Must-have Wi-Fi troubleshooting and management tools

Designing, maintaining and troubleshooting Wi-Fi networks aren’t simple tasks. Several tools, including Wi-Fi stumblers, Wi-Fi analyzers, RF spectrum analyzers and Wi-Fi survey heatmapping software, can help.

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As you may know all too well, Wi-Fi is a very fickle technology. It requires diligent configuration to work well and doesn’t like sharing the airwaves. In a past article, I discussed specific things to do (or not do), such as adjusting or enabling certain settings, to help Wi-Fi performance. And in another article, I went in-depth on Wi-Fi channels.

Now I want to discuss the tools you can use to evaluate, design and troubleshoot wireless networks, from simple stumblers to the latest sensor-based products.

Wi-Fi stumbler apps

Stumblers give you the basic Wi-Fi details of wireless access points (AP): the service set identifier (SSID), channel, security status and MAC address. This always includes a numerical readout or table of the details. Many times, stumblers also give some sort of graphs to help you visualize the channel usage of the frequency bands.

Stumblers are a must-have for anyone in IT who deals with Wi-Fi. Even if you have high-end tools that can tell you similar details, a simple stumbler on your mobile device or laptop almost always comes in handy. When troubleshooting Wi-Fi performance, you can get a quick idea of the channel usage of the APs and any neighboring networks. Most stumblers also show you the MAC address of the AP you’re connected to, so you can identify APs before running any tests and verify APs while roaming.

Keep in mind that most stumblers do nothing but detect Wi-Fi signals. They can’t report the general noise or signal-to-noise (SNR) levels on the frequencies, which would provide an idea of any interference that might exist. However, there are some exceptions. For instance, Acrylic WiFi Professional does report noise and SNR levels, but it’s more of a Wi-Fi analyzer (see below). Some stumbler tools, such as inSSIDer Office, can integrate with an RF spectrum analyzer, though, which would detect noise, SNR and other non-Wi-Fi signals as well.

Another caveat: Some stumblers, especially the free ones, don’t show the precise channels used by APs using 40MHz or larger channel widths. So you might not be able to properly identify channel usage on networks using 802.11n or 802.11ac. Additionally, some stumblers don’t recognize APs that have the SSID broadcasting disabled. Even if the AP is detected, most stumblers can’t reveal the hidden SSID the way Wi-Fi analyzers can.

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