More and more venues are becoming "hotspots" - places where your portable computer, PDA, cell phone or other wireless Web-enabled device can access the Internet.
Using the wireless 802.11x protocol better known as Wi-Fi, these hotspots can be found in airports, libraries, coffee houses, restaurants, shopping malls and just about any other public location you can imagine. But unless there's a sign posted somewhere, you may not be able to easily find one.
Normally, the only way to find a hotspot is to turn on your portable computer and have it see whether it can detect the Wi-Fi signal. And even if you do detect a signal after turning on your computer, there's no guarantee it is an open hotspot intended for general public access.
What is needed is some kind of hotspot detector that not only senses the Wi-Fi signal but also can give you the hotspot's relevant information. Until now, detectors could only display the presence of the signal and its strength. But the Digital Hotspotter ($49.95) from Canary Wireless is the first such device that shows you everything you need to know.
The Digital Hotspotter is a second-generation Wi-Fi detection and analysis device. Unlike its predecessors that can only detect a signal's strength by a series of colored lights, the Digital Hotspotter's screen has a signal-strength indicator that shows a series of bars, much like the way most cell phones display signal strength. The more bars you see, the stronger the signal. After you find a signal, the Digital Hotspotter will display the network ID or SSID, which usually is the name of the signal provider.
For example, if you were at a local Starbucks, you would see T-Mobile on the screen because that's the Wi-Fi provider used by the nationwide coffeehouse chain.
The other most important piece of information you can check is the encryption status. Since most hotspots in public places are intended for public usage, no encryption key is necessary to gain access; the Digital Hotspotter will display "Open" on its screen. If it's not open, chances are the people who put it there don't want the public using it.
Finally, the Wi-Fi channel number can be indicated on the Digital Hotspotter's screen. This can be of value in hotspots that use more than one channel to cover a big location that exceeds the 300-foot range limitation of the Wi-Fi signal.
For a wireless Web user, the Digital Hotspotter makes a great stocking stuffer.