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Laptop users frequently find themselves out and about, looking for wireless networks to which they can connect for a quick e-mail check or brief surfing session. Although there are a number of software products that can search for open networks, using them means unpacking your laptop, turning it on (or at least waking it up), and then launching the application—a waste of time if no network is found (not to mention an unnecessary drain on your laptop’s battery).

In the December issue of Macworld , I reviewed Marware’s $30 WiFi Spy (   ) as my favorite way to check for nearby wireless networks. It’s compact, sensitive, can differentiate between WiFi networks and other devices using the 2.4GHz frequency range, and even indicates signal strength. It’s a great way to check for the existence of a wireless network without having to open your laptop. But in that review, I noted one major criticism:

Of course, just because the WiFi Spy detects a network doesn’t mean that network is open—it might use security measures to keep passersby from accessing it. That’s when you’ll need to whip out your PowerBook and give it a try. But at least you’ll be doing so only when there’s actually a network within range.

Now that Canary Wireless has released their $50 Digital Hotspotter HS10 (   ), my laptop bag’s got a new WiFi finder. Like the WiFi Spy, the Hotspotter can detect the presence and strength of wireless networks (with a bit better range, in my testing). However, it provides additional features that set it apart from other network detectors currently on the market. Rather than using multiple LED lights to indicate the strength of nearby networks, the Hotpotter includes an LCD that can display textual information about each network, including the network ID (the network’s SSID, displayed as “cloaked” for private networks), wireless channel number, signal strength, and—perhaps most importantly—whether or not the network is secure (i.e., requires an password). It’s this final bit of information that road warriors will welcome with open arms, as it lets you keep your PowerBook or iBook in your bag until you’ve found an open network. (On the other hand, if you have access to a secure network but you’ve got a case of encryption paranoia, the Hotspotter will even tell you whether that network is using WEP or WPA encryption.) Even better, the Hotspotter can differentiate between multiple networks: After pressing the scan button, the Hotspotter provides you with detailed information on the first network it finds in your vicinity; pressing the button again displays info on the next strongest network; and so on.


Canary Digital Hotspotter


Despite my affinity for the Hotspotter, it has a few minor flaws. The most obvious is its size: Whereas the WiFi Spy and other similar products are about the size of a USB flash drive, the Hotspotter requires two AA batteries and is a bulky 2.5” x 2.2” x 1”—more suitable for a laptop bag than a keychain. I also wish the LCD had a backlight for easier viewing in dimly lit meeting rooms. Finally, according to the company, the default settings on a small number of access points prevent them from being detected by the Hotspotter even when units like the WiFi Spy can “see” the network. The company says this is a consequence of the technology used by the Hotspotter—to be able to detect all the information provided by the Hotspotter and detect every single access point on the market would be prohibitively expensive at this time. (For what it’s worth, in my testing using known access points from various manufacturers, the Hotspotter never failed to properly detect a network.)

Despite these flaws, I’ve shown the Hotspotter to a good number of laptop-toting people recently, and most have responded with some variation of “Where did I put my credit card?” In fact, according to Canary, the Hotspotter is so popular that it’s been backordered for weeks. (They expect to begin shipping again this week.) I suspect we’ll be seing quite a few similar products debut over the next few months, but for now, the Hotspotter is in a league of its own. If you don’t mind its bulky size, it would be a great addition to your travel bag.

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