How many times – when connecting to a wireless network – you experienced:
- Wi-Fi connection problems
- Slow Wi-Fi data transfer
- Wi-Fi misconfigurations
- ALL OF THE ABOVE! 🙁
Over the past couple of years, Wi-Fi has become the most common and ubiquitous way to connect your devices to the Internet. Unfortunately, this also comes with a set of problems. Most of the times, these problems can be solved with a little tweaking of the network settings – but how do we know which ones?
Troubleshooting a Wi-Fi network might be tricky due to the many factors affecting a wireless connection, such as:
- Physical obstacles
- Radio waves interference
- Weak wireless signal
- Distance between devices
- Channel overlapping
- Network signal and noise
- Antenna size and orientation
- Signal degradation
- Transmitter power limitations
- and many more..!
Common network troubleshooting tools such as ping, traceroute and mtr are not designed to work on a constantly changing network, nor to see problems in the physical layer. In addition, they are very susceptible to conditions in the RF physical layer. It is a fact that wireless networks can be very volatile. And as we all know, it’s nearly impossible knowing what’s going on in a wireless segment just by checking the ping/traceroute/mtr.
In summary, troubleshooting a Wi-Fi network problem can be a nightmare, taking into considerations the many potential factors inpacting the connection.
I’m an Android OS fan. Thus, with my smartphone I tried many network monitoring apps. Some are really nice, but what they are lacking is an integration between different views on a wireless network: SSID, channels, signal strength, etc. To get the whole picture, you need to use several apps that are not compatible, nor linked together. Another limitation is due to the wireless chipset embedded in mobile phones: some key metrics and performance indicators are not available at all. In summary, using smartphone apps is feasible for a quick overview, but not for professional use.
Over the past couple of years, we saw several professional wireless network testers on the market, some are good and some are so-so. Today, we spent a few hours with a Netscout product. So, let’s get started with the review!
NETSCOUT AirCheck G2
NETSCOUT AirCheck G2 provides a simple and quick troubleshooting tool that fits in your hand. Its main features are as follows:
- Wireless tester supporting the latest Wi-Fi Standards (802.11a/b/g/n/ac)
- Easy-to-use graphic interface on a touch screen.
- Instant view of measured metrics such as network availability, connectivity, utilization, security settings, rogue hunting, and interference detection.
- Auto-Test feature for quick detection of common wireless problems.
- Centralized test results management platform for data analysis and sharing.
- Handheld device built with a rugged design.
Let’s hear from NETSCOUT how they approach wireless troubleshooting:
Wi-Fi is a complex technology, but testing it doesn’t have to be. AirCheck G2 Wireless tester is purpose built for the front-line IT responders dispatched to the complaints of: The Wi-Fi is not working or the Internet is down. The AirCheck G2 Wireless Tester provides fast, simple, and accurate isolation and troubleshooting, thereby reducing the time to resolution of wireless issues.
Time to get the AirCheck G2 in the field and see if the promises get delivered!
How it works
The first impression of AirCheck G2 is pretty good. The device we tested came with a handy travel bag that also contained all the accessories:
- AC power charger (110/220 volts).
- Car charger adapter.
- Device holster with strap and belt holder.
- External antenna with RSMA connector.
- USB cable (for device OS upgrade).
The AirCheck G2 feels solid and pretty rugged, especially when protected by the provided holster which ensures access to the nicely distributed I/O ports on the chassis:
- 2x USB-A.
- 1x USB Micro-B.
- Ethernet port.
- Antenna SMA connector.
- Power plug.
Internally, the AirCheck G2 has 3 antennas in a 3×3 MIMO configuration.”
AirCheck G2 starts in a one button operation, that brings the user directly to the home screen where all the tests are one finger click away. The 5” touchscreen display is snappy and fast to use, which is a pleasant surprise for such a rugged device: the Linux OS beating inside the device might be the hero here.
AirCheck G2 support multiple languages such as English, Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and many more. It can be purchased with a 3-year Golden Support 24/7.
It also comes with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack (3.6 V, 6 Ah, 21 Wh), and the AirCheck G2 Manager PC application that supports Windows 7, Windows 8.1 and Windows 10. This utility provides two capabilities: the ability to manage AirCheck profiles and manage sessions recorded with AirCheck (covered in later sections of this review).
The full Aircheck G2 data sheet can be found here.
The Aircheck G2 home page provides quick navigation into six main sections. Let’s see each of them in more details.
1 – Networks
It is mainly used to find problems such as unprotected networks, mixed security protocols, poor signal coverage or missing backup access points.
For each listed network, it is possible to obtain additional details just by clicking on the network name.
2 – Channels
This feature looks into what wireless channels are in use on the 2.4 Ghz and 5 GHz bands. By using this information, it’s possible to distribute the wireless networks in a particular way to avoid channel overlaps (or reduce it, if it’s not possible to avoid).
