Perhaps you’ve found yourself on the road and seeking a wireless connection through which to establish contact with the home office—constantly starting up your laptop and wasting precious battery life to monitor the area for available networks. One solid alternative to this wearisome task is to get your hands on a Canary Wireless Digital Hotspotter HS20. I had a chance to play around with this little gadget for a month, keeping it in my car and carrying it along for just those situations when I needed to find a strong signal. And overall, I found the device quite convenient.

This second generation of the Digital Hostpotter—now even smaller than its predecessor—is a lightweight, black rectangle about the size of a deck of cards and about the heft of a cigarette lighter. There’s even a handy keylet with which you can attach the device to your keychain (although the HS20 is still a bit bulky for that purpose, in my book). It’s got a simple digital readout on its face, and three yellow-rubber buttons along its right side: A Power button starts up the device and begins scanning, and Previous and Next buttons let you cycle through available networks that the device’s built-in 802.11 engine has found.

Which brings us to the HS-20’s primary if simple functionality: to show you all the available wireless networks in your immediate area, along with fairly comprehensive information— network SSID (name of AP), strength of the network signal, security type (open, WEP, WPA, WPA2), network type (802.11b/g/n), channel number (1-14), and total number of APs found. The device shows you as many as 20 wireless APs per scan.

In my testing, the startup scan process took about 6 seconds, and rescans (while powered up) took only 2 seconds. Once the device finds all available networks, the network with the strongest signal appears onscreen, and the device scrolls all relevant information across the small screen. For example, my test at home showed: Bovberg Wireless, Secure WPA, AP:G, 54M, CH:6. A convenient padlock icon appeared at the top, but didn’t appear over several open networks that the device found. At the top left, a signal-strength icon appeared, and at the upper right, the number of networks (1/5).

Judging by the various areas where I tested the HS20, and comparing its found networks with those of my laptop, the device has good range, finding everything the laptop found but providing deeper information. One caveat: When I attempted multiple scans of precisely the same area in quick succession, different numbers of APs showed up on the HS20, gaining and losing networks. Holding the device so that you don’t block its antenna seems to help.

Although the HS20 is a valuable little device, I found the tiny, backlit LCD a bit disappointing. We’re all spoiled by the graphical simplicity and usability of, for example, Apple’s iPod products. By contrast, the lumbering, digital text scrolling of the HS20’s LCD seems antiquated. Then again, this little convenience device costs about a fifth the price of an iPod. The HS20 runs on two AAA batteries, and I never had any battery-life problems during my month of testing.

The Digital Hotspotter HS20 is a great little tool for mobile users and also for IT administrators needing to assess wireless coverage in the business environment. The device costs $59.95 and is available at the Canary Wireless website.

Rating: 4 out of 5 star