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Wireless Reviews

{mospagebreak toctitle=Introduction, Hands On}

MetaGeek inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper product shot

At a Glance
Product MetaGeek inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper [website]
Summary Windows-based Wi-Fi analyzer that recommends the best channel to use
Pros • Easy to use
• No tech expertise required
Cons • No save or print feature
• You have to scan all locations before verifying any of them
• If you can't change to the recommended channel, you can't verify and get results summary
• No user or quick start guide

Introduction

MetaGeek's inSSIDer is one of the most popular tools for determining the signal strength and channel use of Wi-Fi networks. While this can be useful information for someone who knows what to do with it, folks who aren't familiar with Wi-Fi basics may end up even more confused about the best channel to choose for their wireless router.

inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper is a Windows application that can survey, test, analyze and make settings recommendations using virtually any wireless adapter in a Windows PC or Pro tablet. Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8 are supported.

Like original inSSIDer, Wi-Fi Helper is not free, however. You have options of a $9.99 30 day license or $69.99 1 year license. Neither free trial nor permanent license options are available.

inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper is extremely easy to set up and use. Just download the product, install it and enter the registration information and license keys emailed after you purchase a license. Upon launching the program, Wi-Fi Helper will scan all channels and present you with a list of available networks. You should be attached to the network you want to test (your own network) before starting the test, as you'll need a connection to verify (performance test) the link. Finding the best solution is a five step process:

  • Select - Select the network to test. If you're connected, a link will appear next to the network (SSID) name.
  • Scan - In this screen, you can pick a name from a drop-down list or enter a description of your own. You also select the type of network usage for the location you are testing. Your choices are shown in the screenshot below. They type of usage you select is used in identifying any problems you might encounter and are shown on the summary screen. The scan only takes 10 seconds.

MetaGeek inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper usage selection screen

MetaGeek inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper usage selection screen
  • Recommend - This screen shows your current settings and recommended settings. If Wi-Fi Helper recommends a different channel, you'll need to log into your router and make the change before you can continue.
  • Verify - In this step, inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper runs a series of up and download tests to determine Wi-Fi performance. It's important to note that in many cases, the performance numbers generated by Wi-Fi Helper will be different than what you might expect out of Speedtest.net or other performance measurement sites. Speedtest.net defaults to the closest server. MetaGeek uses servers on the west coast to measure performance. So those of us on the east coast are likely to see significant differences in results. On the other hand, depending on the time of day, I've seen tests results from Wi-Fi helper that are fairly close to Speedtest.net.
  • Summary - This screen summarizes the results and recommendations for the location(s) tested. It also shows the MAC address of your router/AP, the manufacturer and the Wi-Fi adapter used for the test.

The gallery below shows each step in the wireless network evaluation for a single location.

Hands On

For a single location, the total time to scan, and verify your connected network runs between one and two minutes. Depending on the time of day and the traffic between your location and MetaGeek's west coast servers, the time could be a little shorter or longer.

In addition to checking just a single location, you can also evaluate multiple locations - each with a different Wi-Fi usage profile. You could, for example, test your living room for Web + Audio + Video + HD Video since you're likely to want all of those capabilities. Similarly, you could set your dining room for just Web + Audio since you might not anticipate streaming video to your dining room.

Based on the performance determined by the "verify" step, the summary screen will let you know if you can expect each of the Wi-Fi services to work in each location. If your throughput is too low, inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper might advise that you could have problems streaming HD Video or maybe HD Video and Video to a particular location.

Evaluating multiple locations takes a little bit of extra work. As with evaluating a single location, you start by selecting a network, entering in a location name and the Wi-Fi usage profile for that location. Then you click on Scan. To scan multiple locations, you move your notebook/tablet to a second location and repeat the scan. Only when you have finished scanning and moving to each location can you click on Recommend. Assuming that the Wi-Fi Helper doesn't recommend that you change channels, then you can verify.

