Wi-Fi troubleshooting gets easier, more portable

Fluke's AirCheck packs a simple UI and easy-to-read-understand radio diagnostics into a handheld Wi-Fi tester

The cool new handheld Wi-Fi troubleshooter from Fluke Networks can help network technicians who aren't RF engineers to quickly diagnose a range of common wireless LAN problems.

It's not being advertised as Wi-Fi testing for dummies, but in a sense that's part of the thinking behind Fluke Networks' cool handheld radio troubleshooter.

The AirCheck Wi-Fi Tester looks like an oversized DVD controller with display screen to help network technicians who aren't RF engineers quickly diagnose a range of common wireless LAN problems.

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Traditionally, RF diagnostic hardware and software has been complex and costly, aimed at engineering-level RF experts. More recently, laptop-based applications (commercial or freeware like NetStumbler) that make use of a computer's onboard Wi-Fi adapter have somewhat simplified troubleshooting, but they're awkward to use. Fluke even bought one of the pioneers in this area of Wi-Fi monitoring and packet analyzing, AirMagnet, in 2009. 

"They had the same hole we did," says Mark Mullins, business development manger for Fluke, which makes handheld testing and diagnostic gear for wired networks. "There was nothing really convenient for front-line technicians. Today, it's a hodge-podge of relatively complicated stuff."

A truly handheld tool, designed for easy use and fast diagnostics, would let these technicians figure out and fix much faster a range of common Wi-Fi problems, including something as basic as pinpointing whether the problem was in the client radio or the access point.

AirCheck is Fluke's solution, developed over the past two years. The first-of-its-kind handheld is 3.5 inches wide, 7.8 inches long, and 1.9 inches thick, weighing 14 ounces, and sporting a 2.8-inch color LCD screen with a 320 x 240 pixels resolution (one-quarter VGA).

No one will mistake it for an iPhone, but it can fit into a fairly capacious and sturdy pocket (a belt clip and a lanyard loop would give users additional options). It has an optional directional antenna (a unit that plugs into the back of the device) for more quickly hunting down a Wi-Fi radio's location.

AirCheck scans all 802.11 networks, including 802.11n, and can identify the Wi-Fi security settings for each radio, whether it's wide-open, or using Wired Equivalent Privacy, WPA2, 802.1X and so on. The device uses a standard Wi-Fi chipset, but Fluke's designers modified the drivers and the antenna.

Fluke talked extensively with network technicians while designing AirCheck. They didn't want to stand around waiting for the device to boot up. The removable, rechargeable lithium-ion battery, with 5 hours of operation, powers up the device in less than 3 seconds.

The user interface was designed for simplicity and fast navigation. For the most part, there are no menus. The start screen gives you four immediate selections to choose from: networks, access points, channels and tools. The navigation and select buttons let you quickly move through lists and select an element.

Clicking on "networks" shows a list of all SSIDs in range. Clicking on any one of them shows a list of the nearby access points, and an array of information about them such as the RF channel they're using, signal level, access point name or media access control address, and security or encryption settings.

"Channels" shows which channels are in use in both the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands, and any that are overloaded or plagued by interference from other radios such as microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices and analog video cameras.

With one click, you can connect to a network or specific access point, then ping the address, the gateway server or the DHCP server.

The Windows PC-based AirCheck Manager application lets you configure and manage the AirCheck devices. You can set up "profiles" of network configuration settings, including IP addressing and security and connectivity test settings, and download them to the AirCheck handhelds. The device saves troubleshooting information, which can then be transferred to the PC application for archiving and study via a USB link.

AirCheck Wi-Fi Tester will be available in the second calendar quarter, priced at $1,995, through Fluke's distributor network. The directional antenna is $195.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnwwBlog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed

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