Analyze This - Wi-Fi Nets Via Smartphone (Part 1)

5/18/2013 6:19:00 PM

Ekahau offers most comprehensive set of Wi-Fi site survey features in three-product test

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 light weight 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’ air-Magnet 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).

WolfWiFi Pro is the least expensive but doesn’t offer laptop-based software for further analysis

WolfWiFi Pro is the least expensive but doesn’t offer laptop-based software for further analysis

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.

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 light weight 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.

AirMagnet survey pro

AirMagnet survey pro

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.

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.

AirMapper app

AirMapper app

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 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.

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