Review: WiSpy DBx

Need help configuring your first wireless network? Or do you need to expand your current wireless capabilities? Need to manage multiple networks? Metageek’s WiSpy DBx is a dual-band spectrum analyzer that can help you install, troubleshoot, and optimize your 2.4GHz/5GHz wireless networks. The solution comes bundled with Metageek's spectrum-analysis software Chanalyzer, which promises a high-resolution visualization of your wireless landscape for easy monitoring.

The installation process is almost effortless, requiring only the .NET Framework 2.0 and about 30 seconds of your time. (The .NET Framework 2.0 is built in to Windows 7 and Windows Vista, and is a 10-minute install on Windows XP.) This process gets the Chanalyzer software up and running; there are no drivers to install for the unit itself.

Chanalyzer isn't the radio engineer’s toolkit that some more pricy packages offer. It doesn't show every measure from every angle; rather, it takes a more streamlined tack, sticking with three core graphs, or views. The views stack above a common x-axis, the labeling of which can be swapped out to give the frequency range in terms of corresponding Wi-Fi or Zigbee channels, rather than the default megahertz values.

The recording controls are at the bottom of the window. Everything in Chanalyzer is recorded and organized over time, so even the instantaneous graphs are updated within this context. This method gives you a handy way to document odd samples, as well as the invaluable ability to leave a WiSpy unit recording near a trouble spot for hours to hunt down intermittent causes of interference. And, as you see in Figure 1, the ability to define a time frame for displays lets you enlarge areas under scrutiny. Chanalyzer isn't flawless, however; it could benefit from a side-by-side view to compare recordings, preferably with linked recording controls to sync the views.

Figure 1: Chanalyzer's three views

The Spectral View is a waterfall graph of activity over time—a natural starting point after recording some data. The graph's color is dependent on the power of the transmission received, meaning red areas are the most likely to be sources of interference.

After you locate a problem, you must assess its strength (i.e., likelihood of interfering) and character (i.e., the type of device causing it). The Planar View is an instantaneous view of signal strength, showing average and maximum strengths to help separate signals from background noise.

The most useful graph, the Topographic View, shows how often various amplitudes are picked up. Over time, it slowly forms a shape that's unique to that type of interference or transmission. Enter Metageek’s layman’s tool: the signatures database. It’s comprised of a set of recordings that have been captured by Metageek and other contributors, letting you actively compare your captures to those of other WiSpyers when indentifying a signal.

I should mention that a wireless spectrum analyzer and a wireless radio aren't the same thing. Spectrum analyzers such as the WiSpy DBx are designed to take small measurements of the wireless activity at a high pace as they sweep through the frequency spectrum you're targeting (in our case, the 2.4GHz and 5GHz ranges). Standard wireless radios, such as your Wi-Fi card, can also scan the spectrum but are designed to scan only the exact frequencies of wireless channels permitted in that region of the world. Metageek offers a best-of-both-worlds approach, simultaneously scanning with both and overlaying active Wi-Fi networks over the Topographic View to help distinguish them from noise and interference.

Metageek’s initial offering, the humble WiSpy 2.4i, was a hit among technical folks who wanted to scan their airspace. The WiSpy DBx, which modernizes Metageek’s offerings with 5GHz scanning, might be a tad expensive for some enthusiasts, but the device offers several new factors worthy of consideration. First, it's worth noting that the next step up in 2.4GHz/5GHz spectrum analyzers begins at $4,000. Second, the other offering at this level—Ubiquiti’s AirView—hasn't yet expanded to include the 5GHz spectrum. Third, in the event that you go from amateur to semi-pro wireless diagnostician, you can buy new software to integrate it with a GPS receiver and start plotting wireless signals geographically. Finally, Wireless-N’s bandwidth will suffice for many applications for some time, meaning that the WiSpy DBx will likely be current for at least several years.


PROS: Excellent price/performance ratio; 5GHz support; remote recording and playback features are useful for troubleshooting inconsistent issues

CONS: Occasional software glitches; lack of side-by-side time-synced comparison view

RATING: 4.5 out of 5

PRICE: $599 for hardware; software is free

RECOMMENDATION: If you need to monitor Wi-Fi on a small budget, MetaGeek comes highly recommended. The WiSpy DBx exposes open spectra to those of us who don’t require enterprise-level monitoring but want the ability to expand via software to more wide-area solutions.

CONTACT: Metageek • 877-850-8152•

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