Wireless networks are everywhere, but the first challenge is to find them. I recommended a WiFi detector in our “Essential Notebook Accessory Guide” last month. It’s great to be able to detect a network with a pocket device, before unpacking a whole notebook bag of stuff, and “making camp,” to only find out that the signal is stronger 100 feet away.
While ZyXEL may not be a household name in networking, they do make a full variety of networking equipment. Spending some time on their website led me to the conclusion that there products are “industrial grade.” Just like at Sears they sell the wrench in both the Sears homeowner version, and the Master Craftsman edition, the ZyXEL devices are definitely “professional grade.”
Wardriving is the practice of going around and finding open wireless networks. Folks often use a notebook, with an antenna on the roof of their car to meticulously map out the network. This ZyXEL device promises to have this capability in the size of a Swiss Army knife. While there are several WiFi detectors out there, this device has the most ambitious feature set out there currently. Let’s look at what this new ZyXEL unit is capable of.
The box contents include:
- ZyXEL AG 225H WiFi Finder & USB Adaptor
- Software on CD
- Quick start guide
- USB extension cable
- Wrist strap
The ZyXEL unit itself is made of a silver plastic, and has a grayscale screen. There is a cap that pulls off to expose a standard USB interface. The device resembles a standard USB flash drive, but a little larger. Plugged directly into a USB port, it will likely block the adjacent ports from use. The antenna is entirely contained within the device itself, and has no jack for an external antenna. The ZyXEL unit will easily fit into any shirt pocket with ease. There is no tether to keep the cap attached, a weakness that is common in many USB flash drives.
The ZxXEL AG225H is designed to be able to do three related functions. First, and foremost, it can detect WiFi networks. Second, it can be used as a WiFi adaptor with a USB interface. Third, it can work as a wireless access point. To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing on the market that combines these three capabilities into one device.
There is a real on/off switch on one side (a refreshing “hard switch” as opposed to the “soft keys” that most devices use nowadays), and seek and next buttons on the other side. The screen displays the battery power. The battery is charged whenever the unit is plugged into any USB port. The unit was able to detect wireless networks continuously for over ½ hour without showing any signs of weakening. The display shows whether the battery is full or needs to be charged.
There are plenty of WiFi detectors out there. What distinguishes the ZyXEL unit is that it can detect both the very common b/g networks and also the rarer a networks. The a standard is based on the 5.8 GHz frequency, while the b/g standards are based on the 2.4 GHz frequency. I don’t know of another WiFi detector that can detect an “a” signal. When working as a WiFi detector, it works without a computer, running off its rechargeable lithium ion battery. When the unit is powered on, and the seek button is pressed, the in range WiFi networks are detected. Upon finding a network, it displays the name (SSID tag), the type (a/b/g), the channel, the strength of the signal (out of five bars), and whether it is open or using an encrypted protocol or not (open/WEP/WPA). After all, it’s useless to find a network, unpack and power up the notebook to only find out its encrypted. In fact, the ZyXEL WiFi finder can be set up to only detect open networks. Furthermore, it will tell you which channels the networks are transmitting on. Knowing the channel is very useful info because you’ll minimize interference by setting up your wireless router on a different channel than your neighbors. The device will also display the number of networks it has found. Pressing the next button will advance to the next network (it can track 15 networks simultaneously). In short, Zyxel’s WiFi abilities alone trump the competition handily. The only weakness I can see is it doesn’t detect Bluetooth networks.
To quote the late night infomercial, “But wait there’s more!” The ZyXEL unit also works as a USB wireless adaptor for the b and g protocols. This is useful for older notebooks with no internal wireless capabilities. This feature is also useful for desktops that have no wireless hardware installed. With the software installed, a familiar interface is seen in the screen shot. By clicking on the refresh button, available wireless networks are located, and connected to. There is a display of the link speed, and the signal strength as well. The software installed easily on my Windows XP notebook.
Finally, the ZyXEL AG-225H can serve as an access point, also known a hotspot. While I wouldn’t trade in the latest MIMO router for this, it can be useful on a temporary or backup basis. The computer that has the wired connection to the Ethernet can then send out a wireless signal to share the connection. I would envision this to be useful for sharing a wired broadband connection in a hotel room, among a few computers.
