Posted on February 13, 2013 4:18 pm

Smartphone tools to keep your Wi-Fi network humming

021113-wifi-netEkahau offers most comprehensive set of Wi-Fi site survey features in three-product test

Network World – In the early days of Wi-Fi, site surveys were fairly basic and involved running around with a laptop looking at simple signal levels. The next step was mapped-based tools that provided a good visual of Wi-Fi coverage, but still involved carrying a bulky laptop around.

Today, we have map-based Wi-Fi surveying mobile apps you can run on your Android-powered smartphone or tablets. These allow you to create heat maps of Wi-Fi coverage using a small and lightweight device. And for those vendors that offer a laptop-based surveying product, the data can be exported there for further analysis.

We tested Fluke Networks’ AirMagnet AirMapper, WolfWiFi Pro from Enterprising Apps, and Ekahau Mobile Survey.

WolfWiFi Pro, at a mere $50, is the least expensive but doesn’t offer laptop-based software for further analysis. (Watch a slideshow version of this story.)

If you’re planning to or already have purchased a laptop-based solution — typically offering more features and functionality than mobile apps — then consider AirMagnet or Ekahau. If throughput is crucial for your network, AirMagnet offers map-based throughput surveying.

[ALSO: 8 free Wi-Fi stumbling and surveying tools]

Ekahau Mobile Survey is great mobile surveying and testing solution, but it’s by far the most expensive out of the three solutions we reviewed, when purchased separately. However, it offers better multi-floor support, flexible exporting and importing, and includes a useful network health monitoring and testing feature.

Though these mobile apps are great for lightweight surveying, do keep in mind that none of them provide signal-to-noise-ratio (SNR) values, since the Android platform doesn’t provide RF noise levels. This is one of the drawbacks and why you still might consider having some other type of Wi-Fi analyzer around as well.

Here are the individual reviews:

 

Fluke Networks’ AirMagnet AirMapper App

Fluke Networks’ AirMagnet AirMapper App offers a Wi-Fi surveying solution for Android devices, supporting the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. It’s basically a simpler version of its Windows-based AirMagnet Survey software. A feature-limited demo version is offered free of charge while the Pro version is priced at $199; both downloadable from their website.

The demo version allows you to perform a full signal-based survey and shows coverage on a heat-map, but you’re limited to saving a single project and exporting/reporting is disabled. The Pro version unlocks those features and also allows you to perform throughput surveys, showing data rates on the heat map.

When you open AirMapper for the first time you’re greeted with a mini tutorial highlighting the main functions and then you’re taken to the main page where you can create a new project or open an existing one. Right away we noticed the help shortcut in the upper right corner of the screen, which also appears elsewhere in the app offering a useful explanation of the settings and functions.

When creating a new project you must select an image or take a photo of the floor plan and calibrate it by selecting a given distance on the map and inputting its length. You’re limited to inputting a single floor plan so you must create separate projects for multi-floor surveys.

For a project, you can define basic survey details like the surveyor’s name, location and description. You can also select the SSID(s) that you want to capture in the testing or leave blank to capture all. Additionally, you can enable or define technical settings like auto sampling, real-time heat-map, signal propagation, and minimum signal level of access points you’d like to include. Plus you can define a URL of a downloadable file that can be used when performing throughput testing.

When in survey mode, you simply single tap along your path on the map to take a signal/throughput reading. You can rotate device to better orientate your location on the map. During the survey the current number of access points is shown in the bottom left corner, which you can tap on to see a detailed listing.

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Performing a signal survey with the AirMagnet AirMapper App

When testing in the throughput mode, the current throughput rate in Mbps is also displaying on the bottom, which you can tap to see further details.

During the testing you can also tap the annotation icon on the top left corner to add notes, a photo, audio clip, or video attached to the last data point location.

When you exit the survey mode you see the heat map showing the signal and/or throughput levels. You can tap the `locate AP’ icon to show the estimated locations of access points on the map. You can also tap on data points to view a detailed listing of the top five access points detected at that location and you’re able to add annotations. Plus you can tap the filter icon to limit the heat-map results to a certain access point, SSID or channel.

On the top you’ll also find an export icon that packages your survey results in a ZIP file and lets you send via email and other methods offered by your device. But keep in mind that these results are only importable and viewable in their separate AirMagnet Survey PRO product. However, if you want to save the heat-map images, you could take screen shots of the app with your device’s native screen shot feature or use a third-party app.

Overall the AirMagnet AirMapper App is a great mobile surveying solution, but requires their AirMagnet Survey PRO product to view the exported data. Though the app requires you to create separate projects for multi-floor surveys, they can be imported into AirMagnet Survey PRO for multi-floor viewing.

The biggest differentiator from the other two solutions is that AirMapper supports map-based throughput testing in addition to the traditional signal surveying. AirMagnet also provides superior help and documentation, offering great in-app help shortcuts. The ability to save notes and media clips during surveying is also unique, but unfortunately they aren’t included in the exported data. Another snag about AirMapper is that you can only view current access point details when in the surveying mode.

WolfWiFi Pro

WolfWiFi Pro from Enterprising Apps is a wireless toolkit for Android that provides Wi-Fi surveying and scanning tools, supporting the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The demo version provides unrestricted use of the Wi-Fi Scan and Channel Scan tools, but the Site Survey feature is loaded with a demo survey and you’re limited to only one additional floor plan and five signal readings. The full version removes the restrictions and is priced at $49.99, which is offered along with the demo version in the Google Play store.

