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Wi-Fi network detectors have become a large class of disparate items. Designed ostensibly to alert you to the presence and signal strength of nearby Wi-Fi networks -- and sometimes the network's name, security setting and channel selection -- none of them works well enough to replace firing up a laptop.
Until getting my hands on ZyXEL's AG-225H -Wi-Fi Finder and USB Adapter, the best Wi-Fi detector I've seen to date is Canary Wireless's Digital Hotspotter, which uses an LCD display to provide text and symbol details. But it can show just a single network's details slowly scrolling across the large territory of its screen.
ZyXEL's device sinks the Hotspotter and torpedoes the hard-to-use Hawking Technology Wi-Fi Locator Professional Edition, which I previously reviewed.
The ZyXEL has a small but highly readable LCD display that shows you every useful piece of information at a glance. Unlike the Canary detector, ZyXEL's Wi-Fi Finder distinguishes between an open network, one using WEP, and one using WPA/WPA2.
The compact unit is slightly larger than most flash drives, and includes an on/off switch. An internal battery is recharged when the unit is in plugged into a USB port whether or not it's in use as an 802.11a/b/g adapter. It quickly powers down when detached to preserve battery life. An icon appears when power runs low.
Powering up the ZyXEL detector causes the unit to start a scan, which can also be triggered by pressing the Seek button. The unit scans for a few seconds and can be interrupted by pressing the Seek button a second time.
The upper-left corner of the LCD shows the current network being displayed as a numeral -- the order of networks is arbitrary -- followed by the total number of networks found. The detector can show up to 15 networks. In my testing, I was able to find 14 network at once by standing on a roof deck; the ZyXEL unit had no problem collecting and displaying their details quickly.
The display shows the network's name in the largest type and will scroll long names. It has room for 14 characters. The security is displayed as an open lock (for unsecured), or white-on-black text for WEP or WPA. A letter in the upper right indicates an A, B, or G access point.
The channel number is displayed in reverse type, the only almost unreadable element, and signal strength is shown at right. Additional network information is shown by pressing the Next button.
The detector has three modes. The default S mode scans all networks. Hold down the Seek button for at least one second and the unit locks into F or Free Mode. This can't per se detect free hotspots, but it does only show unsecured gateways in this mode.
If you want to monitor a particular network, hold down the Seek button for at least a second while viewing results. This switches to D or Dedicated mode. Press Seek again to update the signal strength display for that network. You should be able to reset the unit back to its S mode by holding down the Seek button again for a second, but I found that I had to turn the detector off and on to reset it at times.
As a USB 2.0 Wi-Fi adapter, the ZyXEL detector works perfectly well. The software installation was without a hitch, unlike many other adapters I've tried recently on the same computer, and ZyXEL's configuration software allows you to set up profiles easily for WEP, WPA Personal, and WPA2 Personal network encryption. (Buttons exist but are grayed out for authentication options for enterprises.)
The ZyXEL Wi-Fi Finder and Adapter has a $99 price tag, and the superb way it combines two separate functions in one unit more than warrants the price.