Review: Hawking Wi-Fi Device Frustrates, Rewards

This unique device from Hawking combines a Wi-Fi signal locator and a USB adapter. However, it only does one of those jobs well.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

August 4, 2005

4 Min Read

I can’t recall the last time I was so simultaneously frustrated and pleased with a hardware product, but that was my experience with the. Hawking Technology's WiFi Locator Professional Edition (HWL2).

This device combines two functions: It is both a signal locator and a USB-based adapter. However, in my tests, I found that it does only one of those tasks well and is frustrating in other regards.

Weak Signal Locator

As a signal locator, it works much like an similar earlier Hawking Wi-Fi signal finder, slipping up like a flip-phone or a Star Trek communicator. The top of the device contains an antenna, and thus you can use it for directional signal location.

However, the signal finder part of the device doesn’t work even as well as the earliest Wi-Fi signal finders, such as the Smart ID WFS-1. The Hawking device requires that you hold down a button, keep still and wait for it to scan. The results aren’t impressive as you can only see a signal indicator and security marker (open, closed, secured) for ostensibly the strongest network.

I still find the Chrysalis Development WiFi Seeker to be superior with its continuous detection that allows true directionality. And the Canary Wireless Digital Hotspotter has some trade-offs but its integral LCD display provides a fair amount of additional information about the Wi-Fi networks in the vicinity. Strong Adapter

The Hawking device starts to shine when you use its USB 2.0 interface to plug it in to work as an 802.11g adapter. The long USB cable that comes with the device -- an even longer one would have been appreciated -- and the flip-open design enabled the device used in this mode to position its high-gain antenna quite far from a computer and use its directionality to aid reception.

As an adapter, I compared it to a Broadcom-based Apple AirPort Express Card in a desktop Macintosh with an external $50 omnidirectional antenna. In both cases, the Hawking picked up more networks and each network at greater strength.

However, the software that ships with the Hawking HWL2 is frustrating to use. Dialog boxes were seemingly written with machine translation -- "Connect This Site” and “More Setting” being typical. It doesn’t work in a manner consistent with virtually all other software, and provides confusing messages and status information.

The Wireless LAN Configuration Tool Plus doesn’t allow resizable windows, so long SSID names require widening columns and scrolling to see them. Configuring a security profile for a WPA network is an involved process. First you select a network shown as available, click More Setting, click Change next to Encryption, enter new values, click Apply, click WPA Encryption Setting, click Change, enter settings, click Apply, and close windows. This represents far more steps than should be the case.

Then, after all that, connecting to a network isn’t automated; you’re still prompted with a dialog to answer the question: “You have selected to connect to the WPA encryption network. Do you want to use the previous WPA setting?” It's hard to know precisely what this means, but clicking OK uses the profile that you ostensibly stored for that network.

Up And Down

Up and down: That's the story with this device as I delved more deeply into it. On the plus side, the software does let you swap the Hawking device into access point mode. On the downside, while having a high-gain AP as part of a USB connector might seem spiffy, it only offers WEP encryption in that mode -- a bad, insecure idea for a portable hotspot.

On the Windows side, the devices drivers integrate with Windows NDIS 5.1 abstraction layer, which allows any wireless device to be managed by software that also talks to that abstraction layer. With this capability, I tried using other packages including Windows XP’s built-in Wireless Zero Configuration management, the T-Mobile Connection Manager and Verizon’s BroadbandAccess management software (which handles 1xRTT, EVDO, and Wi-Fi) with the HWL2 and found all three were easier to use and more flexible.

As an 802.11g adapter, the HWL2 is an intriguing option, providing great range compared to standard adapters. However, in the end, it doesn't offer enough useful features to recommend it compared to other products and its software was particularly frustrating to use. For instance, I recently reviewed the Netgear RangeMax Wireless USB 2.0 adapter, which has a $80 to $90 street price, which is slightly more expensive than the HWL2's $79 street price. I’d go with the Netgear for range, performance, and software.

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