Wi-Fi Hotspot Detector Shootout

If the only place you use Wi-Fi outside of home or office is Starbucks, you don't need a Wi-Fi detector. But if you're a dedicated hotspot maven, it's time to consider one of these little gadgets that can zero in on a Wi-Fi signal and lead you straight to the source.

Instead of pulling your laptop out of the bag, starting it up, and panning around for an available network, you can just whip an unobstrusive little keychain device out of your pocket and click. In a couple seconds, you'll know if there's a nearby network, and how strong it is.

While there are several such detectors on the market, including the Chrysalis/PCTel WiFi Seeker, Hawking Technologies WiFi Locator, and Smart ID WiFi Detector, having used all the various contenders, we chose our two favorites for a head-to-head comparison. They are the Kensington WiFi Finder Plus, a second-generation model that is miles ahead of the original WiFi Finder, and the Canary Wireless Digital Hotspotter, the first Wi-Fi detector to include an LCD screen and readout showing essential information like SSID, channel, signal strength, and encryption status.

The Kensington won out over the other analog WiFi detectors by virtue of its very good range (almost as good as the Hawking, which has a directional antenna) and the Bluetooth feature. There is no other Bluetooth detector on the market that we know of.

The WiFi Finder Plus ($29.99 street) is a standard keychain-type device with a set of five signal strength LEDs that light up in sequence as you get near an 802.11b or g access point and hold the button down. There's also a blue LED for detecting Bluetooth networks, and the company claims the device screens out signals from other 2.4GHz sources such as cordless phones and microwaves, something that some of the other analog models do not. It even sports a penlight, which can come in handy when poking around in your PC's innards (or opening doors at night).

Canary Wireless' Digital Hotspotter ($59.95 direct from Canary only) takes a different approach to hotspot finding. Each time you press the button, it scans available networks, and displays information about each of them in sequence. For each network, a scrolling LCD display shows the SSID (or tells you if the SSID is cloaked), signal strength bars, the channel used, and whether the network is "secure" (encrypted) or "open." Both WPA and WEP networks are marked as secure. Press the button again, and information about the next available network is displayed, until all the networks have been covered in sequence.

So how well do the two detectors actually work at their main job -- finding hotspots? Read on for performance results and the bottom line.