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Wireless Networking Handhelds Hardware

Canary Wireless Digital Hotspotter Reviewed 87

Posted by timothy
from the polymorphously-perverse dept.
The postman brought me a review sample last week of what is without doubt the best thing to hit my keychain in ... well, since keys. It's Canary Wireless's Digital Hotspotter, a Wi-Fi signal finder which, despite a few quirks, is the best (and most sophisticated) of the current crop of cheap hand-held detectors. Read on for my review of the device, which was also mentioned in this detector round-up linked to last month.

First, to clear up a misconception about Wi-Fi detectors in general: though they can be used to find and (usually illegally) hop onto someone else's wireless connection, that's not their only use. It's a pet peeve of mine to see technology vilified because it can be put to nefarious or even semi-nefarious use; in the case of hand-held wireless detectors, there are plenty of "non-infringing uses" to which they can be put. Troubleshooting in a house or office is one (wireless base station manufacturers sometimes claim coverage ranges that can charitably be called optimistic -- and even if their numbers represent a legitimate best guess, it seems that no house outside of Stepford is truly typical); making sure that your signal isn't reaching the general public (or is reaching the general public, depending on your inclinations and your ISP's Terms of Service) is another good use; so is finding which coffee shops have both drinks and wireless access. There's also counter-cracker vigilance -- making sure no one has installed a wireless router on your network without your permission.

On several cross-country trips, I've happily used an earlier-generation Wi-Fi finder -- Smart ID's WFS-1 -- to park intelligently at Flying J truckstops all over the United States; though hundreds of Flying J locations are set up as (subscription-based) wireless hotspots, the signal coverage is often haphazard, and it's more economical of time and battery life to spend a few minutes walking around with a hand-sized device than to keep trying new parking spots and consulting the signal meter on a laptop. Even if you have an 802.11-equipped handheld, offloading the task of signal detection (and, if you can, keeping 802.11 off unless there's a connection available) will save your battery a few percentage points.

My first impressions of the device were positive. It arrived in the hated plastic-clamshell packaging, but -- unlike some products -- didn't require a utility knife or dueling pliers to extract. The instructions are blessedly simple, and all fit on the back of the package insert, about the size of a 3x5 index card. (This insert opens up, and I expected to find inside the usual birdseed barrage of legal flummery and useless warnings, right down to "Don't feed this device to babies" -- all nicely absent. Simple product, simple instructions: magic.) The device is a medium grey, with the display located just below the centerline and its lone button in the lower left-hand corner. The required pair of AAA batteries is supplied in the package. (AAAs are nice -- much nicer than fiddly button cells at least; a single AA would be even better, though.)

Canary's device is the third Wi-Fi detector I've tried; Kensington's first-generation key-fob device was the first, but that one has forfeited its place in my toolkit: compared to the others, it is neither as sensitive nor as discriminating in the signals it picks up (neon lights all seem to set it off) and has a less informative display to boot, just three LEDs. (And it seemed the only way I could get all the LEDs to light strongly was to place the thing directly on top of a wireless router.)

Smart ID's four-LED meter may not seem a huge leap up from that, but compared to Kensington's, the WFS-1 is both more sensitive and more directional in its pickup, so those four LEDs actually convey more than a third more information than the Kensington's three. The WFS's more pronounced directionality (even compared to the Canary unit) and simpler display means it still has an important adjunct role for quickly finding the source of a signal.

One thing to note: Canary's take on the Wi-Fi detector, at 4.5 ounces, is the chunkiest one I've seen; it's solid-feeling (read: "surprisingly hefty") and squat -- about twice as thick as Smart ID's, and much fatter than Kensington's. The back is curved, though, making it comfortable to hold, if not to jam in a jeans pocket, and it's only about two inches tall.

To use the Hotspotter, there are only two things you need to know: 1) Hit the little grey button to scan for local wireless networks; if one is located, the screen will display in sequence four pieces of information: the network name, a signal-strength readout (one to four bars), "Secure" or "Open" to indicate whether the signal is encrypted, and the channel number of the detected signal. 2) To scan for more networks, hit the button again. (So it's really more like one and a half things.) The initial scan takes 8-10 seconds; subsequent ones are much faster.

