If youâ€™re out and about a lot and make use of Wi-Fi hotspots, you may have considered purchasing (or indeed might already own) a handheld Wi-Fi finder. Up until now, most of these devices — like TRENDnet’s own TEW-T1 — have provided only the most rudimentary of information like the presence and approximate strength of a signal (using three to five LEDs).
Thatâ€™s certainly helpful information, but it doesnâ€™t tell you how many networks are present or whether any of them are usable by youâ€” for example, whether and how they are encrypted and what type they are (in case you prefer 802.11g networks for performance reasons). While many take less than five minutes to boot up a system or pull it out of hibernation to glean this more detailed information, doing so can be inconvenient, to say the least.
TRENDnet aims to solve this problem with its $75 54Mbps 802.11g Wireless USB 2.0 Adapter with HotSpot Detector (model TEW-429UB, also known as All-in-1). At first glance, it appears to be a conventional USB-based WLAN adapter, but it also incorporates a Wi-Fi finder with an LCD display that conveys considerably more information than you get from a few colored lights. In that way, it compares favorably to the $50 Digital Hotspotter. So what do you get for an extra $25 bucks? It’s much smaller, and doubles as a USB WLAN adapter to connect you to an 11b/g network, that’s what.
Roughly the size of any ordinary direct-connect USB WLAN adapter (it measures 3.7 x 1.1 x .5 inches), the All-in-1 has an on/off slider switch and SEEK and NEXT buttons located on either side of the device. When you turn the unit on, it automatically scans for wireless networks, taking anywhere from 5 to 10 seconds to display results.
When a network is found, the All-in-1 displays a copious amount of information, including SSID, channel utilized, whether encryption is active, and if so, what type (WEP, WPA, WPA2), and five bars to denote the signal strength. The device also indicates whether the network is an 802.11g or 802.11b network. If more than one network is found, the unit indicates how many are available, and you can scroll through each one using the NEXT button. Interestingly, when the All-in-1 locates a mixed-mode b/g network, each is listed as a separate network — though technically, theyâ€™re not.
The All-in-1 always provides lots of information, but it may not always be easy to see. Because of the slim design of the unit, the All-in-1â€™s screen is small, providing a 96 x 32 pixel display. The screen lacks a backlight, which can sometimes make it difficult to read, especially in low-light conditions. Conversely, in bright light the screen often reflects glare if you donâ€™t hold it at just the right angle.
By holding down the SEEK button for several seconds, you can activate two other operating modes of the All-in-1. One mode displays unencrypted networks only, while the other can be used as a rudimentary site survey tool for a specific network, constantly scanning and updating signal strength information (though you still only get the imprecise five-bar readout, not a value expressed in dB or as a percentage).
Unlike Wi-Fi finders that use removable watch-type batteries or, if you’re lucky, AAA batteries, the All-in-1 has an internal 180 mAh Lithium-Ion battery, which is rated for 500 scans on a charge. No AC adapter is provided; the unit is charged only when the unit is plugged into the USB port on a computer. This can be convenient, but it might also be a problem for those who donâ€™t plan to use the All-in-1 as a wireless adapter (thus giving it the opportunity to charge regularly).
Complicating matters is the fact that that the unit lacks a battery-life indicator. The power-on indicator light simply changes from blue to amber when there are about 20 scans left in the battery. (To save power, the device automatically shuts off after one minute.) While charging, the unit also doesnâ€™t indicate when the battery is fully chargedâ€” according to TRENDnet, it takes about an hour.
When compared to the TRENDnet All-in-1, a standard lights-only Wi-Fi finder seems like a metal detectorâ€” it will tell you somethingâ€™s there, but you still need to dig to see if what youâ€™ve found has any value. The All-in-1â€™s informational largesse comes at a premium, however, since it costs two or three times as much as lesser devices. Nevertheless, and in spite of a few faults, it can be a real time-saver, since it saves you from having to lug out the old notebook.
That said, you may want to wait if you’ve got special Wi-Fi needs like 802.11a support: TRENDnet has already announced plans for the $90 TEW-509UB, which will also detect 5GHz 802.11a networks.