12 downloads to make your Wi-Fi life easier and fun

Wireless networking made easy

Increasingly, the world is becoming wireless. At home, at work, and on the road, you'll often connect to Wi-Fi networks and hotspots for Internet access. But doing so isn't always simple. You can use some assistance in finding and connecting to hotspots and networks, making sure that you don't link to any that are dangerous, and protecting yourself when you do connect.

We've found a dozen downloads to make your Wi-Fi life easier. Among other things, they'll help you locate and connect to networks, enable you to set up a virtual private network for staying safe when you're connected, let you switch between networks with ease, and even allow you to do some social networking via Wi-Fi.

Note that many of these programs require that your firewall allow them through, so you may receive notifications from your firewall asking whether to block them. Make sure to tell the firewall not to block. Also, some of them install special drivers, so it's a good idea to set up a Restore Point before installing, so you can revert to a previous state if you run into trouble.

WeFi

Download this program to see how wireless networking meets social networking. It's a great way not just to find hotspots and connect to them, but also to get in touch with existing friends and make new ones. After you download the free software, it will show you all the nearby hotspots to which you can connect, including whether the network is encrypted or open, and the signal strength. Double-click any to connect. In addition to seeing the hotspots in the software, you can also see all nearby hotspots on a map on a Web page.

If you want to meet up with people who are connected to hotspots near you, click the People tab, and you'll see a list of folks nearby. You can then obtain more information about any of them, and contact them as well. The software also lets you easily upload information about the hotspots you've found and add them to the site's maps.

Download WeFi Price: Free

Plug and Browse

If you often connect to more than one wireless or wired network — one at home and one at work, for example — you know the meaning of frustration. Networks usually have different settings. One, for instance, may issue IP addresses via DHCP, while another uses a static IP address. One may have a certain set of firewall rules and a default printer, and another network a different set of rules and its own printer. Perhaps one network requires that a script be run when you connect, or has a set of mapped drives, and others don't.

Whenever you connect to a different network, you need to change all those settings manually, which can take a considerable amount of time. That's where Plug and Browse helps. This exceedingly simple tool lets you instantly switch to new, predefined network settings in a flash: You set up a profile for each different network, and then just double-click the profile you need when you connect to a particular network.

Making things even easier is the fact that you don't need to create the profiles manually. Connect to a network and tell the program to gather the settings, and it does it all for you automatically, creating a new profile. The program works with any kind of network, so it's useful even if you don't connect wirelessly.

Download Plug and Browse Price: $US40 (free demo)

JiWire Wi-Fi Hotspot Finder for Windows XP

Here's a convenient, free way to find nearby hotspots when you need wireless access in a hurry. Run the program and enter your location (such as your zip code or city), and it lists all nearby hotspots. It will search for either paid or free hotspots, or both. The program's database is frequently updated, so you're assured of getting an up-to-date list.

When you click on any listed hotspot, you see more details about it. For example, if it's from a for-pay provider, you'll see who owns it. You'll also receive basic information about the hotspot, such as its SSID, pricing plan, and so on. You can also display a map showing the hotspot, so you can easily make your way to it.

A for-pay version of this software, called JiWire Hotspot Helper, offers additional benefits. It keeps you safe by encrypting your connection whenever you're at a hotspot, and it also lets you use your e-mail software to send messages at hotspots. (At many hotspots, you can't use your e-mail software for sending because hotspot operators block outgoing messages, fearing that the hotspot could be used as a relay to send spam.) The for-pay version costs $US25 per year.

Download JiWire Price: Free ($US25 per year for enhanced features)

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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

Whisher

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

Wi-Fi SiStr

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

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Hotspot Shield

Do you feel safe when you connect to a hotspot at a cafe, airport, or some other public location? You shouldn't. A lot of potential dangers hide there, including nearby hackers who may try to pilfer your data, or people who might attempt other ways to snoop on what you're doing online. You're in particular danger if you visit any Web sites and type in your user name and password — they could be hijacked.

This freebie could solve the problem. It claims to encrypt all of your data and packets while you're in a public location, shielding you from harm. The program is simplicity itself — install it and run it, and it promises to protect you.

A few notes about its use. When you install it, make sure to prevent the Dealio toolbar from installing — it's annoying adware, and the program works fine without it. Also, when you launch the program, your default browser will launch too, and ads may appear in it. You can just close that down, though, and Hotspot Shield will still work fine.

Download Hotspot Shield Price: Free

WiFi Guardian

Here's another application that, like Hotspot Shield, sets up a virtual private network (VPN) for you when you're at a hotspot, or when you want to protect your wireless transmissions for any reason. Run the software, log in, and choose a server (currently your choice is only the United States or the United Kingdom), and everything you do will be hidden through 128-bit SSL encryption.

The software also promises to get around a problem that can occur when people are outside the United States and want to view certain American TV shows over the Internet: Since some sites block access to such shows to all but American IP addresses, as the creators claim, if you choose a US WiFi Guardian server when you log in, the server will give you a US IP address. As a result, you should be able to watch the show.

Download WiFi Guardian Price: Free (trial for 30 days; $US5 per 1GB transferred)

WiFi Hopper

This tool is great for sniffing out any nearby networks, as well as for getting a great deal of information about them, to make it easier to decide whether you should connect. It scans for Wi-Fi networks and it reports, for each of them, the SSID (network name), the MAC address of the wireless router, the signal strength, whether the network is encrypted, the type of encryption, your connection status, the frequency on which the network operates, and more.

It also reports whether the network is in infrastructure mode (where you're connected to a wireless router), or ad hoc mode (a PC-to-PC connection). Ad hoc connections are potentially dangerous, so you should stay away from them unless you know the person whose machine you'll connect to.

On top of all that is another nice extra: You can view a graph of the signal strength, in real time, of any nearby network. And to connect to any network that WiFi Hopper finds, you simply double-click it.

Download WiFi Hopper Price: Free (trial for 15 days; $US35)

Wireless Wizard

This freebie is designed to work with the US Wi-Fi provider Azulstar, but it's even useful for people who aren't Azulstar customers. It displays information about your current wireless connection, including the SSID, the signal strength, the access point channel, the gateway, the domain of your Internet provider, and much more. It also offers a set of troubleshooting tools, checking for any problems with your IP address, signal strength, and so on.

It's generally useful, but it also makes mistakes on occasion — for example, it might report that you have poor wireless link quality, when in fact the connection is good. Still, you can't argue with free.

download Wireless Wizard Price: Free

Loki Toolbar

Don't like to carry around a dedicated GPS device? No problem. Turn your laptop into your navigator with this very clever toolbar, which works in both Internet Explorer and Firefox. It employs triangulation technology with any Wi-Fi connections near you to determine your location in concert with its Wi-Fi Positioning System. In addition, it will show you nearby movies, shopping, traffic, weather, and so on via various channels, though the channels often appear in a separate browser window.

Be prepared to be offended (or entertained) by some channels, such as the one that shows nearby strip clubs for both men and women. And I discovered that the channel information isn't always particularly helpful — for instance, the restaurants channel showed me establishments located miles away rather than those nearby. Still, the channels are of some use.

Loki Toolbar functions as a social networking tool, too. You can choose to have your location shown to other people, and see their location, so that you can connect with them in the real world.

Loki Toolbar Price: Free