Like it or not, using Wi-Fi is not as straightforward as it might be. There are different flavours of Wi-Fi (though the most usual ones, b and g, are backward compatible), and there can also be snags to negotiate in getting signal, registering on the network, and finally using the Internet.

Any seasoned tech traveller carries a set of tools and utilities around to help keep working regardless of what network is available (see Dan Gillmore’s toolbag). Here are the applications and gadgets that we find useful for smooth Wi-Fi usage.

Wi-Fi Seeker
You may not justify US$29.95 plus postage for a key fob that spots Wi-Fi signals, but if you want to know that there is Wi-Fi available before you boot up your laptop (or PDA) then this is the best tool around to do it with (see our Wi-Fi Seeker review).

NetStumbler
Once you have your laptop running, you will need to pick the right network to connect to, based on the SSID, signal strength, security and other factors. If there is a wireless network around, then NetStumbler will find it, and tell you if you can connect.

NetStumbler is free (actually "beggarware" - donate if you like the program). There are two versions: Netstumbler for laptops, and MiniStumbler for Windows CE based PDAs.

The software was recently upgraded, reaching version 0.4, although this is false modesty from author Marius Milner who writes NetStumbler in his spare time. It is true that the software is not suitable for beginners, and will work best if you disable the troublesome Zero-Configuration feature in Windows XP.

However, most users trust this software as much as they would fully-released software from certain giant software companies, which must be why NetStumbler 0.4 was reported as Stumbler 4.0 in some well-respected places.

The new version mostly adds support for more network cards and gear, in particular those based on Atheros, Atmel and Intersil silicon, as well as better support for Cisco wireless cards. If you have had hardware problems with earlier versions of NetStumbler now could be a good time to revisit it.

Boingo Wireless software
This is genuinely free software, intended for connections to wireless ISP Boingo. However, it can also be used by non-customers of Boingo to store network profiles with encryption keys (Boingo has a list of its locations here, by the way).

If you regularly use more than one encrypted network, the Boingo software should save you time in not having to reconfigure your Wi-Fi card settings with different WEP or WPA keys.

A hotspot directory
There are a few different directories of hotspots that are worth checking out.

  • Wi-Fi Networking News has a listing with a very impressive search: put in your detailed postcode and it comes back with a specific set of nearby hotspots - and a map. This gets our vote as the best Wi-Fi locater we know of.
  • JiWire has a directory including free and commercial access points. The listing is searchable (you can find all the hotspots in a given postal area - but it doesn't like full postcodes), and you can download details to a PDA in AvantGo format.
  • Hotspot Locations has a directory that is similarly limited
  • Hotspot Haven is also too US oriented for us to care much for.
  • WiFinder is similar.
  • Wi-Fi 411's searchable list is even more US-centric: the postcode field disappears if you stray outside America.

.

A USB combo Wi-Fi/storage device
Maybe your laptop will have problems, and you need to use a different machine, with no Wi-Fi. If that hapens, this kind of device can be a boon. I have a Torspoal PenDragon which combines 802.11b networking and 128 Mbyte of storage in a UWB module.

Combining storage and Wi-Fi not only means you can access your essential files - it also lets you load the Wi-Fi drivers into the storage, so you can connect any USB-equipped computer to Wi-Fi with a single plug-in device.

What else should be on this list? Do you have a favourite Wi-Fi tool or gadget, that's got you out of difficulties? Let us know in the Forum

Some ideas on this list suggested form a similar list by Glenn Fleishman.