When you open WolfWiFi Pro, you’re greeted by a simple home screen with shortcuts for each of the tools: WiFi Scan, Channel Scan, Site Survey, and WiFi Manager. You’ll also find a button to enable/disable the device’s Wi-Fi and Wake Lock button to control the device’s sleep and dim settings.

When you open WiFi Scan, you’ll see a summary listing of nearby access points with details like their SSID, media access control (MAC) address, signal level in dBm values, and an indication of whether it’s secured. In the detail view you can see the channels, data rates, and the exact security protocols.

In either view you can select an access point to track its signal. It provides an enlarged signal reading with a bar indicator and the dBm value. Plus you can enable the tone feature that plays a tone that gets higher as the signal level increases to help you find the access point.

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Finding an AP with the signal tracking tool.

When you open the Channel Scan tool you’ll see a graph showing channel usage and AP signals in dBm values. You can also tap a channel number to view the details of APs on that particular channel.

Tapping the WiFi Manager shortcut on the WolfWiFi Pro home screen simply brings up the native Android Wi-Fi settings, where you can see and manage the Wi-Fi networks you can connect to.

When you open the Site Survey tool you’re greeted with a simple screen where you can create or open site survey projects. When creating a project all you’re prompted to do is select a floor plan image. Like with the AirMagnet AirMapper App, Wolf WiFi doesn’t yet offer multi-floor support so you’d have to create separate projects for each floor of a building.

To begin surveying, you can walk around the building and double-tap your location on the map to take signal readings. During or after surveying you can long-press on a reading to see the captured network and signal info.

In our testing we noticed the app auto-rotates when moving the device around, which makes orientating your location on the map a bit more difficult when performing a survey. You could, however, disable the device’s screen rotation setting during surveying.

In the upper right of the app you’ll find several shortcuts. The first shortcut shows you’re in the survey mode where you can double-tap to take readings. The second shortcut brings up a gallery of various network-related icons you can place on the map to represent items like access points, antennas, routers, and workstations. Once you place items you can manually input its network details and you can manage them by clicking the third shortcut to open the Network Device Explorer.

The fourth shortcut on the top of the app brings up the Filtering Options. There you can filter what access points or signals are shown on the map via their MAC address, dBm signal level, or channels. You can also enable/disable items on the map: signal heat map, access point edge, tap points, survey path, speed (data rate values), and security status (secured or unsecured).

The fifth shortcut on the top brings up the undo options to remove the last signal or icon tap. The sixth shortcut pops up the survey preferences to change settings, like showing icon tag info and the size of icons and taps. And the last icon on the top provides shortcuts to the other tools: WiFi Scan, Channel Scan and WiFi Manager.

You can export the survey results via the menu options when in the Site Survey tool, which simply lets you save the results to your device. Then you can use email or another app to send them or plug your device into a PC to transfer them. You’ll find an image of the survey map as it was in the app but a color-coded signal level bar is added.

Plus you’ll find a text file containing the details of the survey readings, which you can open in the CSV format within Excel for better viewing. You’ll find all the access point and connection details, such as the SSID, signal level, channel, and MAC address of the access point you were connected at the time of each survey reading.

Overall WolfWiFi Pro is a great and inexpensive mobile surveying app that provides other tools as well, like Channel Scan, to visually see channel usage and any overlapping issues. Another differentiator from the other two solutions is the exporting. Although still basic, it exports both the heat-map and access point details in formats anyone can view.

WolfWiFi’s network icon and network device explorer features are great ideas, but manually inputting all the network details isn’t ideal. The UI could use improvements as well. Fortunately, the developer says some of these issues will be addressed in Version 2.0 along with other new and improved features.

Ekahau Mobile Survey

Ekahau Mobile Survey is an Android app that provides Wi-Fi testing and surveying tools, available from Ekahau’s website for $399 when purchased separately. Unlike the other two solutions, Ekahau doesn’t provide a demo version of its app.

When you open the app, you’re greeted by the Test screen, which contains a network health monitor. It monitors the access point signal level, data rate, packet loss, packet delay, and rogue signals. It alerts you if any exceed your desired levels. These levels can be manually defined or you can choose between predefined requirement profiles, like email and web browsing or voice over Wi-Fi.

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The app opens to the network health monitor.

You can tap the bottom to display the network details of your current connection with Wi-Fi and IP details. You can also enable Background Monitoring so any network health alerts are saved in the logs, which we’ll discover later.

On the Map screen is where you perform the surveying. After importing a floor plan image you can calibrate the map by selecting something on the map and inputting its length in meters. Then you can enter the survey mode via the menu options and long-press on your location to take readings. Once you’re done you can hit pause to see the heat map of signal levels. You can adjust the threshold of signal levels shown on the map. You can also select certain access points to see individual coverage and access point details.

To perform multi-floor surveys, you can add additional floor plan images and conveniently switch between them on the Map screen. In the menu options you can export each individual floor map image, which saves it to the device and allows you to email or export via other methods.

On the access points screen, you’ll find a listing of current access point details, including SSID, MAC address, channel, security status, and signal level; all of which you can tap to sort the access points by.

On the Log screen, you’ll find a history of any network errors detected by the network health monitor, such as access points with low signal or data rate, rogue access points, or high packet delays. You can tap an entry to review the details and even add your own notes about the issue.

In the app’s menu options, you can export the heat map image and monitoring logs via email or methods. Plus, survey projects created with Ekahau Mobile Survey and their Windows-based Ekahau Site Survey software are compatible. So you can perform surveys with a lightweight mobile device and later export the project to a PC or laptop for in-depth analysis and reporting. And vice-versa; you can export projects from a laptop and import them to a mobile device to do further surveying. Plus, you can also move survey projects to different mobile devices as well.