Canary claims the Hotspotter should work up to about 200 feet (with a clear line of site, outdoors); I can confirm that it works to at least nearly that distance with the router in our house, but sight lines and property lines conspire to prevent me from reaching the full 200 feet.

I'm in Seattle's Capital Hill neighborhood at the moment, a target-rich environment if ever one was, and I took the Hotspotter along on a walk to Victrola, a very nice wireless-equipped coffee shop down the street, to see what it said about the neighborhood.

The answer is unsurprising, but something to keep in mind if you'd like your own network to be used only by you: of the 33 unique networks I noted in a 6-block stroll, fully 16 of them were shown as "open" by the Hotspotter. (That doesn't necessarily mean they're wide open, though; see below.) 11 of the networks I encountered displayed common default SSIDs (Linksys, Netgear, Apple Net, and the hot-selling "default"), which with a little googling can yield default admin-interface IP addresses and passwords. While some of the nominally open networks might be employing MAC-based security, I think it would be a conservative bet that well over half of them are simply open to all comers. Is yours?

(There may have been more base stations than the ones I could distinguish, because the coverage clouds overlap so much; I discarded some of the discovered networks as probable duplicates. By walking fast, I may also have missed some in the thickest sections.)

I've come up with only a few niggling objections to the device -- just quirks, really, but they're worth laying out:

First quirk: For some reason, on its initial scan (that is, on being powered up from the Off state), the Canary device usually fails to detect the house network, though scanning again immediately has always found it. This is a trivial point, for one big reason: you'll have to hit the scan button again anyhow to scan for multiple networks.

The second quirk is one I hope is fixed on the Mark II version: the absence of a backlight. Unlike the other contenders in this niche, all of which are based on LED displays, the Hotspotter has a 12-character LCD readout, which is what lets it display so much information in the first place. However, the display is difficult to read in anything but bright light, and useless in actual dark. An internal LED with its own button (or an EL backlight like Timex's Indiglo) would be a great improvement.

Lack of a backlight aside, the scrolling display requires more attention than the one-dimensional LED graphs of the competitors -- a fair trade-off for the additional information to be gleaned. However, it doesn't have to be a trade-off at all: I wish the signal strength aspect of the display was displayed on dedicated LEDs either instead of, or in addition to, the scrolling LCD display.

One more quibble, though it's getting close to looking a gift horse in the mouth: this detector will say whether a particular wireless signal is encrypted, but it can't say whether it's protected by other means. If you use MAC-based authentication, for instance (but not WEP), the signal would still show up as "open." It would be more accurate to label such signals "unencrypted" or "no crypto" rather than "open."

In short, the Hotspotter is my new favorite portable Wi-Fi finder, and handily tops the features of the competition: the WFS-1's stronger directionality and bright LEDs can't beat network identification and encryption status, so Canary's device moves up in line. It works well, is useful for multiple purposes, and provides all the functionality it's reasonable to expect from a $50 device the size of a nice piece of fudge. (And of course the great thing about favorites sometimes is waiting for them to be toppled.)

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Canary Wireless Digital Hotspotter Reviewed

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  • by omahajim (723760) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @01:34PM (#11149237)
    Already posted my review a couple weeks ago as a comment in the original story comparing these devices. Here it is again.

    Look at their website www.canarywireless.com for product images. This thing is really small, about the same width as a PCMCIA card, but about 3/4 to 1 inch shorter. It is about 1 inch thick though. It came well packaged, but after ordering on Sunday night, it took them until Wednesday evening to get it out the door with expedited shipping.

    Press the one button, and it says "Wifi Detect" on the dot-matrix LCD screen and begins scanning. When it finds an AP, it scrolls the SSID, signal strength in bars, Secure or Open for WEP status, and Ch:__ (showing 1-11 or 1-13 depending on country I think).

