NetSpot: Tom's Mac Software Pick

Discover How Well Your Hom'’s Wi-Fi Network Is Working

NetSpot
Courtesy of Etwok, LCC.
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NetSpot from Etwok is a Wi-Fi site survey app that can map out your home’s Wi-Fi coverage, allowing you to discover weak reception areas and areas with excessive interference. With the help of the site surveys you perform, you may be able to adjust your Wi-Fi coverage to meet your needs just by making changes to AP locations, or if necessary, adding wireless access points to pick up the slack in coverage.

Pro

  • Visualize signal-to-noise ratio within your site (home).
  • Measure signal strength in every nook and cranny.
  • Monitors up to 5 APs (Wi-Fi Access Points) per map.
  • Supports up to 50 measurement points per map.
  • Can be used to discover nearby Wi-Fi sources.

Con

  • Only a single map (zone) supported in free version.
  • Only signal strength and noise ratio data collection available in free version.
  • Wi-Fi APs can be grouped only by their SSID (Service Set Identifier) name.

NetSpot is available in both pro and enterprise versions, as well as two free versions. This review will look at the free NetSpot version available as a download directly from the NetSpot website, and not the version that’s available from the Mac App Store. I chose to look at the NetSpot website version because of the limitations imposed by the Mac App Store on the product, which causes it to be missing a few important features. And since both versions are free, let’s look at the best available version.

Scanning for Wireless Networks

One of the features available only in the non-Mac App Store version is the ability to scan for all nearby wireless networks. NetSpot calls this Discovery mode, but it’s commonly referred to as a Wi-Fi scanner. This is an important feature to have, as it can be used to quickly inform you of how congested the airwaves are in your area, as well as help you select which Wi-Fi band and channel to use for your own Wi-Fi network.

The Discovery mode displays the name (SSID), channel, and band (2.4 GHz or 5 GHz) being used, the AP manufacturer, type of security being used, the speed, the signal level, and the noise level.

With this level of information, you can modify your Wi-Fi network to fit into the noisy airwaves around you. Selecting an unused channel, or moving to a less populated band, could help your Wi-Fi network perform better, and produce less interference for your neighbors.

NetSpot Site Survey

In the early days of Wi-Fi, site surveys used to be performed by using a Wi-Fi scanner and logging all of the signal levels and noise as you moved around the site being mapped. You would then get out your graph paper, or load up a CAD app, and manually create a map showing signal and noise levels at each point on the map. This process was very time-consuming and prone to mistakes. That may be why few homeowners ever bothered to create site surveys, and never really knew how well their Wi-Fi networks performed.

NetSpot’s survey system performs the site mapping for you, automatically. All you need is a portable Mac and the NetSpot software. Start by using the NetSpot tools to draw a crude map of your home; if you already have a floor plan, you can import it as a map.

Position yourself and your Mac in various areas around your home, and click on the approximate location on the map. NetSpot will record the detected APs, their signal strength, and their noise levels. Repeat until the map area you’re interested in is covered by green shading, indicating that the area has been surveyed.

When I perform our home’s site survey, I measure at the corners of the house, the midpoint, and all the spots where we have a Mac or other device that will need to connect by Wi-Fi. This is usually enough measurement points to cover most of the house.

When your survey is complete, tell NetSpot you’re done, and it will create a map that will visualize the signal levels and noise ratio.

You can then examine the map for areas with poor coverage or high noise ratios (perhaps caused by nearby appliances). You can then modify your Wi-Fi network to clear up trouble areas, perhaps by moving the location of your wireless AP or adding APs to ensure complete coverage.

Free vs. Pro

The main difference between the free and pro versions is the pro app is able to work with multiple maps or zones. It can map additional types of signal performance, such as upload and download speed, overlapping channels, transmit rates, and much more. Multiple maps can be important for multi-level homes, mapping indoor and outdoor spaces, or home and outbuilding Wi-Fi coverage.

The pro version has a number of features that can help if you’re having serious Wi-Fi coverage problems, or you’re just someone who likes to get into the nitty-gritty of network design.

The free version can probably take care of the needs of most homeowners for setting up or troubleshooting a Wi-Fi network. If you need the additional features later, you can always upgrade.

Last Word

Usually, in my reviews, I spend some time on the user interface, and installation issues you need to know about if any. NetSpot is such a well-designed app that all that needs to be said about the user interface is that it’s straightforward and easy to use. Likewise, installation is simple: drag the app to your /Applications folder, and you’re done.

If you’re experiencing Wi-Fi issues, specifically, poor performance, dropping of the signal, or interference, NetSpot may be able to help you sort out the issues.

Likewise, if you’re thinking about expanding your current wireless network, or starting over from scratch, NetSpot can help you avoid any pitfalls before you spend more on wireless devices than you may actually need to.

NetSpot is free. A pro version ($149.00) is also available, suitable for commercial use.

See other software choices from Tom's Mac Software Picks.

Published: 7/18/2015