In addition, this view helps us to determine if the channels are over-utilized and/or subjected to interference and electromagnetic noise (e.g. microwave ovens, wireless devices, Bluetooth® communication).
Each channel can be analyzed in details just by clicking on it: the subsequent screen shows the percentage of 802.11 signal level vs. the noise level.
3 – Access Points
From this view, it is possible to spot common problems such as incorrect security, weak signal or channel misconfiguration.
Each access point can be clicked to obtain more details: number of connected clients, supported rates and channel capabilities
4 – Clients
It is possible to spot unauthorized clients and rogue access points by following the real time signal probe (with audio). USB headset can keep the sounds private to the Aircheck G2 operator.
5 – Auto Test
The Auto-Test feature is a handy one-button check looking for the most common problems affecting wireless networks. It performs five essential tests:
- 802.11 utilization: indicates the top three channels in each band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) with the highest 802.11 traffic airtime utilization.
- Non-802.11 utilization: checks the top three channels in each band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) with the highest non-802.11 airtime utilization. This is an indication of interference sources in the area.
- Co-channel interference: finds the top three channels in each band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) with the most access points on the same channel that exceed the minimum signal level threshold.
- Adjacent channel interference: lists the top three channels in the 2.4 GHz band in which access points may experience Adjacent Channel Interference.
- Network quality: measures coverage, interference, security and ability to connect to specified networks, including network services such as DHCP and connectivity to specified network targets.
6 – Ethernet Test
This feature is used to test Ethernet connections. Just plug the cable to the AircheckG2 port and it’s ready to go! Wireless gateways are always connected to the next hop router via ethernet cable, so it’s often important checking this segment of the network to troubleshoot bottlenecks.
The validation includes the following checks on the Ethernet:
- Power Over Ethernet (PoE)
- DHCP address assignment
- VLAN discovery
- Uplink to the switch
- Gateway connection
- Switch port information
- DP/LLDP/EDP for managed switches
For every wireless and Ethernet connection test, the results can be sent directly to an email address, or uploaded ot the Link-Live Cloud Service.
Link-Live Cloud Service
AirCheck G2 can be connected to the Link-Live Cloud service to automatically upload tests results. This cloud service is a super-easy way to feed the field data to a dashboard for project management and reporting, and it’s obviously available anytime via browser (it needs only an Internet connection).
If you work in a remote team, any colleague can access the dashboard to get instant visibility on the data collected by other engineers. This also means you can send junior engineers onsite, just to collect data, with one senior engineer analysing the data remotely. Pretty neat! Plus the labor cost saving here is evident.
Linking the AirCheck device to the cloud app takes a couple of minutes; by following the provided step-by-step procedure. Then, all the data from the field is accessible from any browser (screenshot below).
AirCheck G2 Manager Software
Profiles are used to configure, manage and control the Aircheck G2 device(s). It is possible to manage the whole fleet of devices using the Profile feature, which allows configuration of settings. Multiple profiles can be transferred into the Aircheck G2, making them available for different situations in the field.
The AirCheck G2 Manager Software allows to manage the AirCheck G2 device profiles and view information on saved tests results. This software is free to download via the Link-Live Cloud Service.
Router Freak’s review
Aircheck G2 is a piece of cake to use! Just press the power-on button, and from the home screen you only need to select one of the available tests. That’s it, folks!
The collected metrics are presented in a straightforward way, with plenty of additional information just one click away. What we really liked of this tool is its simplicity of use.
Let’s have few a few first-hands examples on field testing.
TEST 1 – Checking networks in the environment
While I was at home, I decided to check the available networks in my flat. At a glance, I can identify the one belonging to my flat and just by clicking on it. I can see all the necessary details such as:
- Number of access points
- Signal strength
- Signal and noise levels
- Signal/noise ratio
- Security type
- 802.11 types
- Number of connected clients
- Band and channel in use
A similar procedure is applicable to all tests in the device. What is also nice is its ability to save the test results locally on the Aircheck G2, or to upload them to the Link-Live cloud for real time sharing with other co-workers and managers.
The Aircheck G2 that we tested came with a large external antenna, so I plugged it to the device through the RSMA connector. This allows the device to receive a much wider range of wireless signals, thanks to the high gain antenna.
My sister lives in the same building as myself, and while playing with the external antenna I saw her Wi-Fi network popping up on the Aircheck G2 display (I know it very well, since I configured it!). Knowing the password, I connected to it and checked in which part of my flat the signal was strong enough to allow data exchange.
I repeated the procedure with my laptop, and I could not see any trace of my sister’s network, probably because the laptop embedded antenna was not enough to catch such a distant signal. What I did was pulling out an external high gain USB antenna (cost $15) which I plugged into my laptop and used it to look up and connect to my sister’s network!
This was a great discovery, because now I have a backup Wi-Fi network to use when my DSL provider has a bad day. Even though I live in the same building, the distance from my sister’s flat is significant, so I never thought about checking her Wi-Fi signal from my home.
