As Wi-Fi networks are getting more and more prevalent, it’s also getting more and more important to be able to monitor them. Given the invisible nature of the radio waves used in Wi-Fi, their monitoring certainly presents a new challenge to administrators tasked with managing them. Another important aspect of wireless networks is that while wired networks are constrained to their cabling domain, wireless ones are out there in the open. This means that your network is present at your neighbor’s and theirs is present in your premises. In order to keep a watchful eye on things, specialized tools must be used. This is why we’re bringing you this list of the five best Wi-Fi Analyzer software for Windows.
Before we reveal what the best Wi-Fi Analyzer tools for Windows are, we’ll take some time to briefly explain how wireless networks work. In order to better understand the features of Network analyzer software, it helps to be at least somewhat familiar with the terminology. We’ll also talk about Wi-Fi analyzers in general and introduce the different type of software you can find. As you’ll see, the term is loosely applied to very different tools. Then, we’ll be able to jump into the core of the matter and give you a brief review of the five best Wi-Fi Analyzers for Windows.
Wireless Networks In A Nutshell
Wi-Fi was invented just over 20 years ago as a technology to allow computers–mostly portable and tablet ones–to connect to the Internet without the need for a physical connection. It made sense as mobility was a strong selling point of these devices but wired networks considerably reduced their mobility. Wi-Fi uses radio signals in the microwave range to transmit information between WiFi-enabled devices–which, today, are not only computers–and a Wi-Fi access point. The term Wi-Fi was coined by a branding company and chosen because of its resemblance to the commonly used term “hi-fi”, with the “Wi” part standing for “wireless”. Contrary to popular belief, it was never a short for “wireless fidelity” just like Hi-Fi is a short for high fidelity.
Communications in a Wi-Fi network happen between a device with a wireless networking interface–a special type of LAN interface which uses radio signals instead of copper cabling–and a wireless access point which create a bridge between the Wireless domain and the cable domain. For devices from different vendors to be able to talk to each other, they all need to agree on how the data is transmitted. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE, is the governing body of the wireless network standards published as the IEEE 802.11 standards. These standards have evolved over the years from 802.11a to 802.11n with a handful of intermediate versions each providing some improvement–particularly in available bandwidth–over the previous version.
Technically speaking, Wi-Fi uses radio channels in the 2 GHz band. There are between 11 (USA and Canada) and 13 (Australia and Europe) overlapping channels in this band. Channels are often picked automatically by the access point and are chosen as to minimize possible interference with adjacent access points. This frequency band is susceptible to interference from microwave ovens, cordless telephones, and Bluetooth devices. More recently, a new 5 GHz has been used with 23 non-overlapping channels.
Apart from the wireless adapter in your portable device and access points, several other types of devices are commonly used in Wi-Fi networks. There are, for instance, Wi-Fi routers that combine the functionality of an Internet router, a Wi-Fi access point, and a firewall. Those are typically used on home, small office, or branch office networks. Another common device is the Wi-Fi bridge which simply bridges a wired network to a wireless one. They were once common in the gaming world back when consoles only had wired network interfaces.
What’s In A Wi-Fi Analyzer
Wi-Fi analyzer is a very generic term. Different vendors use it to describe totally different tools and concepts. They all share one thing, though, and it is this shared characteristic that makes them Wi-Fi analyzers. What they all have in common is that they all provide some information about the network that is not readily available. Some are oriented on the radio side of the network and will mostly provide information on channel usage or radiated power while other instead are oriented on the data side of the network and will provide traffic information, much like any other network analyzer tool.
Different Types Of Tools
The first type of tool that we can call a Wi-Fi analyzer is a tool that will “listen” to the radio spectrum and provide tons of information on what it “hears”. It will give you a pretty clear picture of what Wi-Fi networks are present at your location, what frequency band and channel each uses as well as each channel’s radiated power. They are great tools to use before you actually start planning your Wi-Fi deployment. They tell you about potential areas where interference could pose a problem by detecting other WiFi networks in the area.
