TEST: Best handheld Wi-Fi test tools

Many Wi-Fi test tools are software-based, such as Wi-Fi stumblers and analyzer programs that use a laptop’s internal Wi-Fi or maybe a USB wireless adapter. Here, we review four hardware-based products that you can throw in a laptop bag and carry around with you.

The four products are: AirCheck Wi-Fi Tester, Yellowjacket-BANG Wi-Fi Analyzer, Wi-Spy DBx and WiFi Pineapple Mark V. Here are the individual reviews (watch a slideshow version of this story):

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AirCheck Wi-Fi Tester: It’s no fluke

The AirCheck Wi-Fi Tester ($2,000) is from Fluke Networks, which offers a myriad of other Wi-Fi and networking tools as well. This is a handheld tool dedicated for performing basic wireless troubleshooting, security auditing, interference analysis, and signal testing and locating. The unit can be used independently or optionally connected to a PC to view captured data with the AirCheck Manager software.

Along with the AirCheck Wi-Fi Tester unit, you receive a simple cloth-type carrying/storage bag, USB cable for the optional PC connection, power supply for recharging, quick start guide, and a CD.

The unit is relatively small, measuring about 8 inches high, 3 ½ inches wide, and 2 inches thick and weighing less than a pound. Though it’s too big for a comfortable ride in your pocket, it could at least be slipped into a laptop bag when not in use. Too expensive for us to do drop-testing, we trust its plastic outer body is durable enough to withstand collisions with the floor and other accidental abuse.

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On the front of the unit, you find status lights, a 2.8-inch LCD screen, and buttons for controlling the unit. On the back, you’ll find you can remove the rechargeable battery and above that an SMA port for optionally connecting an external antenna, such as an directional antenna for easier locating of access points or clients. On the side of the unit you’ll also find the power input port for recharging and a USB Mini Type B port for performing upgrades or optionally connecting with the PC-based AirCheck Manager software.

After pushing the instant-on power button, you see the main menu, allowing you to open the following screens: Networks, AutoTest, Access Points, Clients, Channels, and Tools.

The Networks screen displays a list of nearby networks, showing just one entry for each SSID, but selecting an SSID will show all access points with that name. You can alternatively choose Access Points from the main menu to see a list of all access points, even those with the same SSID.

In addition to the typical access point details you see with wireless stumblers, you’ll find noise levels and signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) for access points, useful details on 802.11n capabilities, and also any notes, such as alerts on possible interference. Signal and noise levels are given in negative dBm values and the SNR levels in dB values, all of which are also represented on a bar graph. Keep in mind that you can save sessions, which includes all information seen during a testing activity as well as any test results from connection tests in the session, which can later then be optionally uploaded via USB to a PC.

You can also connect to networks with the unit, in order to perform the connection tests and pings. You can also mark access points as authorized or unauthorized, useful for detecting rogue access points. Though you can connect to 802.11ac access points, it connects utilizing the older standards. Additionally, the unit does not yet report on 802.11ac-specific stats.

The AutoTest feature tests the air quality, ad hoc networks, rogue access points, and network quality. It provides a pass/fail indication of the items and identifies common problems.

The Clients page lists all the nearby Wi-Fi stations along with details such as the access point they’re connected to, signal levels, supported data rates, and even the SSIDs they’re probing for.

On the Channels page you find a bar graph showing channel usage for 802.11 and non-802.11 signals on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Selecting a particular channel brings up additional details and a graph.

The Tools page allows you to set and manage thresholds, files, network profiles, time/date, and other misc preferences and settings.

Overall, we found the AirCheck Wi-Fi Tester to be a very useful tool that’s also user-friendly. It provides all the basic Wi-Fi details, including non-802.11 signals, and offers some unique testing functionality. However, it would be nice if it provided a more thorough selection of graphs and also fully support 802.11ac. The LCD screen is not touch screen either, but the way the selection and function buttons are designed makes it painless to use. Although we didn’t specifically test the battery life, the specs say it typically gives you 5.5 hours of use and takes up to 3 hours to recharge.

WiFi Pineapple Mark V: Low cost, low hanging fruit

The WiFi Pineapple Mark V ($99) is a Wi-Fi security auditing and penetration-testing tool, built specifically for that purpose. It’s basically a wireless router sporting all kinds of interfaces, ports, and tools dreamed up by hackers themselves for advanced rogue applications, Wi-Fi monitoring, and packet injection.

The unit is pretty small, measuring about 3 ½ inches long, 3 inches wide, and 1 inch tall. The two detachable 3 ½ inch antennas can be positioned to your liking.

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The top of the unit sports their yellow Wi-Fi Pineapple logo along with four LED stats lights. The front side is where you find the Ethernet port, AC power input jack, and USB 2.0 port for various uses, including connecting a 3G/4G modem, WiFi adapter, tethered smartphone, and GPS receiver.

On the left side of the unit is a MicroSD slot that comes from the factory with a 4GB card, which you can use for storing and transferring saved data. On the right side are expansion headers for interfacing with the Arduino based HDK (Hardware Development Kit) over GPIO and a bank of configurable auto-attack mode switches. On the backside are leads for a TTL serial connection, useful for accessing the terminal shell on a PC, development and debugging, or even to connect a Bluetooth Serial TTL to access to the unit from a smartphone via Bluetooth.

Along with the unit, the box contains an AC power supply with four interchangeable sockets, allowing use in various regions with varying electrical outlet types. Also included are a small Ethernet cable and a USB power cable for an alternative way of powering the unit.

