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This small simple device efficiently solves a challenge confronting all road warriors.

It will tell you when you're able to connect to a Wi-Fi network, and when you should leave your laptop in your bag.

 
 
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Canary Wireless Wi-Fi Detector

HS-10 Digital Wi-Fi Hotspotter
 

 

The Canary Wireless Hotspot detector uniquely shows you information about the Wi-Fi networks it detects.

It is an excellent device and a great convenience when traveling.  It can also be used to map out your wireless network coverage at home or work.

 

 

Now you don't need to cross your fingers and hope when turning on your laptop, in search of a Wi-Fi connection.

The Canary Wireless Hotspotter will tell you within 5 - 10 seconds all you need to know about any nearby Wi-Fi networks.

Easy and quick to operate, small and light to carry, and only $60 to purchase.  Recommended.
 

What you get

The Canary Wireless HS-10 Digital Wi-Fi Hotspotter comes in an easily opened blister pack.  Inside is the unit itself, a small sheet of operating instructions, and the two AAA batteries which the device uses.

The little unit measures 2.5" x 2.25" x 1" and weighs 2.5 ounces with batteries installed.

No information on warranty coverage is provided, but Canary Wireless's website advises the unit has a 90 day warranty.  Not only is this a very short warranty period, but the terms of the warranty are somewhat unfriendly - the company says that they have a goal to repair or replace the unit within 30 days of receipt.  A better and surely achievable goal is to do this within 30 hours, or even 30 minutes.

The terms of the warranty go on to explain that if your unit has to be replaced, the warranty on the replacement unit is the shorter of either 30 days or the remainder of the original warranty period.  This means if your unit fails the first day you receive it, the replacement has only a 30 day remaining warranty rather than the balance of the full 90 days you thought you had.

Specifications and Functionality

The Canary Wireless unit is intended to detect 802.11b and 802.11g Wi-Fi networks.  It will not work with 802.11a or 802.11n networks.  Although the numbers are very similar, these represent different types of technology that isn't part of the Wi-Fi standard.

This unit scans 13 channels.  The US implementation of Wi-Fi uses only the first 11 channels (with most Wi-Fi devices using channel 1, 6 or 11).  In Europe, they use 13 channels, and in Japan there is a 14th channel.

Surprisingly, the unit doesn't detect all Wi-Fi access points.  Some types of Wi-Fi base stations broadcast beacon frames at a higher frame rate than the detector can process (aren't you glad to know that!).  Canary Wireless say that the unit detects over 95% of all access points, and enhancing the unit to detect the remaining 5% would be cost prohibitive.  This is strange reasoning, when presumably all Wi-Fi cards can detect all access points, and cost as little as $20.

Battery Life

The battery life varies depending on how often you use the unit.  You should expect a 2 - 3 month life if you're using the unit 2 or 3 times a day.  But most people will leave the unit untouched for many months between using it, and while the unit is not being used, the batteries are also not being used, so the unit has a storage life equal to that of the batteries.

You get a 'battery low' message on the screen when the batteries need replacing, and sometimes you might get strange characters appearing as well.

Because the unit uses standard AAA batteries, it is easy to replace them any time.

Canary Wireless do not recommend using rechargeable batteries.  Rechargeable Ni-MH or Ni-Cad batteries have lower voltage (1.2 compared to just over 1.5 volts), and the 2.4 volts from two rechargeable batteries is insufficient to correctly drive some of the electronics in the unit.

Why you need a Wi-Fi Detector

This unit doesn't do anything that most Wi-Fi cards and their associated software won't also do for you, within your laptop.  So why would you choose to spend $60 on Canary Wireless' detector when you have the same capabilities built in to your laptop for free?

The unit has several advantages over your laptop.  It is small, lightweight, quick and simple.  Imagine sitting in the airport waiting for your flight - you need to take your laptop out of its case, boot it up, then switch on your Wi-Fi service and see if it will find a signal you can access.  If it fails to find one, you then have to power your laptop down again and return it to its case.  A time consuming and bothersome hassle.

With the HS-10 detector, you simply push the button, and in a few seconds, you'll know if there are any Wi-Fi networks in range that you can use or not.  This is very much easier.

There is another use for the unit, and that is using it to measure the coverage of your Wi-Fi network.  You can walk through your offices, or the rooms of your house, and see how the signal strength varies.  If there are some areas with poor signal, you can then try moving the base unit, or perhaps you will need to buy a second base unit for more complete coverage.

