Wi-Fi connection problems? Ask an inSSIDer

I’ve written about the wonderful Wi-Fi discovery and maintenance tools from MetaGeek at least half a dozen times over the years. The Wi-Spy hardware I previously wrote about is still current – although the software has gone through several revisions in the past three years – but MetaGeek also has a couple of newer offerings that I thought I should test.

Wi-Fi connection problems? Ask an inSSIDer

The new version makes it far easier to identify your own network, and those that overlap it

Let’s start with inSSIDer for Home, the latest version of MetaGeek’s ever-popular free Wi-Fi scanning tool. You can probably think of it as inSSIDer version 3. For those of you unaware of this program, MetaGeek released the original version in 2008. Back then, the only similar tool was NetStumbler, which hadn’t been updated for ages, and had problems running on newer 64-bit versions of Windows. So inSSIDer was born, and the company reckons it has now had more than eight million downloads, and more than 40,000 uses every day. Not bad!

Its main purpose is for trying to optimise the Wi-Fi configuration in your home or office. You get a nice, clear visual representation of the competing networks from your neighbours, particularly which channels they’re using and their relative signal strengths. As you walk around your home or office you can easily see the least congested channels, so you can give your own router the best possible chance.

The new version makes it far easier to identify your own network, and those that overlap it. This is useful if you’re in a city-centre location, or perhaps in a building containing many small businesses.

The software also now gives you an easy-to-understand “link score”, which is much more useful when wandering around the building than having to remember and compare dBm values and interpret network overlaps. It’s a great update for anyone who’s used previous versions, and best of all it remains free. As with the previous versions, it doesn’t require any extra hardware, since the software simply uses your existing wireless NIC.

If you’re prepared to spend a reasonable sum of money, though, there’s also the new inSSIDer for Office. This costs $199, and so sits between the free inSSIDer for Home and the more expensive Wi-Spy tools that I’ve looked at previously. This actually comes with a tiny, new Wi-Spy Mini dongle, similar in size to the USB Bluetooth transceivers that are often shipped with wireless keyboards and mice.

While it obviously doesn’t have quite the sensitivity of its bigger brothers, like them it does perform way beyond what the Wi-Fi adapter in your computer can achieve, listening out for all kinds of other interference in the 2.4GHz band, including things such as Bluetooth signals, wireless headphones and speakers, ZigBee-based home-automation products and good old, leaky microwave ovens. You should never underestimate this last source of pollution – many people complain that their office network slows to a crawl around lunchtime, but not many realise that at least some of this is due to people nuking spuds in the office microwave for lunch!

Where the Home version allows you to optimise a single wireless network, inSSIDer for Office lets you track up to eight individual SSIDs, so it’s great for big offices where you have a multiple-access-point setup spread around the building. The link quality score is carried across from the Home version, making it easy to assess all your different networks from any part of the building. This score is far more accurate, since it takes environmental noise into account, as well as overlapping Wi-Fi networks.

The new software is currently only available on Windows, although there’s an older version of inSSIDer available for OS X, as well as an Android app. I asked MetaGeek about Mac versions of the newer software and the firm tells me that it’s on the roadmap, but can’t give any dates at present. It is aware that Macs are becoming increasingly popular in IT support environments.

If I’m being ultra picky, the Wi-Spy Mini isn’t quite as sensitive as the larger Wi-Spy models, and only covers 2.4GHz, whereas some of the existing models also do 5GHz. And although the new inSSIDer software is good, it isn’t quite as rich and feature-packed as the Chanalyzer Pro app that comes with the more expensive kit. But these models cost anywhere between $600 and $2,000, depending on the bands covered, so for just less than $200, I think inSSIDer for Office is a bargain. I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who earns their living offering network-support services to small businesses.

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