Wireless scanning and analysis let you “see” wireless networks, providing network administrators with the data they need to keep them operating at their peak. It is said that knowledge is power and this seems to be particularly true of wireless networks. Perhaps it is due to their “invisible” nature but it seems that they are often a mysterious beast that no one really knows. In today’s post, we’ll have a loot at what wireless scanning and analysis is and what tools are available to assist.
We’ll begin our discussion by explaining wireless scanning and analysis to the best of our abilities. Next, we’ll discuss the tools that can be used for that specific purpose. We’ll then pause briefly to discuss wireless heat maps which, although they are very different from wireless scanning and analysis tools provide much-needed assistance when deploying wireless networks. Finally, we’ll get to the core of the discussion and review some of the best wireless scanning and analysis tools, first for Windows, then for iOS, and finally for Android.
Wireless Scanning And Analysis Explained
Wireless scanning and analysis is a rather broad topic. Put simply, any tool that can be used to analyze Wireless traffic, data, and/or signals can be classified as a wireless scanning and analysis tool and there is a multitude of such tools with widely different feature sets. It is, therefore, somewhat complicated to explain exactly what they are as every developer of these tools seems to have its own idea of what it is or what it should be. In its most basic form, a wireless scanning and analysis tools is a piece of software that allows you to “see” wireless networks and/or their traffic.
The most basic of these tools will simply list what SSIDs are available in a given space and, most of the time, the strength of each SSID’s signal. Better tools tend to go further and they can, for instance, identify a source of interference that might be hindering your WiFi connection. They are very useful diagnostic and planning tools. Wireless scanning and analysis tools collect data about all wireless networks they can find and display that information in a useful manner. So go even further and can capture and decode wireless network traffic
While the manner in which data is presented is probably where there are the most differences between wireless scanning and analysis tools, most of them have some sort of visual display representing the different wireless networks. Others will present data in a table format.
There are basically two ways that wireless scanning and analysis tools operate. Some simply capture radio signals emitted by WiFi access points. Others connect to access points using SNMP or some other mean and read their operational data and metrics. And of course, the best ones combine both techniques and offer the greatest level of detail.
About Wireless Scanning And Analysis Tools
The reasons why one needs wireless scanning and analysis tools are pretty much the same as those which justify the need for any network scanning and analysis tool. First and foremost, they help you keep a watchful eye on what’s going on. They also are very useful in assisting with troubleshooting issues with your wireless networks.
Let’s say, for instance, that your users are complaining of frequent slowdowns or disconnects on the WiFi network. There’s usually a simple explanation to that: something—many times another WiFi network—is interfering with the operation of the network. This is exactly the type of issue that a wireless scanning and analysis tool can help you troubleshoot quickly. For instance, I’ve once used them to discover that the next-door tenant in the office building where our offices were had a much more powerful WiFi network than ours operating on the same channel. Once the tool helped me quickly identify the problem, I just had to reconfigure my WiFi access points to use another channel and the issue was solved.
Another use for wireless scanning and analysis tools is to measure the radio signal distribution throughout your location, be that a home or an office space. Wireless network signals are radio-signals which, although they can—to a certain extent—pass through walls, some building structures will block them. Perhaps not completely but enough to attenuate them beyond reliable usability. With a wireless scanning and analysis tool, you can walk through the space to find weaker spots or even dead spots with no coverage at all. If you’re planning on expanding your WiFi network, a wireless scanning and analysis tool will help you determine where to add the new access points for the best possible coverage.
WiFi Heat Maps In A Nutshell
Another very useful tool for wireless network planning is one that allows you to build WiFi heat maps. In a nutshell, a WiFi heat map is a visual representation of how your WiFi access points radiate their radio signals. It will show you where the signal is the strongest and where it is the weakest.
Heat map software tools are often stand-alone tools. They are separate from wireless scanning and analysis tools and they usually rely on polling data from your existing infrastructure to build the actual heat maps. They will often let you import a floor plan of your space where you indicate the location of the access point and the different construction materials used throughout the office. The software then interrogates the access points and builds a visual representation of the signal distribution over the floor plan.
Many suppliers of enterprise-grade wireless networking equipment offer some form of heat map tool but one of the best is a vendor-agnostic product from SolarWinds aptly called the SolarWinds Heat Map. It is part of SolarWinds’ flagship product: the Network Performance Monitor–or NPM–a suite of much-useful network management tools. Starting at just below $3000 the tool might not be within reach of everyone but it gives you much more than just heat maps. You can find all the details about the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor by visiting the SolarWinds website.