Another type of Wi-Fi analysis tool is called the heat map. Actually, the heat map is not the tool but its end result. In a nutshell, a heat map is a physical map of an area–such as an office building floor plan–over which the location of each access point is indicated and that will show the radio radiating pattern of each access point. Its primary uses are in the planning phase of WiFI deployments to ensure that access points are located for the most uniform coverage or in the upgrade phase to identify weak spots where the addition of access points would be beneficial. Heat map tools are rarely stand alone and will often be integrated into other types of analysis software.
The last type of tools is bandwidth monitors. They are much like bandwidth monitor in the wired network domain. There are a few differences, though. While wire networks typically use switch where each connected device uses one port and measuring bandwidth on that port will tell you how much bandwidth that device uses, Wireless networks don’t have one port per device that can be monitored. Often, Wi-Fi Bandwidth monitors will measure the bandwidth used by every connection to an access point without being able to tell them apart. Some network monitors that support wireless networks will be able to pull Wi-Fi-specific operational data from access points.
Our Top 5 Wi-Fi Analyzer Tools For Windows
The time has come to reveal what our top 5 Wi-Fi analyzers for Windows are. Out top picks is a broad monitoring tool with some great wireless analysis capabilities while the others are of the first type as described above and are mostly used to analyze the radio aspect of your Wi-Fi infrastructure.
1. SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor (Free Trial)
SolarWinds rarely need introduction among network administrators. It has built itself a solid reputation for making excellent network administration tools, including some great free ones such as its SFTP/SCP server or its TFTP server. Its flagship product is called the Network Performance Monitor, or NPM. As its name suggests, NPM is primarily used to monitor network performance. It is one of the best SNMP Monitoring tools and it made it to the top spot on our list mainly because of two of its features: the Wi-Fi Monitor and the Wi-Fi Heat Map. More about those in a moment.
The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is a Windows tool which polls multiple network devices and reads traffic statistics and performance metrics. It displays the results visually as graphs on a web page depicting their evolution over time. Adding a device to the Network Performance Monitor simply requires that you specify its IP address and SNMP community string. The tool then queries the device and let you pick what data to include in your graphs. The Network Performance Monitor has several advanced features too. It can, for instance, build network maps or display a visual representation of the critical path between two devices or services, a useful feature when troubleshooting network issues.
When it comes to Wi-Fi, one of NPM’s best features is its Wi-Fi Monitor. It will automatically discover wireless access points and controllers as wireless devices, helping you manage and monitor your Wi-Fi infrastructure. The module periodically polls thin and autonomous wireless access points, controllers, and connected devices. The Wi-Fi monitor will monitor and report on parameters such as IP address, device type, SSID, channels used, and the number of clients currently connected. It also provides client details such as client name, SSID, IP Address, MAC Address, Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI), time connected, data rate, and bytes received and bytes transmitted.
Another great feature is the Wi-FI Heat Map that will help you create dynamic Wi-Fi heat maps by polling the signal strength of access point and connected clients. The maps will allow you to visualize the network signal coverage and identify dead zones, make adjustments, and improve coverage. It uses information–such as the signal strength–from access points and connected clients and shows you where you have hot or cold spots in your coverage.
The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor is highly scalable and easily go from small networks to large ones with thousands of devices in multiple locations. Pricing starts at just under $3 000 for 100 devices. If you want to try the software before committing to purchasing it, a free 30-day trial is available.
FREE 30-DAY TRIAL: SOLARWINDS NETWORK PERFORMANCE MONITOR
2. Acrylic WiFi
When it comes to free Wi-Fi analysis tools, Acrylic WiFi is right there at the top. It is blazing fast and will perform detailed security and coverage analysis of Wi-Fi Networks in record time. Acrylic WiFi scans your access points, building a table with all the important metrics such as MAC address, SSID, RSSI (Received Signal Strength Indication), channel, and vendor. There’s also a monitor mode that will scan individual packets and that can be used to identify and locate hidden wireless networks.
The Acrylic WiFi features list is impressive and more are added with each new version. It boasts several tools that you can use to troubleshoot slow wireless networks and problematic connections or perform upload and download speed tests. The software will also record and keep an inventory of all connected devices per access point. It will pull information about clients connected to access points, including maximum transfer speeds. It will also keep statistics about packet retry rates that might help you identify coverage issues.