Corporate IT users can also use the unit as a quick way of auditing their office to ensure that there aren't any unauthorized open networks.

Using the Wi-Fi Hotspot Detector

It is very simple to use.  Simply press the only button on the unit then read the information shown on the display.  The LCD screen tells you it is scanning for networks, then after a short while (usually less than five seconds, never more than ten) it either reports the first network it has encountered or tells you there are no networks within range.

After you've viewed the information on the network it has located, you simply press the button to have it continue scanning until it either finds a new network or brings you back to the first network.

The unit tells you four things about each network it detects :

  • The network's name (SSID).  This is very helpful - for example, if you have access to, eg, the T-mobile Hotspot services, then if you see a T-mobile network, you know you can conveniently log on to it.

  • Signal Strength.  The unit seems to be at least as sensitive as my Wi-Fi card in detecting networks, and gives each network a signal strength reading of between one and four bars.  A network with only a single bar might be difficult to reliably connect to with your PC, while obviously 3 or 4 bars means the network is going to give you a good connection.

  • If this is a secure or open network.  Note you can't always be assured of getting free access to an open network, and of course sometimes a network which is 'open' is not intended for use by the public.  You can sometimes get access to secure networks, especially if you have an authorized logon ID.

  • Which channel it is on.  This is of minor interest only, but if you see two networks both on channel 6 and another network on channel 5, then the chances are you'll experience interference and problems if trying to connect to any of the three networks.

I tested the unit at home.  Depending on where I was - downstairs, on the deck upstairs, or outside, I could receive between 1 and 4 different nearby networks (not including my own), and, to my amazement, in total there were six different networks found (there only seem to be five other houses within Wi-Fi range).

In contrast, my laptop, using a Netgear MA401 Wi-Fi PC-Card, would detect between 0 and 2 nearby networks, and in total the Netgear card found only three of the six networks.

Plainly the Canary Hotspotter was much better at finding distant and weak network signals than my PC's Wi-Fi card.

Finding weak signals

If you're looking for weak signals, it helps to hold the unit up in the air, and between your thumb and forefinger so as not to shield the internal antenna.  You'll also find that sometimes you'll get networks displaying if you rotate the unit 90 degrees after your first set of scanning (due to some directional properties in the unit's antenna) and then a 'different' 90 degrees after the second cycle of scans (ie so it is oriented for the x, y and z axes in a three dimensional plane).

Note that weak networks may appear on one scan cycle but not on the next.  And also, of course, some networks may not always be switched on.

Do you really need to find ultra-weak signals?  Probably not.  There is little point in finding a very weak signal if your computer's Wi-Fi transceiver won't then communicate with it.  But you can use the information about weak networks to then direct you towards where the network is stronger, so this information can be of value if you're able to move towards where the weak network becomes stronger.

There is a wide range of sensitivities in Wi-Fi cards - reputedly more than 10dB between the best and worst, so it is helpful to match up the signal strengths reported on the Hotspotter with the signal strengths reported by your computer's Wi-Fi card.  Just because the Hotspotter finds a network doesn't mean that your computer will also detect it and be able to effectively log on and use it.

Comparison with other Wi-Fi detectors

Most other products that detect Wi-Fi networks offer only a set of four or five LEDs to display signal strength.  They don't have an LCD screen to display the helpful and sometimes essential information that the Canary Wireless unit does.

The simplest of other devices simply report on the presence of any radio signals in the Wi-Fi frequency band, which can be misleading, because lots of other devices operate in the same frequency band.  More advanced ones will filter out and only report Wi-Fi signals, but they don't tell you anything more about them, such as if they public or private, or who they are operated by.  You'll still need to speculatively power up your laptop to see if you can use the detected network(s) or not.

Only the Canary Wireless unit tells you everything you need to know to understand exactly what Wi-Fi signals are out there and to decide if you should power up your laptop, etc.

At $59.95 this unit is twice the cost of some of its lower priced competitors.  Is it worth the extra money?  We think definitely so.

Summary

This is a very easy to operate and very helpful device.  It takes up little space and little weight in your 'road warrior kit' and if you seek to use Wi-Fi while traveling, you'll quickly find it an essential tool.

Although other devices are less expensive, they're also much less helpful, and for that reason, we prefer and recommend this unit.

 

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Originally published 10 June 2005, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
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