Q: I travel a great deal and want to know which hotspot detectors are worth considering. – Antonio

A: The wonderful world of wireless Internet has made it possible for us to connect via “hotspots” from the far corners of the world. Hotspots are publicly accessible Internet connections that anyone with a wireless device can connect to, provided you know that it’s present.

For most of us, that means pulling out our laptops, powering them up and seeing if an “open” connection exists. It can become quite exasperating if, at the end of this exercise, there are no available hotspots and you must power down and repack your portable computer.

For those that have more than the occasional need to connect through a local coffee shop, hotspot detectors are a godsend. These small devices (usually small enough to connect to a keychain or store in a small pouch in your laptop carry case) are a much more efficient way to determine whether an available wireless connection exists than the “pull and power” ritual with a portable computer.

Whether you are in an airport, working from a hotel lobby, or from a restaurant table, finding out if an open Internet connection is available quickly can save you lots of aggravation if you have a good hotspot detector.

A past favorite of mine is the Digital Hotspotter from Canary Wireless because it can quickly identify wireless networks that are broadcasting a signal and let you know if it’s open or protected. It can also tell you what channel the signal is broadcasting on, the name of the connection (SSID – Service Set Identifier), the type of connection (802.11a thru g) and the signal strength.

Until the Canary Wireless Hotspotter 2 has been launched (estimated September 2007), you will have to settle for the original by finding it on eBay or Craigslist.

Some of the more interesting products that have hit the market from companies like ZyXel and TrendNet are combining flash storage units with Wi-Fi detectors in a single package that can connect to your keychain ($50 to $150, depending upon the size of the flash drive storage).

The reason that all of this information is helpful becomes very obvious when you are in a very crowded “spectrum” of wireless connections, like most hi-tech big cities.

Knowing which signal is the strongest and most suited to your equipment as well as which of the channels is the least crowded helps you make a quick decision on which connection to try first and saves you time when you determine that the signal strength is too low.

Wireless networks use an unregulated spectrum of radio frequencies, so the less crowded the spectrum the better. The default channel for most wireless routers is 6, so determining whether a hotspot is available on a less crowded channel can help you maintain a connection in a hotspot laden area.

This is also a lesson for those of you having a problem with your home wireless networks. Make sure you change the broadcast channel from the default so you don’t constantly bump into your less sophisticated neighbors’ wireless networks!

Ken Colburn
President of Data Doctors Computer Services
Host of the award-winning Computer Corner radio show
Author of Computer Q&A in the East Valley Tribune newspapers

[tags]hotspot, wireless, wi-fi, wifi, hotspot detector[/tags]