    It is reasonably sensitive... it picks up my roof mounted D-Link DWL-2700AP with WEP, shows three bars and "Secure". This is from the below-grade basement of a wood-framed house; the AP is on the top of the one-story peak roof on the other end of my house. The Hotspotter picks up the signal better than my laptops (or at least according to the ultra-subjective comparitive # of bars).

    After you read the first result, press the button again and it says "Scanning". It will display the info for the next AP it can hear. And so on.

    The "instruction" cardlet in the blister pack says it powers off in about 30 seconds, but it seems shorter than that... didn't time it though. When it powers itself down, it starts from the beginning again with the apparently strongest signal, you have to click back through again for more scans.

    This device also picks up my neighbor's Apple Airport Extreme, while I am inside my front living room (wood frame construction) and his AE is inside his brick home. We are about 100 feet apart. Not bad through those materials. The device reads "Cloaked" because he has SSID turned off and WEP on, but it does show good sig strength and the correct channel (I know because I set it up). He gets his internet from my roof AP, into a stock (indoor) WET11 that feeds the WAN port on the AE.

    Curiously it won't pick up my Linksys befw11s4 while scanning it from within the same room. It's open with SSID broadcast on. I've gone elsewhere in the house in case I am swamping the front end of this thing but no dice. Will test it another day on other Linksys devices I have elsewhere.

    Anyways, it seems the feature set and signal sensitivity make it the choice of devices in this roundup.

    IMHO.
  • Oblig. (Score:1, Funny)

    by JamesD_UK (721413)
    Yes that's all well and good but is the device digitally signed?
  • I want! (Score:3, Informative)

    by alop (67204) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @01:34PM (#11149255) Journal
    Darn, Backordered, I guess that means they won't ship in time for xmas.
  • by Bill_Royle (639563) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @01:35PM (#11149258)
    Just don't use it in a Lowe's parking lot.
  • by garcia (6573) * on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @01:37PM (#11149284) Homepage
    First, to clear up a misconception about Wi-Fi detectors in general: though they can be used to find and (usually illegally) hop onto someone else's wireless connection, that's not their only use. It's a pet peeve of mine to see technology vilified because it can be put to nefarious or even semi-nefarious use; in the case of hand-held wireless detectors, there are plenty of "non-infringing uses" to which they can be put.

    Duh, this device doesn't really help you connect to a network. It just tells you that one is there. Anyone with a laptop/PCMCIA card or a wifi CF card can "Stumble" onto any network with any number of WEP encryption cracking programs/MAC sniffers.

    This device is a tool, plain and simple. To use it "nefariously" would be a waste of money.
    • Wi-Fi detectors in general: though they can be used to find and (usually illegally) hop onto someone else's wireless connection

      Anyone with a laptop/PCMCIA card or a wifi CF card can "Stumble" onto any network with any number of WEP encryption cracking programs/MAC sniffers.

      Well, with this /. article and another from earlier today [slashdot.org], who knows what havoc we can wreak?

  • too big (Score:5, Informative)

    by asv108 (141455) <alexNO@SPAMphataudio.org> on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @01:40PM (#11149316) Homepage Journal
    I ended up purchasing a Wifi Seeker [wifiseeker.com] a few months ago and so far I've been very impressed. In the use case of finding a good signal spot at the flying J truck stop, the wifi seeker would probably be the better option.

    I don't want to carry another PDA sized device in my laptop bag just to detect wifi networks. A key chain device seems to be the better form factor, even if it doesn't list the networks.

    • Re:too big (Score:5, Informative)

      by Lumpy (12016) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @01:58PM (#11149530) Homepage
      I agree I have the mobile-edge wifi signal locator.

      insanely cheaper at $9.99 at compusa and has a reduced sensitivity compared to my laptop so I KNOW that there is an available signal if I get one Bar on the 4 led display.

      reading out all the other stuff is nothing but fluff. I can get that and more the second the laptop or zaurus is powered up and kismet is started.

      typically if you enter a place and see people with laptops out, they have open wireless....

      and that is a free detector.
      • Man you got my hopes up, but according to the webpage it is 29.99, and not 9.99. I just got into the wireless thing, and think it seems fun, but have a hard time finding any free hotspots around my house, or even on my way about town. I think the one in the actual story, though, would be better being it actually gives a brief rundown of the spot, and not just strength, which my laptop seems to do just fine. (though the other computer on my network, which is sitting about 3 feet away, only registers moder
        • the local store has them sitting there at $9.99 ($19.99+$10.00 rebate

          I suggest going there and taking a look. I never had luck with their website and I certianly would not have bought it at $29.99

          I picked mine up 2 weeks ago, and it looked like it was normal price. no tag on the item but it rang up $19.99 and the lady gave me the rebate info right there.

