the low-battery indicator appeared, though the device continued to function well.
Who is it for?
The Hotspotter is not for everyone. Many people will simply forgo the extra device and open their laptop, especially if they rarely work in a new location. Some of us, however, are more nomadic, including those who travel frequently for business and find themselves in unfamiliar territory looking to connect. For us, having a quick peek to discover whether we can connect without the hassle of getting the computer out of the bag and scanning may well be worth it.
Another potential use for this device is as an aid in wireless security audits. One of the greatest concerns for network administrators is unsecured wireless access points, which allow outsiders access to their network, and possibly to sensitive information stored therein. This concern is very real, as the TJX credit card breach demonstrated, where large numbers of credit card numbers were stolen by thieves in the parking lot who accessed a poorly-secured network through an open wireless access point. A quick walk of the premises of an office or building can reveal most of the open APs in the area. The five-bar signal meter and SSID information displayed can help identify the owner and location of unsecured or rogue access points.
Network administrators could use the Hotspotter to quickly identify gaps in coverage or areas where nearby access points are interfering with each other, reducing range or capacity. (Canary Wireless’s FAQ explains that adjacent channels will interfere with each other.)
We gave several people a chance to try the HS20 and to explore its capabilities. Most commented on its simplicity. Some remarked on the device’s size. “Couldn’t it be a bit smaller?” was a comment heard more than once. A quick peek inside, after a minor struggle to remove the battery cover, revealed that there was, indeed room to fit the existing components in a thinner, shorter case. Perhaps this comes down to a difference in vision. Those who imagined carrying the Hotspotter in a pocket or purse wanted something smaller that could attach to a key chain or integrated with a device such as a cell phone. Those who imagined the device in their laptop bag were content with the form factor.
The bottom line
Ultimately for most users the utility of the HS20 comes down to one of convenience. Carrying an extra item in your laptop bag is a bit much for the casual Wi-Fi user, but the extra bulk is worth it for serious road warriors and network administrators. It is available online directly from Canary Wireless for $59.95.
Jonathan Caplan is a Web developer and teacher, who lives in Western Massachusetts and develops custom content management systems for individuals and small business. Find out more at: www.CaplanSystems.com.