A tool such as the SolarWinds Heat Map will let you create custom wireless heat maps that can help you find weak dead zones where there’s poor or no connectivity. It polls your access points to read their signal strength metrics and can indicate the quality of the connection at any location. The tool lays the heat map over a floor plan of the network’s location to give you a real physical overview of the situation.
The Top Wireless Scanning and Analysis Tools For Windows
We’ve finally managed to get to the good part of this post where we’ll be reviewing some of the very best wireless scanning and analysis tools. We’ll start off with some tools that run on the Windows platform. After all, this is still the most common OS used by network administrators. And it is also the platform for which you’ll find the best wireless scanning and analysis tools. Let’s review them.
1. SolarWinds WiFi Monitor (FREE TRIAL)
SolarWinds, the same vendor who brought us the Heat Map and Network Performance Monitor tools mentioned earlier is also well-known for making some of the best network management tools. One of these tools is called the SolarWinds WiFi Monitor. And just like the SolarWinds Heat Map, it is part of the Network Performance Monitor package.
- FREE TRIAL: SolarWinds WiFi Monitor
- Official Download Link: https://www.solarwinds.com/network-performance-monitor/registration
The SolarWinds WiFi Monitor is one of the best you can find. It will discover and monitor your wireless access points and add automatically them to the Network Performance Monitor. The tool will also build heat maps. Well, it’s actually the Heat Map tool described above that will take care of that as both the WiFi Monitor and the Heat Map are components of the Network Performance Monitor.
But more than anything, the SolarWinds WiFi Monitor will let you monitor your wireless infrastructure. The SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor Wi-Fi monitoring features will let you set alert, it will monitor your infrastructure and it will create reports on many aspects such as IP addresses, device type, SSID, channels used, and the number of clients currently connected. Client details include client name, SSID, IP Address, MAC Address, Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI), time connected, data rate, and bytes received and bytes transmitted.
Like with most SolarWinds software, a free 30-day evaluation version of the Network Performance Monitor—including the WiFi Monitor and Heat Map tools—can be downloaded from SolarWinds’ website.
Our next entry is a great little tool called NetSpot. It was originally created for the Mac OS platform but the tool has since been ported to Windows. It can collect various information from your access points including channel width, to MAC address, signal quality, and even network encryption, providing some of the best visibility over your wireless network.
NetSpot’s detailed heat map is one of the product’s best features but it has more to offer. The tool can, for instance, help you assess WLAN interference. Another strong point of this tool is its reports which combine ease of use with an unprecedented depth of information.
NetSpot is possibly the only tool that we’ve found to be as good for home users as it is for the professional administrator. And as a matter of fact, it is available in two versions: a Home version at just below 50 dollars and a Professional one at around 150 dollars.
3. Acrylic Wifi
Acrylic WiFi is another great free wireless scanning and analysis tool for windows. At its core, it is a wireless network scanner that performs detailed security and coverage analysis of wireless networks in a very short time. This software will let you scan for access points and build a table with all the relevant details. Core metrics such as MAC address, SSID, RSSI, channel, and vendor name are included in that table. The tool also has a monitor mode where it will monitor individual network packets that you can use to locate hidden networks.
Saying that the tool is free is a bit of a stretch, though. While the tool’s personal version is free (for personal use only), it is also available in a Professional version and a Law Enforcement version. And for added functionality, there’s also a separate Acrylic Heat Map software that you can add to your package.
Price-wise, InSSIDer is a good deal but that’s not all. It’s also an excellent product. Don’t let its low, sub $ 20, price fool you. This is a very potent tool. It will pull all available data from your access point and allow you to view everything from encryption type to signal strength and channel.
InSSIDer is not only one of the cheapest WiFi analyzers, but it’s also one of the easiest to use. Its user interface lets you click a specific WiFi network to display a drop-down menu of all the information that can be displayed about it. You can, for instance, choose between SSID, signal, channel or network type. This simple user interface is a bounty for new users but professional administrators may find it somewhat limited. This tool is possibly better suited for home networks or smaller business networks than for large corporate networks.
