Wi-Fi Detective uncovers hidden world

GCN Lab review: The Wi-Fi Detective from StarTech.com puts an end to the laptop-balancing act. You just turn it on, stick it in your pocket, go for a walk and detect accessible Wi-Fi signals

GCN

[IMGCAP(2)]Searching for an accessible Wi-Fi signal can be awkward. You have to walk around with your laptop PC turned on and flipped open, balancing it with one hand and clicking with the other to find signals. You feel a little like a waiter carrying a big platter, trying not to trip and fall.

But what if you had a small, portable device about the size of a cigarette lighter that could alert you to available Wi-Fi networks? The Wi-Fi Detective from StarTech.com puts an end to the laptop-balancing act. You just turn it on, stick it in your pocket and go for a walk.

It has an LCD screen that shows the names of Wi-Fi networks in the vicinity and the type of network ' displaying a 'b' for 802.11b and 'g' for 802.11g. A lock icon indicates whether the network is open or secured. It also shows if a connection uses the Wired Equivalent Privacy encryption protocol and indicates the strength of the signal by the number of bars. Five is a strong signal; two is weak.

[IMGCAP(1)]All this appears on a screen smaller than your thumb.
The screen is my one complaint about the Wi-Fi Detective. It packs a lot of information, but it's a bit dim, especially for viewing in bright sunlight.

For $75, though, it opens the whole world where Wi-Fi lurks.

Remember the war-chalking days, when people chalked symbols in public spaces to show where Wi-Fi was available? Well, you can donate your chalk to the local elementary school. Wi-Fi Detective is your personal electronic warchalking assistant.

The device has a lithium-polymer battery that you can recharge with a USB connection. After a brief initial charge, it works for at least three hours.

I started my Wi-Fi detection expedition from my cubicle at the GCN editorial offices in suburban Virginia. A switch turns the unit on, and buttons on the sides let you scroll through the available Wi-Fi signals. The process is pretty intuitive.

I knew that at best I could only get faint Wi-Fi signals in my cubicle, and sure enough, the one open Wi-Fi signal was weak.

I went home to my apartment in Bethesda, Md. Bethesda is to me what Dublin was to James Joyce, who once said he wanted to paint such a complete picture of Dublin in 'Ulysses' 'that if the city suddenly disappeared from the Earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book.' The same way Joyce memorized the look of every cobblestone in the Irish city, I've memorized the color of every Bethesda sports bar awning, the burnt-garlic smell of its overpriced restaurants and the sounds of pub-crawlers yelling at 2 a.m. every weekend. It's all indelibly etched into my heart.

So I was delighted to add another attraction to my adopted hometown. It turns out that my building in particular and Bethesda in general are roiling hot spots of Wi-Fi activity. Who knew? Wi-Fi Detective showed me no fewer than 10 Wi-Fi signals near my apartment. What amazed me was how easy it was to figure out who owned each network. A network named Becky_Todd was obviously the couple next door.

People use their Wi-Fi network names to express their enthusiasms. I found networks named for Manolo Blahnik shoes, Borat and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. I guess people now name their networks what they used to name their pets.

Walking to the subway the next morning, I slipped the Wi-Fi Detective into my pocket. On the way to the station, it picked up 15 Wi-Fi signals, most of them 802.11g.

It was interesting to see the Wi-Fi haves and have-nots. The new sushi place on the corner had an open connection ' now I know why it's always packed. But the always- crowded Irish pub/sports bar next door was Wi-Fi-less. Starbucks and the other coffee places all had open 802.11g signals that carried for a few blocks. I was surprised to find the dentist by the subway had an open connection. Perhaps Wi-Fi access helped to soothe patients' nerves.

I took the subway to my doctor's office near George Washington University in northwest Washington. There were no Wi-Fi connections on the subway, but when I walked by the GWU Hospital emergency room near Washington Circle, Wi-Fi Detective found 13 Wi-Fi connections within beaming distance.

Boarding the bus to Falls Church, Va., I got a few signals, none of them open. I couldn't tell if they were coming from my tech-savvy comrades on the bus or from nearby businesses.

Oddly, the device didn't pick up any signals passing an office park filled with big technology companies, including Verizon and General Dynamics.

The Wi-Fi Detective changed the way I view my town. It opened a great, unseen world filled with wireless Internet access on almost every corner. Another great thing about it is how discreet it is. I doubt anybody knew I was looking for Wi-Fi signals.

This is a good product for the frequent traveler who needs wireless Internet access ' even if you're just traveling around town.

StarTech.com, (800) 265-1844, www.startech.com

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