Aircheck G2, with the contribution of the external antenna, just showed me in a super simple way what networks were around me, very quickly. If you are a field engineer working with wireless, you’ll love this kind of stuff!
TEST 2 – Optimizing Wi-Fi networks
I am a proper geek so, obviously, my own Wi-Fi is well protected, fast and without any external interference. Periodically, I check the channels and I always make sure that I run my network on an empty one, to avoid overlaps with the (not so many) neighbors.
This process takes time, but it’s also a pleasure for me. Not everybody enjoys that, or knows how to do it anyway. Since I was looking for a network to optimize, I focused on my closest neighbor who I know well: he hates this kind of technical stuff!
He got his DSL connection configured out of the shipped box, just by plugging-in the cheap router given by the service provider. He did not have to configure any security protocol, nor the password. I though he was the perfect candidate for a network optimization.
The first test I did was for the network, to identify which one belonged to him. Then I proceeded with the signal level, which showed pretty good output with an optimal SNR. What was really bad was the channel occupation. He was using #1 together with 4 other occupants.
I talked to him and asked about his experience with his home Wi-Fi, and he mentioned that lately it wasn’t as great as it used to be. I asked permission to play with his router, and just by moving the network to an unused channel, we increased the data speed of his Wi-Fi by 30%.
What again struck me was the super-easy access to the information on the Aircheck G2 display, a device that I can hold in my hand. Of course, I could have used different laptop softwares and tools to achieve the same results, but – again – it’s just so handy to have it all together.
TEST 3 – Documentation
A great product should always have a great documentation! As already mentioned, one of the most prominent strength of Aircheck G2 is its simplicity in gathering and presenting wireless information and metrics. For a skilled network engineer, understanding the data on the display should present no problem at all.
For engineers who still need some help on wireless, Netscout created a WLAN troubleshooting guide that presents different scenarios with step-by-step troubleshooting procedures:
- Unable to connect to the wireless network.
- Network is slow.
- Detecting security risks.
- Running Auto-test.
- Troubleshooting hints.
This is a great resource to make the most out of the Aircheck G2. For field use, Netscout provided a Help section accessible on the device, just by clicking the question mark button (?) always present on the top/right corner of the display. What I liked of this feature is that the Help page is always related to the current feature in use. For instance, if I am in the Access Points view, the Help page will show contents related to that. Easy peasy!
TEST 4 – Access point localization
When working in corporate environments, there’s often lack of information about the existing networks. Let’s imagine this (not so uncommon) scenario: you are the network engineer in the field, and they called you because the wireless network is not working well.
You get to the customer’s site, and you start asking questions, such as:
- Where is the access point?
- What kind of cable service do you have for Internet?
One feature that I truly loved in the Aircheck G2 was the “locate” access point feature. When you activate it, you become the wireless dowser!
A visual gauge gets displayed on the screen, and an audio feed helps you in localizing the target access point. It’s possible to use USB headset, to avoid disturbing people around you with the beep-beep sound.
This is a great little feature that helps you localizing devices in an unknown location, also scanning for rogue access points installed without permission.
Router Freak’s verdict
If you are often in the field working with wireless networks, Aircheck G2 is the device you want to have in your toolbox. It’s portable, lightweight, super-easy to use and awesome in quickly gathering wireless metrics and presenting the information on the 5″ snappy touch screen.
What we liked the most was the ability to dig down for more detailed information on our finger tips. You can switch from overview to details in a couple of clicks, with responsive data views that refresh every few seconds.
Aircheck G2 is good either for home, small businesses and corporate environments: in all of them, it can be used to gather information, analyze on screen and apply the troubleshooting steps or configuration tweaks to fine tune the wireless network.
While doing this review, we thought that the Aircheck G2 did not have the ability to take screenshots directly on the device. It’s true that the data can be easily saved locally and/or uploaded to the Link-Live Cloud Service, but sometimes it’s just enough to grab a screenshot for quick sharing with a colleague. That is actually available pressing and holding the ‘?’ button (present on all the views). It is possible to download the png image files to a USB drive, or directly to your PC using the AirCheck G2 Manager and a USB cable. Overall, this useful feature is a bit hidden at the moment, and we would like to see it more visible in future upgrades.
Another improvement that we would like to see in the future is the AirCheck Manager Software support for Apple OS-X. At the moment this utility is only available for Windows, so in order to try it, we used a virtual machine on our MacBook laptop. In the next upgrades, it would be nice to see native support for the Apple operating system.
Overall Aircheck G2 is a great tool that packs so many features in one box and RouterFreak definitely recommends it! If you are still unsure about AircheckG2, you can take the Virtual Test Drive or request a Live Demo to get a better idea of the device’s capabilities.
Do you think this device could make your life easier when working in the field? Leave your opinion in the comments below, we’ll be happy to discuss it with you!
The device tested in this review was provided by Netscout. Please refer to their website for more information.