AirCheck Sniffs WiFi, Pinpoints Problems

Front-line techs can clear wireless network trouble with this handheld tool.

The latest version of Fluke Networks' AirCheck handheld WiFi analyzer is a premium tool for front-line techs who go on-site to solve wireless network problems. The 1.2 version can immediately identity clients, wireless devices and access points on a network.

When combined with site profile information, it was a snap to identify unauthorized and new radio sources in my tests at eWEEK Labs in radio-dense downtown San Francisco.

For eWEEK Labs images of AirCheck in action, click here.

AirCheck is strictly for on-the-go pros who need a fast, accurate sniffer that can dissect the wireless environment and spit out relevant, problem-solving data in an instant. Technicians who can use a laptop and won't miss the niceties provided in AirCheck's speedy interface and handy reporting capabilities can use no-cost, open-source WiFi scanning software, including MetaGeek's inSSIDer.

The AirCheck tool is one part handheld device and one part Windows-based software. The physical AirCheck device fits easily in one hand and has the rugged-feel characteristic of Fluke Network field tools. The 3-inch screen is bright and easy to read, even in direct sunlight. User interaction is through easy-to-use keys below the screen; there is no touch-screen interface.

The AirCheck Manager software captures information gathered by the device. It is used to create and manage site profiles and is the best way to view reports showing wireless network components and performance.

The newest version of AirCheck was released on April 11 and costs $1,995.

Up and Running

The AirCheck device starts almost instantly and is equipped with a rechargeable battery that's rated for five hours of continuous use. I was able to use the AirCheck frequently throughout the week without a recharge.

The startup screen presents four options; networks, access points, channels and tools. When I selected networks, access points or channels, I was immediately taken to a screen that showed real-time, easily understood information about my wireless environment.

Using the two function keys, I was able to access a legend that explained AirCheck symbols used to concisely convey performance and signal information. After just an hour or so, most technicians will be able to glance at the screen and immediately comprehend what the AirCheck is reporting.

The AirCheck is wicked fast and can sniff 802.11a/b/g/n spectrum with an uncanny accuracy. At no point during my tests did I wait more than two seconds to get useful information. Navigating between the network, access point and channel screens was quick and intuitive.

However, I would like Fluke to add a "page down" function. In nearly every test situation in downtown San Francisco and at my apartment in downtown Oakland, the AirCheck found large numbers of devices. I would have liked to be able to more quickly skip through those lists.

Problems Solved

Within five minutes of using the AirCheck I found that one of our lab access points was exhibiting a very odd, rapid flapping between secured and unsecured broadcasts: At least seven access points (not under our control) were using radio channels not licensed for use in the United States, and there were a number of potential channel interference problems in both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.

To get the most out of the AirCheck tool, I had to set up a site profile. Profiles can be created only by using the AirCheck Manager software, and they must be transferred to the AirCheck device.

Profiles speed up testing in authorized areas by providing network and access point addresses, and security credentials for connecting to the network. Once the profile was loaded on the AirCheck device, it was then a simple matter to look for unknown-and, therefore, unauthorized-devices in our vicinity.

There is a record button that captures session data on the AirCheck device for later analysis and reporting. I used this feature to create detailed (25-plus pages for both the office and my home) reports about the discovered networks and the access points associated with those networks.

The details about access points, spectrum use and wireless network performance are neatly laid out and easy to understand. The reports are generated in PDF format and can be easily shared with others.

Although I did not test with the optional ($150) directional antennae, I was able to use the homing function on the AirCheck device to locate access points. Fortunately, there is a "mute" function so the rather ominous beep tone that indicates signal strength can be quieted. I relied on a signal graph displayed on the AirCheck screen to discreetly check the location of wireless access points in and around our test facility.