Free Wi-Fi Stumblers Do the Work But Save You Money

Our survey of nine wireless stumblers will help you plan, configure, troubleshoot and your Wi-Fi network without a lot of expense.

By Eric Geier | Posted Jul 23, 2010
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There are many commercial tools for doing Wi-Fi surveying and testing, but there are also free utilities out there. We'll look at some of these, starting with tools that can aid in surveying locations during the planning, deployment, or troubleshooting of your wireless network. Then we'll check out some that deal with Wi-Fi performance and security.

NetStumbler

NetStumbler is arguably the most popular free Wi-Fi stumbling and simple surveying tool out there for Windows and Windows CE/Mobile. It scans for and shows you the details of nearby wireless access points (APs). It includes the basic details: MAC address, SSID, channel, speed, vendor, and whether or not encryption is enabled. It also gives you the signal and noise levels in negative dBm values, and even calculates the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR).

It includes GPS support to log the locations where the APs are picked up. This is great for war driving or if you're working with a large network. You can export the wireless and/or location details for reports or for use with other applications.

There're two things you should keep in mind about NetStumbler though. It unfortunately doesn't accurately show the encryption method of APs: It displays WEP regardless of whether the AP is secured with WEP, WPA or WPA2. Plus it doesn't decloak hidden network names.

inSSIDer

inSSIDer (see Figure 1) is another simple Wi-Fi stumbling and surveying tool for Windows, like NetStumbler but with a few important differences, both good and bad. First, it's an open source project, unlike NetStumbler.

Figure 1: inSSIDer is a simple Wi-Fi stumbling and surveying tool for Windows
Figure 1: inSSIDer is a simple Wi-Fi stumbling and surveying tool for Windows

It displays the basic details of nearby APs. This includes the exact encryption method, instead of just WEP as in NetStumbler. Then instead of giving you just a text readout of the signal levels, it shows you two nice graphs. One shows signal strengths over time and the other shows it per channel.

The only noticeable feature it seems to lack from other stumblers is the noise levels. During most RF site surveys, you should also be keeping an eye on the noise levels and the signal-to-noise (SNR) values.

As with NetStumbler, it supports GPS location logging. Plus it gives you two export options. You can export the Wi-Fi and GPS data to a KML file to view in Google Earth or you can save as a NS1 file to view in NetStumbler.

Kismet

Kismet is a W-Fi stumbler, packet sniffer and intrusion detection system. It's available on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and BSD. Like other stumblers, it shows the details of nearby APs. Additionally, and unlike most other stumblers, it can display the SSID of hidden networks. It can also log the raw wireless packets to a PCAP file, which you can later import into other tools, such as Wireshark or TCPdump.

Ekahau HeatMapper

The Ekahau HeatMapper (see Figure 2) doesn't give you a boring signal readout like most other free surveying utilities. It gives you a visual representation of the signals on a map. It's a streamlined version of Ekahau's established commercial product line.

Ekahau HeatMapper
Figure 2: Ekahau HeatMapper

You can either import a floor plan or work with a grid. Click around on the map while you walk around the building and it will build a heat map of the AP signal levels. Keep in mind, it doesn't show the noise or SNR levels and doesn't have any GPS capabilities. However, it does display a list of APs, showing their basic settings.

WaveDeploy Basic

WaveDeploy Basic is another Wi-Fi surveying utility that maps out your wireless signals. Like Ekahau HeatMapper, it's also a streamlined version of a commercial offering. However, it offers some more functionality.

In WaveDeploy Basic you can load a site map or work from the grid. You can optionally configure the target and acceptable minimums for signals, co-channel interference, data (PHY) rate, and TCP downstream.

When you're done with the survey, it can display HeatWaves for the RF signal strength, TCP downstream goodput, and co-channel interference with noise levels. Keep in mind that -- like the Ekahau HeatMapper -- it can't generate reports and doesn't have GPS capabilities.

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