Bargain of the Month - the Metageek Wi-Spy Spectrum Analyzer

I remember, many years ago, in Farpoint Group's early days, wandering the halls of trade shows looking for a simple, low-cost spectrum analyzer. If you've not looked at this type of product before (even many engineers have only very limited experience with them), spectrum analyzers have traditionally been big (like a breadbox), expensive (like US$20+K), oscilloscope-like test equipment used to see what's going on in a particular chunk of radio spectrum. The more spectrum the device covers, the higher the price. Precision test equipment has traditionally been, therefore, off limits in production environments and limited to product-development labs, although there are few (but still expensive) portable spectrum analyzers available.

But if you're trying to find out if a particular signal is really reaching where you'd like it to go, or if interference is drowning your traffic, or where a particular interferer might be, you've been pretty much out of luck. Traditional test equipment is too bulky and much too difficult for non-engineers to use, and lower-cost products have not been cheap enough for many. I'm a big fan of Cisco's (formerly Cognio's) Spectrum Expert, and I use it regularly in benchmark tests, troubleshooting client installations, and investigating about radio propagation. But it sells for about US$4,000.00, at last check, and that's a lot for some folks.

So, how about a spectrum analyzer for the rest of us, one that just plugs into a notebook computer? Yes, it exists: the Wi-Spy from Metageek. I've owned one of the first-edition Wi-Spys since it came out, and I think I paid about US$100.00 for it; it's still available updated as the v1 for US$199. But it's pretty limited in resolution, and useful only for coarse-grained analysis. I've been testing the new Wi-Spy 2.4x with the 3.0 release of their Chanalyzer software, and this really is a spectrum analyzer for the rest of us. Resolution is much improved over the v1, and OK, it's twice the money (US$399.00) and it's physically a lot bigger, owing to the relatively large dipole now sticking out of the far end of the USB dongle itself. But it works great, and I'm using it to monitor for interference in some testing I'm doing for a Network World article on Wi-Fi power consumption. More on that later.

The Chanalyzer software is nicely laid out and very easy to use and understand, even for non-engineers. Sample interference patterns are displayed on the right side of the screen and can be used (along with natural, as opposed to artificial) intelligence to see what might be going on in the 2.4 GHz. band. A variety of spectral and time-based graphs are presented, with a good degree of customization - and all of this for about 400 bucks. Sure, I'd like a product that covers the 5 GHz. band; the folks at Metageek tell me this in the works, along with a host of additional software features and a few new hardware variants as well. I think they've got a terrific product on their hands, much improved from the original Wi-Spy and still a great bargain.

Highly recommended! If you've got an enterprise installation of any size or you're in the business of planning, installing, managing, or troubleshooting WLAN systems, get one. And if you're a hobbyist or nerd that just wants to marvel in the coolness, this is for you, too.

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