Even if the management capabilities of WLANs improve, you'll still benefit from specialized tools. Handheld wireless LAN analyzers provide the mobility technicians and engineers need to manage this kind of network environment. Most of these products have been on the market for a year or less, but they put a ton of power into your hands. Sure, you can cobble together some free tools to perform some of the same monitoring and troubleshooting tasks, but you'll save time with a more polished tool. Time is money.
Because it's a relatively new market, comparing these products isn't easy. One product might offer superior physical-layer spectrum analysis while another might have the best expert system, letting people in the field quickly identify problems. Two different tools for two different problems. Don't expect these tools to be a substitute for understanding WLANs. They're just tools. We've evaluated what we consider the primary functions, and weighted those functions to the needs of an enterprise with more than 50 APs (access points) in operation.
We asked four leading vendors of handheld WLAN analyzers for products that run on a PDA platform. All four--AirMagnet, Berkeley Varitronics Systems, Fluke Networks and Network Associates--submitted equipment. Although other sophisticated wireless-analysis tools, often priced at $20,000 or more, are available, most of them are generic radio-analysis tools. We picked tools capable of analyzing 802.11b WLAN traffic (handheld analyzers don't support 802.11a traffic yet). Our sweet spot: a sub-$5,000 device that technicians and WLAN design professionals can carry with them in the field, always ready for use. We tested the devices in several different environments and talked to managers of large WLANs to get a better feel for their needs.
When the microwaves cleared, AirMagnet earned our Editor's Choice award. A rapidly maturing offering, AirMagnet provides the best combination of analysis and diagnostic features. Furthermore, its smartly designed interface effectively exploits the strengths and overcomes some of the inherent weaknesses of the Pocket PC platform (which three of the four products use). If Layer 1 RF (radio frequency) analysis is your primary need, Berkeley Varitronics' Yellowjacket WLAN test receiver is the hands-down winner; it provides calibrated spectrum-analysis capabilities to resolve the toughest WLAN problems. Fluke's WaveRunner is a capable first-release offering and the only product we tested that runs under Linux, an attribute that has its pros and cons. Finally, if your main goal is high-layer protocol analysis in the palm of your hand, nothing beats Network Associates' Sniffer.