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NetSpot WiFi visualisation software

Monday, 26 September 2011

NetSpot (currently in beta) allows users of all levels visually analyse exactly how their wireless network operates in their office, house, campus, cafe, airport – actually, in any building or area.
All you need to run your wireless site survey is a MacBook with native Wi-F or an AirPort adapter. 
Basically, you need to make a map of your area and save it as an image file – I used PNG, and did it the easy way: I opened Google Earth, found my location and took a screenshot of my house from as close as I could get, from above (Command-Shift-4, then drag the crosshairs over the image and let go when you have it all).
For a house, I suggest you include the whole garden, as it's good to know where you can get WiFi outside in summer – likewise, include outside areas that are part of the work place – a cafeteria balcony, for example.
It's a little clunky to use, but only if you'd like to boot NetSpot and have it map your house, tap your wire less then put your laptop in hover mode and have it float around taking readings. This isn't possible yet – hey, it's still in Beta – so the procedure is to load the image file of your floor-plan. 
NetSpot's first window has Load Map and Sample Map buttons. The sample shows floor plan of a typical office suite. Press Load Map and put in your image file, and then select a first point and a second that you know the measure for. I have to confess, I paced out a boundary with a long step as a metre – pretty rough, I know.
Anyway, put your measurement in the measurement box, press the Next button and then select the four points of your perimeter. 
Then you have to walk around with your MacBook.MacBook Pro and click on the map at each point you stop at – the more points you click, the better.
[Just a word of caution here – I don't advocate walking around with a running laptop with the screen open. A drop or jar and that spinning hard drive can damage/lose data, despite drop sensors and all sorts of shielding in your Apple product. Please be careful.]
When you've added all your points – the more the better – press the Stop Scan button at top, left of centre, and it generates your map. 
It lists your network, and any overlapping network in the area, a very useful diagnostic device.
But the usefulness only starts here – NetSpot can show you signal to noise ratio, signal level, quantity (or is it quality?) of access points and noise level – and it shows the access points.
In my example, it correctly identified my Time Capsule and the AirPort Express booster in the lounge, left – the brown points are where I set the measuring points as I walked around. 
Green is the strongest signal areas, blue is less – which makes perfect sense, but it's really good to know.
But there's more – under the Configure button near bottom left, you can choose the individual networks it detects, which is really very helpful. (Configure>Select networks by channel.)
Not only that, you can export the result as a PDF and file it, and/or email to whoever needs it. 
Conclusion — you have ti invest a little time an effort, but you end up with an extremely useful visualisation of your network, which not only evaluates what you have and points out problem areas, it also shows you where you might like to add a booster, or where to locate another worker. 
If I could make it better ... man, this would be utterly fantastic on an iDevice – much more portable and no fragile heavy hard drive to worry about. 

What's Great — Really useful results
What's not — Doesn't see 'masked' networks – my HipNet doesn't broadcast so I had to unmask it in AirPort Utility before I could evaluate it in NetSpot. (Apparently, that will be fixed in the full release – you will be able to add your masked network in manually). 
Needs — Anyone who wants to evaluate and make decisions around their wireless network.

What — NetSpot is free while in beta, so you too can try NetSpot in your office or home and build a map of your Wi-Fi network. Download NetSpot from here.
If you do use it, get in touch with the NetSpot team and let them know your thoughts, so they can develop it further. Go here and click on 'Tell us how we're doing->"
System — Native Cocoa app runs on any MacBook with Mac OS X 10.6+, including 10.7x Lion.