    • Re:too big (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Cat_Byte (621676)
      I don't want to carry another PDA sized device in my laptop bag just to detect wifi networks. A key chain device seems to be the better form factor, even if it doesn't list the networks.

      Which makes me think it would be totally cool if they had something like this that was USB (like the jumpdrives) that could also act as a USB wireless adapter when plugged in or as a standalone detector. That would be something I would buy.

    • I misread that you were suggesting a "wifey" seeker.
  • by SharpFang (651121) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @01:41PM (#11149333) Homepage Journal
    Damned commercial spammer.
    -1 overrated, Timothy.
  • There are products already in the field which are designed to keep the wireless network from leaking out of the building.

    This product looks like it'll be good for tracing down those leaks.
    • I think this thing would be a lot more useful for that if it had an LED bar graph. It would be nice to be able to see at a long glance whether you could see any signal before peering into the screen.
  • I have a good one (Score:3, Informative)

    by StrawberryFrog (67065) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @01:52PM (#11149468) Homepage Journal
    A Palm T3 plus a PalmOne Wi-fi Card [palminfocenter.com] plus a NetChaser [bitsnbolts.com] software. It works great, lots of details, can log the details of the access points found to file.

    It's quite expensive if you want a wi-finder device and don't have a palm. But if you already have a palm with wi-fi, it's a cheap ($12.00) fun toy.
    • And it is also bigger and doesn't take AAA batteries. And the link that you provided shows that the card costs closer to $120.00

      It IS a nice setup, but not even in the same class as the device being reviewed.

      • Unfortunately the $12 quoted doesn't include the WiFi card:

        But if you already have a palm
        with wi-fi, it's a cheap ($12.00) fun toy.
      • the card costs closer to $120.00

        Yup, the card costs £80. But if you have a wi-fi capable portable computing device such as a palm with the wi-fi card, a software wifinder should be cheap and more functional.

        If you don't have a wi-fi capable portable computing device, your uses for wi-fi are limited. Removing those cables cluttering up the hall, perhaps.
  • There is a radar detector made by the Valentine One Company http://www.valentine1.com/ [valentine1.com] that tells you via an LED what kind of signal it's detecting AND from what general direction the signal is coming from: front, back, or sides. Wouldn't it be cool to have the Canary Wireless device do the same, so to indicate which coffee shop/restaurant has the signal so I can sit there, drink my java and work?
  • Does it run on linux?

    (Please, if you feel compelled to answer me, realize that it's just a joke...)
  • I have something similar to that.

    My doesn't go on a keychain though, it is about the size of a credit card. More like a PCMCIA card sized. Oh, it IS a pcmcia card, and it requires that its plugged in to my laptop to work.

    The only difference is that a) it doesn't go crazy when somebody turns on a microwave and b) it also lets me CONNECT to the network :)

  • Nice... (Score:1, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Just what I need, another damn keychain...
  • What's the advantage over running a wireless detection app on my laptop or PDA? Why spend $50 on something when I already have a tool that works?
    • This device is small and convenient. It works right away with little to no effort. With a laptop, you don't get the same convenience of whipping it out and putting it right back for a quick Wifi signal check. Also, not everyone carries there laptop everywhere they go. If you don't have a PDA with Wifi (and most people don't), then this device would be an affordable alternative.

      Remember, in life you pay for 1. convenience 2. small size.
    • I subscribe to a delightful hotspot service [airzed.com] that charges me US$10 for three months of unlimited high-speed access at about 100 hotspots all over town (I know this sounds like a commercial but I really love them - it's completely changed my life and I now spend 75% of my working time outdoors at sidewalk cafes and the like).