To verify, you have to move back to each location and click on Verify until you have verified all locations. It might have been easier if you could have scan and verified each location before moving to a next location. However, I can understand that MetaGeek probably wanted to create a profile for each location before making any recommendations.

This screenshot shows that five locations are ready to be verified.

MetaGeek inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper locations ready to verify

MetaGeek inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper locations ready to verify

This next screenshot shows that all five locations have been verified and that I shouldn't have any problems with my planned Wi-Fi usage in any of the locations.

MetaGeek inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper locations verified

MetaGeek inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper locations verified

Dual Band Capabilities

If your Windows-based laptop/tablet is equipped with a dual band adapter, inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper can also analyze the 5 GHz band. However, Wi-Fi Helper won't automatically check and recommend a 5 GHz network unless you have selected and connected to it. I discussed this with MetaGeek, and while they may add that feature in the future, for now, you'll have to do that manually.

If you have a dual band router as well as dual band capable multimedia equipment in one or more locations, I'd recommend checking those locations on your 5 GHz band first to see if those will work. In my location, I can sometimes detect 20 or more 2.4 GHz networks. But there are only two 5 GHz networks that I can detect besides the two dual band routers that I have set up at home. My HDTV in the living room is dual band capable, so I connect it to my 5 GHz network. The rest of the wireless devices in the house, excluding iPads that are dual band capable, all connect to my 2.4 GHz network.

For testing purposes, I set up a new D-Link DIR-880L AC1900 dual band router in addition to the NETGEAR WNDR3800 dual band router that I've used for the past two years. Since my notebook doesn't have dual band capabilities, I tested with two AC1200 USB adapters. Unrelated to this story, both of those adapters caused a blue screen on Windows 8.1 when installed using drivers on their included CDs. The default Windows 8.1 driver worked for both adapters, but I was able download and install updated drivers for the ASUS USB-AC56 adapter.

Before starting the 5 GHz tests, I used the current version of inSSIDer, another MetaGeek product, running on the same notebook with an ASUS USB-AC56 AC1200 adapter to see if there were any other 5 GHz networks nearby. As the screenshot below shows, there were two 5 GHz networks near each of my 5 GHz routers—NETGEAR (Penguin5) and the D-Link (Strohmeyer5).

Nearby 5 GHz networks

Nearby 5 GHz networks

I first connected to the NETGEAR router on channel 149 and ran the tests, with the results shown below. Note that the throughput is about what I'd expect on a wireless connection and is comparable to speedtest.net results.

MetaGeek inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper - 5GHz summary

MetaGeek inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper - 5GHz summary

Next, I connected to the D-Link 5 GHz network and ran the test. I had assumed that even though there was an adjacent 5 GHz network, that the inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper wouldn't recommend a channel change. So I was surprised when I got the recommendation below. On reflection, the D-Link is an AC1900 router that can use up to 80 MHz of bandwidth. So inSSIDer Wi-Fi helper was perhaps looking for a larger block of channel space than the 40 MHz it had at the bottom of the band.

MetaGeek inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper recommended change

MetaGeek inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper recommended change

I had two problems with these results. First, Wi-Fi Helper recommended moving to channels that must comply with Dynamic Frequency Selection regulations in order to avoid interference with weather radar and military applications. You'll find a list of 5GHz channels on Wikipedia. And second, Wi-Fi Helper doesn't let you proceed until you make the suggested change.

DFS hasn't been widely implemented in the US in consumer routers, with most manufacturers excluding DFS channels from the router's list of available channels. In fact, both the NETGEAR and D-Link routers I used for testing excluded DFS channels. I reported this to MetaGeek and they indicated that they will update the program soon to exclude DFS channels from their recommended channel list.

I also discovered what I thought were a couple of other problems. First, Wi-Fi Helper showed the current channel as 38. In fact, there is a channel 38 (5190 MHz), but its use isn't permitted in the US. In addition, the initial Scan screen didn't show bonded channels.

