We live in a mobile world; if you have a laptop (and who doesn't?), that means constantly connecting to the Internet via Wi-Fi. You most likely use Wi-Fi not just when you're on the road at cafés, airports or hotels, but to connect to your home network too. You might even connect to a wireless network at the office.
Here's the problem: Windows doesn't do a particularly good job of providing Wi-Fi tools. Yes, it will let you search for and connect to nearby networks, but that's about the extent of it. What if you want to get detailed information about every Wi-Fi network within range, troubleshoot your network, turn your laptop into a portable Wi-Fi hot spot or keep yourself safe at public hot spots? Windows is no help.
That's why we've rounded up these six downloads. They'll do all these things and more. Five out of the six are free; the other is inexpensive and lets you try it out first.
MetaGeek's InSSIDer is a great tool for finding Wi-Fi networks within range of your computer and gathering a great deal of information about each. It's also useful for troubleshooting problems with your own Wi-Fi network.
For every Wi-Fi network InSSIDer finds, it shows you the MAC address of the router, the router manufacturer (if it can detect it -- it usually does), the channel it's using, the service set identifier (SSID) or public name of the network, what kind of security is in place, the speed of the network and more. In addition, it displays the current signal strength of the network, as well as its signal strength over time.
How would you use the software to troubleshoot your wireless network? If you see that your network uses the same channel as nearby networks with strong signals, you'll know that you should change the channel your network transmits over and thereby cut down on potential conflicts. (Most routers have a settings screen that lets you do this.)
You can also use the software to detect "dead zones" that don't get a strong Wi-Fi connection. Walk around your home or office with InSSIDer installed on your laptop to see where signal strength drops. You can either avoid using a computer in those spots or else try repositioning the wireless router to see if it helps with coverage.
Whether you need to troubleshoot a network or find Wi-Fi hot spots to which you want to connect -- or you're just plain curious -- this is one app you'll want to download and try.
Compatible with: Windows XP, Vista and 7 (32- and 64-bit)
This is another excellent program that sniffs out Wi-Fi networks and shares pertinent information about them, such as how close or far away they are. Xirrus Wi-Fi Inspector shows any nearby hot spots on a radar-like display. A separate pane offers detailed information about every hot spot it finds, including signal strength, the kind of network (802.11n, for example), the router vendor, the channel on which the network transmits and whether it's an access point or an ad hoc network.
In a pane next to the radar, Wi-Fi Inspector shows you even more detailed information about the network to which you're currently connected, including your internal IP address, external IP address, DNS and gateway information, and so on.
Why use Xirrus Wi-Fi Inspector rather than MetaGeek's InSSIDer? Wi-Fi Inspector's simpler, cleaner layout makes it easier to see information about all of the hot spots at a glance. It also shows the relative physical distance between you and each hot spot on its display. And there's no denying the overall coolness factor of a radar-like display.
However, if you want more detailed information, including the relative signal strengths of all nearby wireless networks, InSSIDer is a better bet.
Compatible with: Windows XP SP2+, Vista and 7
Download Xirrus Wi-Fi Inspector