Acrylic WiFi does not have a built-in heat map functionality but it is available as a separate product called Acrylic WiFi Heat Map. This additional tool helps you perform WiFi site survey easier and faster. It analyzes the coverage and the propagation of Wi-Fi network signals. The system captures the Wi-Fi traffic, devices, signal levels, and other information to create maps with detailed coverage of each access point.
Acrylic WiFi is available in several versions. Only the Home version is free. There’s a Professional version that will cost you $19.95 for a year or $39.95 for a perpetual license. There’s also a Law Enforcement version with specific functionality. Pricing for that one can be obtained by contacting Acrylic. As for the Acrylic WiFi Heat Map software, prices vary from $129/month to $2199 for a perpetual license.
NetSpot was originally created for the OS X platform but it has since been ported to Windows, earning its spot on our top five list. You can use NetSpot to visualize, manage, troubleshoot, audit, plan, and deploy wireless networks, making it a rather complete tool. It will collect data from you access points including channel width, MAC address, signal quality, and even network encryption providing some of the best visibility over your wireless network.
Concretely, NetSpot will collect live Wi-Fi data from all surrounding networks and let you see channel info, transmit rate, vendor, security type, band, etc. The tool also has customizable signal level and noise charts that can display changes in real time. Support for both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands is built-in and allows you to identify the most and least used channels in each band. This is a very useful tool that can be used to plan, improve, and troubleshoot wireless networks.
NetSpot is available for OS X and Windows in four versions. The Free version is feature-limited to Wi-Fi site survey, network planning, and troubleshooting. There’s also a $49 Home version but it can’t be used in a professional context and will only support two zones and fifty data points per zone. The Professional version is competitively priced at $140 and will support fifty zones and five hundred data points per zone. There’s even an Enterprise version at $499 with unlimited zones and data points. If you want to try the product, an unlimited free trial license is available but it is restricted to seven days.
4. WiFi Analyzer
WiFi Analyzer is a Windows app from Matt Hafner that’s available from the Windows store. It can help you pinpoint Wi-Fi issues or find the best channel or the best location for your access point(s). It can turn your laptop computer, tablet, or other mobile device into a wireless network analyzer. The tool will discover nearby networks that could potentially interfere with yours. It will find detailed information about access points such as vendor, security features, type, etc. Its dashboard will let you see at a glance the speed and quality of your WiFi connection.
The WiFI Analyzer’s user interface is clean and simple to use. Each network always uses the same color so you can easily recognize them. You can also choose between light and dark themes and choose your accent colors. The base version with all the aforementioned features is available for free and is not ad-supported. Extra features can be purchased from within the app itself. Overall, this is a very useful tool and given its price, you shouldn’t be without it.
You shouldn’t let the fact that it is last on our list put you off. inSSIDer from Metageek is an excellent product. And it’s still one of the five best. This tool will fetch operational data from your access point(s) and let you view it easily. You have access to all sorts of information such as encryption type, signal strength or channel.
InSSIDer has a simple user interface where you simply click a Wi-Fi network and pick the information you want to be displayed about it from a drop-down menu. You can, for instance, view SSID, signal strength, channel, or network type. This tool is very easy to use. Perhaps too easy for professional administrators who might find its user interface limited. This tool is possibly best suited for small business or home networks.
InSSIDer is available in several versions. The InSSIDer Office sells for $149. There’s also InSSIDer Essential wich bundles InSSIDer with Wi-Spy DBx, another troubleshooting tool. It is priced at $599. And for large networks, you can opt for Chanalyzer Essential which adds even more features and capabilities and sells for $999. A free 7-day trial license key can be obtained from Metageek.
WiFi analyzers are one more tool in the arsenal of software tools that network administrators can use to make their lives easier. Whether you choose a broad tool such as the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor and its Wi-Fi Monitor and Heat Map or you go with a dedicated Wi-Fi analyzer is entirely up to you. Any tool on our list is an excellent one and your choice will be, more than anything, based on your personal preferences and specific needs. All the products reviewed are free or have a free trial available so why not try them and see for yourself what each one can do for you.