How to resolve common wireless performance issues using NetSpot PRO on Mac

Wireless networking has become the primary, and often only, connection method for many users. Here's how to troubleshoot corresponding performance issues.

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Image: NetSpot PRO

A few years ago I needed a utility capable of confirming a potential wireless network deployment's strength and range. Using NetSpot PRO with a Mac, I was able to confirm with confidence that the wireless equipment specified within a project plan would perform as intended within a new facility.

You, too, can use the Mac-friendly application to confirm proposed wireless deployments or upgrades will meet your needs, but you can also use the $149 application to expand the $49 Home version's zone compatibilities, data collection points and snapshots capacities. The PRO version also provides an additional technician license that can be leveraged when reviewing wireless surveys.

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NetSpot PRO version 2.12 is a small-footprint app. The program occupies only 26MB of disk space and typically consumes less than 8% of a CPU on my Mac when performing a survey and less than 4% when only discovering and collecting metrics on available wireless networks. Unlike other applications and network utilities I've used, NetSpot PRO locates and identifies more wireless connections, as well.

The new version and updates include support for 802.11 ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6, includes support for macOS Catalina and replaces the older NetSpot Wi-Fi Reporter with a new Wi-Fi scanning technology. The new edition also includes user interface improvements, active scanning compatible with HTTPS and refined reports, in addition to optimized memory performance and Retina Ready compatibility.

Just open the application to discover wireless networks. The program begins performing network analysis on startup. In addition to capturing service set identifiers (SSIDs), or the wireless networks' names, NetSpot PRO collects corresponding Wi-Fi equipment hardware addresses, or basic service set identifiers (BSSIDs), the wireless networks' channels, and the radio bands in operation. The program also detects and records the security technology in play, such as WPA2 Personal or WEP, as well as the suspected Wi-Fi equipment vendor.

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That information alone, as shown in Figure A, is incredibly useful for troubleshooting problematic wireless network issues. For example, the SSID field confirms the name of the wireless networks in operation. As a consultant who's spent years in the field, I've found the actual network name may not match a client's or end user's recollection, so such hard-and-fast data is helpful. The same logic holds true for the security mechanism (WPA2 vs. WPA vs. WEP, for example) in place. The channel data assists seasoned eyes in quickly spotting communication conflicts that can occur when two separate networks—including a previously unknown network on the other side of a shared wall in a public office building—compete for traffic using the same channel. When such errors are encountered, changing the wireless channel you administer can eliminate the problem.

Figure A

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NetSpot PRO collects critical metrics needed to effectively troubleshoot wireless networks.

Image: NetSpot PRO

NetSpot PRO collects critical metrics needed to effectively troubleshoot wireless networks.

The app's discovery process, however, also captures additional information that proves necessary for performing more advanced wireless network troubleshooting. In addition to capturing Wi-Fi mode (such as ac, a, n and a/n), the program collects signal-to-noise ratio levels and corresponding signal strength metrics for each access point detected. NetSpot PRO users can double-click signal levels, too, for more information on each AP's specific performance. Using those metrics, you can trace malfunctioning access points, determine whether an additional access point is needed to accommodate workers in a specific location, and confirm whether building materials, walls, and other electronic equipment may be introducing conflicts and, if so, which AP is impacted.

Using the program's Survey feature, you can plan and model future networks or even potential AP additions to an existing network. Using a portable router, or moving an existing AP from point to point while testing permits collecting wireless signal data throughout an office or facility.

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To perform a survey, click the Discover/Survey button to place NetSpot PRO in Survey mode. Provide zone information by loading a zone file or drawing the corresponding boundaries. Alternatively, you can use a sample map or use a blank template. Following the prompts creates a map that captures wireless signal information as you move your Mac throughout the facility while performing the test.

NetSpot provides onscreen instructions that simplify and guide users through the process when performing a field survey. The firm's user guide and online survey support documentation provide a pleasant assist and describe available options for performing and customizing tests, merging multiple snapshot files and making sense of the resulting signal strength information. Regardless, I find the survey's resulting color-coordinated maps, as shown in Figure B, typically tell me at a glance where wireless signals are going to encounter trouble and benefit from additional strength.

Figure B

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NetSpot PRO's Survey features permit mapping homes, offices, and other facilities to determine where APs are required or where wireless coverage is failing.

Image: NetSpot PRO

NetSpot PRO's Survey features permit mapping homes, offices, and other facilities to determine where APs are required or where wireless coverage is failing.

The program offers other benefits, too. Using the Discover feature, you can locate unauthorized wireless access points, identify naming and configuration errors, and confirm how far beyond a perimeter wall your organization's wireless signal is leaking.

NetSpot Home, which costs $49, provides a single license for personal use and supports mapping two zones, creating two snapshots, tracking up to 50 data points per zone, and visualizing up to five access points. The PRO version, however, expands those capacities to 50 zones, 50 snapshots, 500 data points per zone, and an unlimited number of access points. More importantly, the PRO version provides a license for commercial use and includes the technician license that can be used to view a survey project that was created on another Mac.

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By Erik Eckel

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...