      But there are a lot of factors to balance in order to get the perfect working spot. If it's outdoors, it's got to be in the shade (during daytime) or under shelter (if rain seems likel

      • At the moment I'm sitting at an all-night sidewalk Chinese joint near the Jalan Bulan Kiosk hotspot, where I pigged out for $0.75. No power outlet but the price is right (and the food wasn't bad at all). There's a perfect breeze, and good music in the background."

        Where is the Jalan Bulan Kiosk? This sounds really nice ...

        timothy
        • Where is the Jalan Bulan Kiosk? This sounds really nice ...

          Kuala Lumpur, just across the road from Low Yat Plaza (Malaysia's biggest computer mall, a mere shadow of Bangkok's Panthip Plaza but with better prices).

          • by timothy (36799) *
            That sounds like an interesting place [google.com] to see ... I wish I could find 75-cent Chinese buffet ;)

            How well can someone with English as primary language navigate? :)

            timothy

            • How well can someone with English as primary language navigate?

              Quite easy - almost everyone speaks English in that part of town. Malaysia is made of three primary ethnic groups - Malay, Chinese, and Indian. Many Malays in their 20s and 30s didn't learn English in school due to a temporary nationalist policy of teaching Malay language only in public schools. But the Chinese and Indian schools kept teaching English. And now all the schools do again. Most of the people working and shopping in and around Lo

    • What's the advantage over running a wireless detection app on my laptop or PDA? Why spend $50 on something when I already have a tool that works?

      Well.. if you already have a wireless PDA that you carry around all the time, perhaps it wouldn't be too useful to you. But it is useful for people who are looking for a wireless signal for their laptop. Instead of lugging the laptop around open and powered up, they can walk (or drive) around with this little gadget and check for signals. Not only is it less c
  • by antdude (79039) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @02:09PM (#11149690) Homepage Journal
    I e-mailed the company if The Digital Hotspotter(TM) Model #HS10 was sold in any retail stores like Costco, Best Buy, Walmart, Circuit City, CompUSA, etc.

    I got a human reply quickly after 1.5 minutes: "We currently sell the product only online through our website."

    --

    My question to everyone: Are there any products like these sold in retail stores in Los Angeles, CA area? Any replies appreciated. Thanks in advance. :)
  • Blah blah blah WARDRIVING blah blah blah. Wonder what is going to be under the tree this year again, boys and girls? Wi-Fi devices for you and for me!
  • I thought this was going to be an article about how someone attached a wireless access point to a canary, and now it was flying around randomly (and very, very briefly) giving people free wireless connections.

    Many of you might think I'm joking, in a very lame manner. Unfortunately, I'm being totally serious.

    And I really am kinda disappointed right now.
  • by tji (74570) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @02:33PM (#11150006)
    Before I get out my PowerBook, I whip out the Zaurus to see what WiFi networks are available, open, and operational.

    The Zaurus can go all the way, and actually connect to the network and use a WWW browser to connect to sites. So, you can verify that everything is fully operational, available, and open.

    If I just want to check something quick on a www site, I might not even need to get my laptop out. I certainly wouldn't want to be writing many emails from the tiny Zaurus keyboard. But, for some quick checks it's great.

    Also -- A new version of OpenZaurus [openzaurus.org] was recently released. It includes updated Opie apps, and improves on the WiFi capabilities of the old Sharp firmwares.
  • Is it better than a Pringles' can?
  • How is connecting to an open wireless network illegal? Against various companies terms of service (which, technically, the AP owner would be breaking, not the AP user,) yes. But illegal?

    Last I checked, there was no law stating that it was punishable by jail time or fine to use someone's open wireless internet connection.
  • I'm curious.

    My home network (Apple Airport Extreme Base Station) is open on purpose. I want my guests to be able to use it. And if you need signal from my front lawn, you're welcome to that also.

    Seems like a decent net-citizen thing to do.

