Have you ever longed for something a little more extensive than the AirPort Wi-Fi menu built into OS X? iStumbler is a simple utility that helps you find AirPort networks, Bluetooth devices, Bonjour services and Location information with your Mac.
Today, we’re going to look into this app a little further, and compare it to another competing piece of software that does a similar thing. Prepare to discover everything there is to know about the digital airwaves surrounding your Mac!
When you first launch iStumbler, it asks to use your current location. Any Mac application that uses this information needs to request permission first – it’s a standard process, so feel free to answer “OK”!
Labelled “AirPort”, this section shows plenty of detail about the wireless networks surrounding you:
Here are the main columns to look out for:
- Secure – This shows whether a network is protected by any encryption and, if so, what level of encryption that is
- Protocol – Apple’s latest computers support the 802.11n standard, so you can look for Wireless networks that run at this faster protocol.
- Network Name – Fairly self explanatory, this is the name of the network in question (you can see this from the AirPort Menu Bar interface normally)
- Level/Signal – Showing a visual and percentage representation of the signal strength picked up from the network. This is far more accurate than anything else available easily on OS X.
This information gives you everything you need to pick the best available Wi-Fi network at any given point in time.
You can see a graph towards the top of the window showing the “Signal to Noise Histogram”. This can be detached from the window and shown as a floating panel by clicking the unusually shaped circle to the left of the graph.
The next pane to take a look at is Bluetooth. As you’d expect, this shows any and all the Bluetooth devices currently broadcasting around you:
In my case, it has just picked up my Wireless Apple Keyboard/Mouse. Bluetooth on both my iPad and iPhone is turned off, so these can’t be found by iStumbler.
The information shown here is more limited than that of the Wi-Fi panel, but you have the additional option of being able to Set up a particular device, or initiate Pairing.
These two buttons launch the OS X Bluetooth Setup Assistant for doing just that, and make the screen slightly more useful than being a mere browser.
Finally, Bonjour shows all the Bonjour enabled devices and services on both your local network, and your MobileMe account (if you have one set up):
I could see the three different Bonjour-enabled hardware devices currently attached to my local network – two MacBooks, and a Time Capsule.
Clicking on any of these shows the available Bonjour services (such as File Sharing, Screen Sharing and Apple Remote Desktop), and you can launch the related application directly from within iStumbler.
Because I have Back to My Mac enabled on a computer elsewhere in the country, I can also see the relevant services for that machine (and easily launch Screen or File Sharing).
A few different preferences are available for configuring how the application works:
The “Remember” option sets the length of time for which iStumbler will remember a particular network after it goes out of range. The app doesn’t store networks indefinitely, as it would gradually use up more and more system memory.
You can also tweak a few user interface settings, have iStumbler automatically connect you to the best available network, specify which type of Bluetooth devices to scan for, and adjust a few location settings.
Another tool worth considering for this purpose is Air Radar. This app has a far prettier interface, but is limited to scanning for Wi-Fi networks. It comes in at the price of $19.95 for use on a single computer, which might be a little expensive for the few extra features offered.
If you’re something of a wireless junkie, or regularly travel between different locations when working, iStumbler could offer a great solution. It’s excellent for diagnosing network problems, and the increased accuracy of the signal readout can help you better optimise your home network.
Although it has the benefit of being free, it suffers from one of the common problems with open source software on the Mac – a fairly basic interface design. For it’s very technical and functional purpose, though, this isn’t a major problem.
For many Mac users, the standard AirPort Menu Bar interface will more than meet your needs. If you’ve ever longed for something more advanced, iStumbler is probably exactly what you’re looking for.