Wi-Fi for most Mac users is set it and forget it, especially if you use one of Apple’s own Wi-Fi Airport network devices. Connectivity problems aside, most Wi-Fi networks, home or office, have a number of common problem areas; weak spots, dropouts, poor signals, and even signal conflicts.
Apple’s Airport Utility won’t help you find, troubleshoot, and fix those pesky Wi-Fi network issues, but NetSpot will, and for basic home network use, it’s free.
NetSpot is a Wi-Fi network analysis tool. Use it to conduct a Wi-Fi site survey by installing it on a MacBook and then walk around to measure your Wi-Fi network signal strength. The key to using NetSpot is understanding how and where network hotspots are placed, which radio channels are assigned to a network, and where dead zones exist on the network, whether it’s your home Wi-Fi network or an office network, even those with multiple Wi-Fi hotspots.
The latest version displays multiple Wi-Fi networks in the Discover Mode and can track network activity in 5, 30, or 60 minutes. NetSpot scans your network, helps you analyze hotspots and weak spots, monitors the Wi-Fi signals, maps out a network, and even measures wireless network speed.
Wait. There’s more. Much more.
Netspot pulls in live Wi-Fi data from all nearby networks. You’ll be able to see channel information, vendor, security type, transmit rate, and view it all in real-time charts. It handles, depending upon your Mac, of course, both 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands, visualizes signal strength and filters networks if you’re in an area where there are too many.
The heat map function alone is worth moving to the pro-level version because it displays signal strength and weakness based upon your home or office layout.
The visualization capability in Netspot is not to be taken lightly. It’s cool. It’s functional. It’s very useful and covers both passive and active survey data. For example, passive surveys display the following:
- Signal level
- Quantity of access points
- Noise level
- Signal-to-noise ratio
- Signal-to-interference ratio
- Frequency band coverage
- PHY mode coverage
The active survey component does the obvious with throughput testing, upload and download speed testing, the wireless transmit rate, and more. The coverage map displays exactly where signal strength is best and where it’s not.
Here’s the deal. Netspot has a free version for non-commercial use, a single zone per project. The Pro version is still one user on one Mac, but up to 50 data points per snapshot, comes with more visualization options, advanced reports, and a few features worthwhile to office networks.
The Enterprise version of NetSpot is good for commercial use, too, comes with unlimited data points, and plenty of other features. Regardless, you get to try out the basics for free and there is plenty to like.
At home I managed to find some channel conflicts and weak spots, then made appropriate adjustments in channel numbers and Wi-Fi location, and network accessibility improved. Check out the feature comparison page for more detail, but don’t hesitate to download the free version and take it for a spin.
Caveats? Trial and error is your friend. But it can be time-consuming, especially if you truly want to maximize a network configuration. If there’s a better way to improve your Wi-Fi network without hiring someone else to do it for you, I don’t know what it is. There’s even a version available for Windows users.