    So what am I missing? Why would I want to be secure? (Answer 1: my personal data goes over the network unencrypted. Ok, how do I solve that yet give the world open access to by Internet connection.)

    • Ok, how do I solve that yet give the world open access to by Internet connection.
      Simple have two WiFi units. Use the 'front' one as your secured network, and plug another open wifi unit into the switch port.

      Of course you should realized that any unencrypted traffic on the internet can be viewed, if you are in the right spot (cable modem users should be very aware of this).

    • So what am I missing? Why would I want to be secure? (Answer 1: my personal data goes over the network unencrypted. Ok, how do I solve that yet give the world open access to by Internet connection.)

      This is a common confusion with wireless networks. There's a difference between encryption and authentication. WEP and WPA are examples of wireless encryption technologies. They (try to) keep people from sniffing the contents of transmissions. But they don't control who can and can't get on your network. M
      • So I turn 128 bit WEP on and I'm encrypted. But now I need to know the password to get on. How does this help my guests? (If it helps, I'm running Apple's software, which is very possibly hiding a layer from me.)

        Thanks!

        • Your post doesn't completely make sense, but for what its worth, Apple isn't 'hiding' anything with their software.

          Turning on WEP means that you are both encrypting the traffic, and requiring authentication(WEP Key ~= Network Password). Your 'guests' all need to know this key and manually enter it on their computers to be able to use your network.
      • and WPA are examples of wireless encryption technologies. They (try to) keep people from sniffing the contents of transmissions. But they don't control who can and can't get on your network. MAC filtering, not broadcasting SSIDs, EAP, and RADIUS-based authentication are examples of technology people use to make sure only trusted hosts can get on their wireless networks.

        Wrong. WEP, by encrypting traffic, works in both these dimensions. I have 128-bit shared-key WEP on my network. If someone wants to use my
        • Wrong. WEP, by encrypting traffic, works in both these dimensions. I have 128-bit shared-key WEP on my network.

          Right. But if you used open-key WEP (instead of shared key), anyone could connect and be encrypted.
  • What is the point of this device if you need some sort of computer to access the network anyway?

    I use the IBM connections manager on my thinkpad to scan for networks. It then displays a list of all the networks it finds. Tells me SSID, Type (a/b/g) and WEB secured or not. I select one and hit connect.

    Seems like this is a solution looking for a problem.
    • by Kredal (566494)
      If you don't know for sure there's an open network in a given area, would you rather 1: look for an outlet, 2: find a place to set your computer, 3: wait for it to boot up, 4: run the connection manager...

      or press a button on your keychain, and get the results instantly (or so). If there are no open networks, you've lost about 10 seconds, and can keep moving. If there are, you've only lost 10 seconds in your quest to get online.
      • So contrary to the reviewers comment you'd use the device for illegal purposes?

        The point was if you are using wireless access points legaly then you don't need this device. You already know where the networks are and how to connect to them.

        Its like trying all the door handles up and down a street without having to get out of your car and look like a thief, only the act is the same.
  • when they integrate GPS into these things. Before then, all these wifi detectors are just toys and not serious tools.
    • Why? I want to know where I can use my laptop, without having to walk around with it in my hands looking at the screen. Why do I care about the precise co-ordinates of the chair in starbucks with best reception?

      Sure, for YOUR uses it may require GPS, cool, but just because you need it doesn't make it a universal requirement.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I got my WI-FI detector from www.tvbegone.com and it's never worked right

    Usually, when I try to use it in a bar, there's some kind of electrical problem and all the TV's shutdown
  • I'm personally can't wait to try this new unit. I made the mistake of buying from kensington and what a disappointment that was.
  • Why don't you just carry around a tiny access point instead of an access point finder? Duh! Problem solved!
  • These hotspot detectors are pretty good sensors. But what's really missing is a "live map" of hotspots, correlated with geolocation. So, before I disconnect, I get the last live map, which can direct me to the closest place where I can next connect. Combined with a mobile phone, or other 3G device impractical for long sessions, but OK to find the real connection, such a live map is a real enabler. All these sensors should be collaborating to contribute their local pieces of the puzzle, as they traverse it.

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