The Top Wireless Scanning and Analysis Tools For iOS
For those who prefer to take their wireless scanning and analysis tools to the field and see what’s going on, they need some sort of portable analyzers. Luckily, there are plenty off tools that run on portable devices like smartphones and tablets. Let’s start by having a look at some iOS tools.
1. Network Analyzer
Despite its rather boring name, Network Analyzer is one of the best wireless scanning and analysis tools for iOS. It was clearly created with the goal of helping users identify issues and find solutions. The tool will let you view signal strength, latency, disconnections, download and upload speed. There’s also a built-in WiFi scanner that will detect nearby wireless network devices.
The tool will also appeal to advanced administrators. It can not only gather information about surrounding networks but it also boasts some pretty useful network troubleshooting tools. For instance, there’s a DNS lookup function and a ping tool built right into it. This is not a free app but it will only cost you a modest $3.99. At such a low price, who can afford to be without it?.
2. WiFi Explorer
You can use the WiFi Explorer app to scan, monitor, and troubleshoot wireless networks. The tool will allow you to resolve channel conflicts or signal overlapping and identify configuration issues that could be affecting the connectivity and performance of wireless networks. It will give you some insight into the network details such as name (SSID), MAC address (BSSID), device manufacturer, signal strength (RSSI), noise, channel, band, security configuration, supported data rates, and much more.
The tool can scale from home to small office to enterprise networks. It has an easy-to-use, intuitive user interface and supports the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands as well as 20, 40, 80 and 160 MHz channels. It will work with any 802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax networks.
The Fing app is a free WiFi analyzer app. It has several useful components such as a WiFi scanner, an internet connectivity checker, a subnet scanner and a port scanner. It even has some intrusion detection tools. This is a lot of features to carry in the palm of your hands and the tool can help you quickly identify and solve issues with your Wireless network.
Fing is used by millions of users worldwide and there’s a very active community behind it. The app is frequently updated through the App store, ensuring you can always have the latest features and bug fixes. And due to its huge popularity and user base, there’s also a ton of online tutorials and documents on how to use the tool and get the most out of it.
The Top Wireless Scanning and Analysis Tools For Android
If you prefer Android to iOS, don’t worry, there are also some great wireless scanning and analysis tools for that platform. Let’s review the best three we could find.
1. WiFi Analyzer
When looking for a WiFi analyzer for Android, WiFi Analyzer is usually the first name that pops up. With over 10 million installations, this is one popular tool. There’s a reason to that popularity. The tool is good. Plain and simple. This is the tool I personally use every time I need to analyze wireless networks. It will scan the waves, identify nearby networks and create a visual representation of the current situation.
As pretty as this visual representation is, it’s also useful and it will let you quickly identify oversaturated channels, for example. Its main screen will show you a real-time representation of the signal strength of each network it can find. It can also display a graph of signal strength over time. You can zero in on one specific network and see a live signal strength gauge. And if you’re not the graphics type, you can also see network data in a tabular form.
This is an ad-supported free application so you’ll have to cope with on-screen ads, but they are just small banners that are displayed at the bottom of the screen, Unless your mobile device has a very small screen, they won’t be a problem.
OpenSignal is possibly the most versatile apps on this short list. Its detailed map feature is rather unique. It won’t just analyze WiFi signals, it can display a physical map of nearby WiFi hot spots and cellular towers—those from your service provider—to show where connection quality is the best.
OpenSignal likely best for users who want to monitor and optimize their WiFi and mobile signal coverage but it is nonetheless a great wireless scanning and analysis tool. It will collect somewhat basic wireless network information which is OK if you are just looking for the fundamentals. The app is available for free and is not ad-supported.
3. ManageEngine WiFi Analyzer and Surveyor
The WiFi Analyzer and Surveyor from ManageEngine is a pretty useful piece of software form another leader in the field of network administration. You can use it to effectively monitor signal strength and display channel graphs on all available wireless networks. Concretely, you can use its WiFi monitor to detect slow wireless networks, identify channel interference and poor signal strength. You can also use the app’s built-in WiFi scanner to scan for all the wireless networks in your environment.
Using its surveyor mode, the WiFi Analyzer and Surveyor can also survey the signal strengths of wireless networks. Other features of the product let you, for instance, export heat map reports and signal strength reports of the survey result from the app. You can then use these reports anywhere you want. This is a very good free app that is not ad-supported.