Quite honestly, this device’s abilities as a WiFi detector already make stand out. The USB adaptor, and access point are great added features. I always get concerned when one device tries to do too many things as it becomes one big compromise. I was eager to see if the ZyXEL became the next electronic Leatherman, or just the new iPod phone. Let’s see how it performed in actual use.
Using the Device
The ZyXEL is first and foremost a WiFi detector in my mind. It performed very strongly in this task. Within ten seconds of being powered up, it correctly identified three wireless networks. It correctly displayed the name, and the encryption protocols used. Pressing the next button toggled over to the next network. By activating the seek button, it scanned the airwaves again. The unit displayed the channel, the protocol (a/b/g) detected, and the strength of the signal out of five bars. When looking to move around an area, such as a public library or airline concourse, seeking out the strongest signal, this device displays the strength and allows for location tuning. The ZyXEL is pocket wardriving for dummies!
Next, I looked at using this as a wireless USB adaptor. My Averatec 3250HX notebook in testing by PC Magazine had one of the longer ranges for a wireless notebook. In fact, in my own experience, the internal wireless of my Averatec is stronger than any other USB device I’ve tried against it. The ZyXEL has the longest range of anything I have ever tested. The internal antenna has some directionality to it, even though these devices have an omnidirectional antenna. I found that the ZyXEL worked particularly well when combined with the included USB cable. I found that by combining the unit with the included extension cable, and checking the signal level in the ZyXEL software, I was able to position the unit for optimal signal strength. The strength could be measured using the included software; sometimes a change of only a degree or two in direction made a measured difference. The ZyXEL was very strong on both b and g networks. I could not test it on an a network due to their rarity. For users with weak wireless in their notebooks, this is the strongest USB adaptor out there, certainly in this form factor.
Lastly, I looked at the wireless access point feature. The ZyXEL unit broadcasts on the g protocol. I found it adequate at this task. I plugged it into my desktop which is connected to my DSL modem. I put the ZyXEL into wireless access point mode via the software. My notebook was able to maintain a signal to about 100 feet without an obstruction, and about half of that distance with intervening walls. This would be adequate in a smaller place, such as in a hotel room, but a dedicated router is better for routine household and business coverage. If you’re opening up a Starbuck’s franchise, spend the bucks for a wireless router, as this unit is only adequate at this feature. For travel purposes, this is a very portable access point with enough coverage in any hotel room.
In summary, I was impressed that everything worked as advertised, which is often not the case with wireless networking gear. On the USB wireless adaptor tests, the ZyXEL WiFi Finder definitely exceeded my expectations with a range and speed better than many dedicated units. While many company’s products claim to have “maximum range and speed,” this unit from ZyXEL has the performance to back it up. It was able to WiFi network with routers that a Buffalo Hi Gain directional antenna, and some of the latest pre-n cards were not able to maintain a steady signal with. I am duly impressed with the ZyXEL’s abilities on these demanding tasks.
- Class leading performance as a USB wireless adaptor
- supports a/b/g standards as a WiFi finder
- rechargeable Lithium battery
- displays networks names, channels, encryption protocols, strength
- dedicated on/off switch
- battery strength indicator
- cap not attached or tethered
- no Bluetooth support
- screen not illuminated
- size likely to block adjoining USB ports
Who should buy this?
The wardriver who wants the most portable WiFi detecting rig that still conveys useful information is the target audience for this device. At least for a while, this is the ultimate.
The notebook computer user looking to upgrade their wireless for maximum range on b/g networks, would be well served to use this as their wireless adaptor. The included software is stable, with full functionality including signal strength and transfer speeds. Just remember to bring the included USB extension cable along to optimize the signal.
The hotel internet user looking for the most portable travel access point will be pleased with the ZyXEL unit as well.
The ZyXEL AG-225H is a robust multifeatured device. It represents the state of the art in WiFi finders. Also, the ZyXEL has great range as a wireless USB adaptor. It is the most portable wireless access point imaginable. The only downside is the price. The $99 price tag is also the most expensive WiFi detector available. Users on a tight budget, that don’t anticipate using all the features, may find it more economical to purchase dedicated devices for the functionality they need. For the power user that wants it all, pony up and pay the price- you’ll like what the ZyXEL can do. The ZyXEL WiFi Finder is definitely “LD Approved,” and is truly in a class of its own.