AirDefense Personal Lite
Whenever you use Wi-Fi away from your home or office network, you're potentially open to attack. Plenty of dangers lurk out there, including scam networks masquerading as public hotspots, and "evil twins," which are rogue duplicate networks set up at a public hotspot — they appear to be the real network, but in fact they're run by someone who waits for you to connect and then tries to break into your PC and steal your personal information.
This freebie promises to help keep you safe. It monitors the networks to which you connect, and if they're potentially dangerous it issues warnings and offers advice on how to respond. It also alerts you if you tap into an unencrypted wireless network, or if you've linked to a wireless network that can use encryption but you haven't enabled it. It warns against lots of other things, as well, such as potential phishing attacks and even sudden changes in signal strength.
For a free program, this utility is surprisingly configurable. You can set your security level, you can add safe networks to a list so that the program won't issue warnings when you connect to them, and you can blacklist networks to prevent connecting to them even accidentally.
Note that installing this software takes some work. First you must go to the developer's site and fill out a form. Afterward you'll get a link via e-mail to download the program. Unzip the file, and then run PersonalShellLite.exe to install it. When it runs, right-click the AirDefense Personal Lite icon in the system tray and choose Run Now. Finally, click it again and choose Show.
Download AirDefense Personal Lite Price: Free
Xirrus Wi-Fi Monitor
If you're a Windows Vista user and a Wi-Fi user, this will be one of the most useful Vista gadgets you can download. It automatically displays your signal strength, the SSID of the network to which you're connected, and your current IP address. Visually, in radar monitor-style fashion, it also shows the network to which you're connected and any other nearby networks.
That's just the basics — you can get a lot more information, as well. Click the Show Details link, and you'll see in-depth details about the connected network and any nearby networks. You'll see each network SSID, whether it's encrypted, the kind of encryption employed, the channel it uses, the MAC address, and more.
Download Wi-Fi Monitor Price: Free
The world is not yet completely wireless, and unfortunately, free Wi-Fi connections are not always available wherever you roam. This software offers a nifty way to use more wireless hotspots in your travels. The concept is quite simple: Share and share alike. You run the software, create an account, and let others piggyback onto your home wireless network. When you do so, you receive credits for hopping onto other people's networks and commercial hotspots.
When you want to connect to a hotspot, you use the Whisher software instead of Windows XP's normal connection utility or your Wi-Fi card's software. When you're home and you're willing to open your connection, tell Whisher that you want to share, and you'll get credits in your account. You can then use those credits when you're away from home. If you don't have enough credits in your account to pay for commercial-hotspot access, you can buy some from Whisher on a per-minute basis.
Whisher Price: Free
Want to know your Wi-Fi connection's signal strength? Download this simple freebie, which shows the info in a small display anywhere on your desktop. Since it's a real-time monitor, it changes as your signal strength changes. It's particularly useful if you're troubleshooting a wireless network and you want to find dead spots, or areas that don't have particularly good coverage. Move around with your laptop, and you'll be able to see where the signal is strong and where it's weak.
The tool will also keep logs of your connection, so you can see how it changes over time. It can issue alerts if your connection drops below a certain strength, too. In addition, the software is quite customizable; you can skin it, as well as change the size and opacity of the display.
Download Wi-Fi SiStr Price: Free