Inside the unit are dual integrated radios custom built for advanced wireless attacks. It’s based on the Atheros AR9331 system on a chip (SoC), which includes a 400 MHz MIPS processor, 16MB ROM and 64MB RAM. Also, onboard is a Realtek RTL8187 radio with monitor and injection capabilities.

Using the WiFi Pineapple, you can perform reconnaissance of Wi-Fi access points and clients, whether associated or not. A standard toolset offers popular utilities such as nmap, sslstrip, aircrack-ng, dsniff, tcpdump and many more via downloadable packages or infusions. Standard file formats such as PCAP can be captured and stored on MicroSD cards for later analysis using tools such as Wireshark and Kismet.

The penetration testing attacks and demonstrations the unit can perform include but aren’t limited to: setting up a honey-pot, intercepting and injecting wireless traffic, performing DNS spoofing or IP redirection, and even substitution of executables in transit. It also integrates with standard penetration testing frameworks such as Metasploit via Meterpreter.

To control and manage the unit, a modular web-based interface is provided. Once you login, you’re met with the main page with a variety of minimizable windows displaying select stats and controls for each particular module. Clicking on the title opens the full GUI for that particular module. The unit can also be remotely accessed via SSH, SSL VPN, even via an out-of-band Internet connection as the unit supports mobile broadband modems and Android USB tethering.


Product AirCheck Wi-Fi Tester WiFi Pineapple Mark V Wi-Spy DBx + Chanalyzer Yellowjacket-BANG Wi-Fi Analyzer
Price $2,000 $99 $849 $3,500
Pros User-friendly, shows non-Wi-Fi signals Inexpensive, feature-rich Economical, user-friendly GUI Thorough graphs, durable storage case
Cons Limited selection of graphs, lacks full 802.11ac support GUI could use facelift, no PoE support Lacks automatic ID of signals/interference, lacks reports Runs old Pocket PC, lacks full 802.11ac support

Many tools come pre-loaded on the unit. However, there are many more you can add by installing packages, what they call infusions. It just takes a few clicks to install them and then a window on the main page will appear. You’ll see some stats or settings on that window and then just like the preloaded ones you can click the window title to access the whole GUI.

Overall, we found the WiFi Pineapple Mark V to be a feature-rich and inexpensive penetration-testing tool. Though we didn’t test each feature or functionality, we did get a good idea of how the tool works and what it offers.

Our only gripes are with the look and feel of the GUI and the Ethernet port lacking PoE capability. Although quite functional in design, the GUI could be improved. It currently has more of a hacker-ish type of look and feel than a professional appearance. Nevertheless, you can perform manual edits to their CSS to make color changes to the skin of the GUI.

Wi-Spy DBx and Chanalyzer: For Metageek lovers

The Wi-Spy DBx ($500) from Metageek is the hardware component, an RF spectrum receiver for 2.4GHz and 5GHz, and Chanalyzer ($349) is the software that lets you view and analyze the captured data. Together they allow you to scan the airwaves to verify they’re clean and identify any Wi-Fi and non Wi-Fi interference that’s detected. There’s also other add-ons and packages available that offer additional functionality.

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MetaGeek provides a few other Wi-Fi related hardware and software tools in addition to these two, including a 2.4GHz only Wi-Spy and a Wi-Spy Mini for use with just their stumbler, inSSIDer Office. Also keep in mind that several other third-parties utilize the Wi-Spy device in their software tools, such as the site surveying solutions from VisiWave, Tamograph and Ekahau.

The Wi-Spy DBx is relatively small, measuring about 3 inches long, 1 ¼ inches tall, and a ½ inch thick. The removable single dual-band antenna measures about 4 inches long. An optional and simple but useful mount attaches to the base of the antenna, allowing you to mount or clip the device onto the laptop body or screen during field-use. There’s no LED lights or buttons; just a USB Mini Type B port so you can connect the device to your laptop via USB.

Chanalyzer is a Windows-based application requiring a minimum of 4GB of RAM. It can also run on Mac OS X via virtualization with VMware Fusion or Parallels. In addition to the Wi-Spy DBx device, an internal or USB Wi-Fi adapter is also required.

After you open the Chanalyzer application and plug in the Wi-Spy device, you start to see the colorful spectrum graphs. On the left portion of the main screen is where you can view and switch between sessions.

On the left of the main screen you see the waterfall graph, showing a historical view and where you can also adjust the timespan in which other graphs show their data. On the top right portion of the screen is a graph showing the signal amplitude across the selected band or frequencies, which can also identify where selected Wi-Fi access points are detected. Below that is another waterfall graph showing a zoomed up view for the particular timespan selected.

On the bottom right portion of the main screen is a tabbed interface. The Interferers tab is a showcase of what particular signals look like on the amplitude graphs to help you identify what type of devices might be interfering with your Wi-Fi. The Channels Table gives you detailed stats on each channel. The Networks Table lists nearby access points or networks, which you can select in order to have them identified on the amplitude graph, and provides their basic details similar to a basic Wi-Fi stumbler. The Utilization Graph tab provides just that. The Lab tab allows you to adjust the bands, channels, or frequencies that are being captured. The Notes tab is where you can store any notes, which are included when you save a session and can be included in any reports you generate.

Any edition of Chanalyzer can save sessions in which you can open and play back the captured data later. However, to easily create formal reports or to use their Lab notes functionality you must purchase the next edition up for $499, which would only include one of those additional features. Or you could purchase the edition that includes reporting and support of Cisco CleanAir for $649.

Throughout our testing we saw a useful help icon appear a couple of times, which we could click to get a simplified explanation of the feature we were trying to use. Other than that, we had to reference the full online User Guide when other questions arose.

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