I ran some additional tests to isolate the problems. I determined that Wi-Fi Helper correctly listed the 5 GHz operating channels, including bonded channels on the NETGEAR router. On the AC1900 D-Link router, the channel numbers and bonding didn't appear correctly on any of the non-DFS channels except for 165.

I reported this to MetaGeek and was told,: ".....there is a new set of channel number terminology used for the new 802.11ac standard in the 5 GHz band. Basically it uses the "gaps" in the numbering scheme. Below is a post from a blogger who I follow (Andrew VonNagy) that spells out the new system with a good chart:"

http://www.revolutionwifi.net/2013/11/referencing-wi-fi-channel-numbers.html

"Since the 11ac channel is located in the beacon (in the VHT element), we display it as the channel. Obviously the gear that you were using does not use the AC channels but rather uses the old style."

So what I thought might have been a problem instead turns out to be a UI challenge for MetaGeek. inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper correctly displays the "new" channel information for AC routers based on the channel information in the beacon. The problem is that SOHO router manufacturers of AC routers haven't yet switched to the new channel naming convention, so they are still using the "old" channel naming convention used for 5 GHz "n" routers. As MetaGeek concluded, "we (MetaGeek) will need to address this issue in our own UI some way that gives the user the channel he needs to adjust his gear no matter how correctly or incorrectly the WLAN equipment shows the AC channel."

Closing Thoughts

MetaGeek's inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper is a simple program designed to help non-technical people solve their Wi-Fi networking problems. Unlike MetaGeek's enterprise products that can actually measure channel utilization to determine channel congestion, Wi-Fi Helper just looks at information contained in beacon packets and signal strength. But for simple tests that might be enough. The real question is do I need to spend money to buy a program when there are other free ways to do the same thing.

If you are having a Wi-Fi problem, the simplest thing to try is to power cycle your router. Most, but not all, modern routers have an auto channel selection feature that will automatically select the best channel when you first power up your router. Just log into your router and make sure that channel selection is set to Auto. Most routers only do their auto channel selection upon initial power up, which makes sense. If your router is constantly changing channels, it can be annoying—especially if you are streaming video or audio—because connections can be dropped when the channel changes.

There are also quite a few Wi-Fi apps for Android devices and the majority of them are free. The downside is that many Android devices only have 2.4 GHz radios, so you can't check out the 5 GHz band. For many, that won't be a limitation.

With over 10 million downloads, the most popular Android Wi-Fi analyzer is named just that: Wifi Analyzer. Wifi Analyzer is the app that I've been using since my first Android device. The screenshot below graphically depicts SSIDs (network names) along with signal strength and channel information.

As you can see, one of my routers is on channel 1, and the other one is on channel 6. If I were having a Wi-Fi problem and saw that my router was on the same channel as a nearby neighbor (with a strong signal), I'd first try rebooting my router to see if Auto Channel fixed the problem. If that didn't fix the problem, then I'd manually move my router to a non-overlapping (channel 1, 6, or 11) channel that didn't have a strong signal. This method doesn't take into account channel utilization, but neither does Wi-Fi Helper's method.

Android-based Wifi Analyzer by Farproc

Android-based Wifi Analyzer by Farproc

While we uncovered a few problems while testing with an AC router, inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper worked flawlessly during my 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz testing of N class routers. My sense from having talked with an engineer from MetaGeek several times is that the issues I raised will be addressed quickly. When I spoke with them about the channel numbering issue with the D-Link AC router, they had already started working on the DFS problem reported two days earlier. And they provided the information (above) about AC channel numbering.

If you have a Wi-Fi problem, try the free stuff first. But if you want a simple tool that performs a multi-room site survey and recommends the best channel to use and don't mind spending $10, inSSIDer Wi-Fi Helper could be the tool you're looking for. Experienced Wi-Fi networkers, however, will probably pass this one by.

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