capsule review

Canary Wireless Digital Hotspotter HS-20 Wi-Fi Network Detector

At a Glance
  • Canary Wireless Digital Hotspotter HS-20

    PCWorld Rating

Sometimes when you're away from home or the office, you don't want to fire up your laptop in order to find an available wireless network. Canary Wireless's pocket-size Digital Hotspotter HS-20 ($60) saves you the time (and battery life) of having to boot up your PC, by quickly detecting and analyzing available Wi-Fi networks.

Hit the power button on this sturdy black plastic device, and the Hotspotter will quickly present you with a list of up to 20 detected Wi-Fi signals. The monochrome display shows the SSID (network name), signal strength, and type of encryption used for each discovered network. If you pause at a particular listing for a moment, the text at the bottom of the postage-stamp-size screen scrolls to show you the network type (b/g/n) and Wi-Fi channel used. Two up-and-down buttons, found on the upper right side of the Hotspotter next to the power button, allow you to scroll through the list of available networks.

Networks that don't broadcast their SSID show up as Cloaked APs (Access Points), and those that don't use encryption show up as Open. However, the Hotspotter can't tell you whether a nonencrypted network blocks unauthorized connections by using MAC address filtering.

This simple and straightforward gadget measures about 3 inches by 2 inches by slightly more than 0.5 inch thick, it's easy to operate one-handed while you walk around. Though it costs more than other signal detectors (which range from key chains to Wi-Fi detectors built into the underside of certain laptops), cheaper devices are rarely designed to identify a network's SSID and encryption status. Canary Wireless says that it "uses a true 802.11 engine, resulting in no false readings from Bluetooth signals, cordless phones, or microwave ovens." My informal tests corroborated this claim. And it's good to know whether a network is open before you pull out your laptop.

My only real criticism of the Hotspotter involves its 30-second automatic shut-off.  Though this quick cutoff may save battery life (the device comes with two AAA batteries), 30 seconds is too short a time. If you get distracted in midscan, the Hotspotter will power down before you're done using it. Also, I would rather be able to see all the relevant details displayed on-screen than have to wait for scrolling text to roll by; still, the most important details show up right away.

Yes, it's yet another gizmo you'll have to remember to pack (and it's largely redundant if you own a Wi-Fi-equipped cell phone), but if you travel frequently with a laptop--or want to check the security status of your company's Wi-Fi networks quickly and easily--the Hotspotter can be a handy tool.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    A good time- and battery-saving option for laptop-toting travelers.

    Pros

    • Shows network's SSID and encryption status
    • Very easy to use

    Cons

    • Quick automatic shutoff is annoying
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