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What Is a WiFi Spectrum Analyzer and Why Should I Use One?

Learn everything you need to know about WiFi spectrum analyzer software and introduce the NetSpot WiFi spectrum analyzer as the best solution available.
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  • NetSpot
  • WiFi Spectrum Analyzer
  • 4.8
  • 969 User reviews

You may not know it, but your home WiFi network is constantly competing for a limited space on the WiFi spectrum and is subjected to many different kinds of interference that negatively affect its performance.

What Is WiFi Spectrum Analysis?

A WiFi spectrum analysis is the process of measuring the WiFi signal in a certain area and determining its strength. A WiFi spectrum analysis is typically performed to find interference that negatively impacts wireless performance and to eliminate it.

WiFi networks are broadcasted either on the 2.4 or the 5 GHz frequency band. Each of these two frequency bands is divided into multiple channels, which provide a degree of separation of individual networks.

Ideally, no two WiFi networks should run on the same channel, but this is seldom possible in practice. Because of the steep rise of mobile and IoT (Internet of Things), the WiFi frequency spectrum has never been more crowded.

But it’s not just WiFi networks themselves that cause interference and corrupt other WiFi signals, most common electronic devices can create interference and noise as well. That includes microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, car alarms, CCTV wireless surveillance video cameras, and cordless phones.

Without WiFi spectrum analyzers, locating the exact source of interference would be unreasonably difficult. Fortunately, there are many excellent WiFi spectrum analyzer software solutions available today, and many of them, including NetSpot, are so easy to use that even home users without any IT training can use them to optimize their home networks and say goodbye to slowdowns and connection drops.

When Should I Perform a Spectral Analysis?

A WiFi spectral analysis should be performed throughout the lifecycle of a WiFi network. First, it’s necessary to analyze the area of deployment to determine whether there is some kind of existing interference. In most cases, there will be other WiFi networks, and sometimes even Bluetooth devices or large electric appliances.

After the most optimal WiFi frequency band and channel are selected and the network is deployed, an ongoing spectrum analysis should iron out all performance problems and look for new sources of interference.

While this process may sound complicated and time-consuming on paper, modern wireless spectrum analyzers such as NetSpot make it completely painless and extremely fast. In the next section of this article, we explain how to select a wireless spectrum analyzer and introduce NetSpot as the best wireless spectrum analyzer for macOS and Windows.

Why Do Interference and Noise Affect WiFi (802.11) Networks?

If you’re wondering why interference affects WiFi networks in the first place, then we applaud you for asking the right question. The answer to this otherwise complicated problem is simple: WiFi devices exchange data by radio waves.

Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation that can be emitted by all kinds of devices found in most homes and offices, including smartphones, dumb phones, Bluetooth keyboards and mice, smart meters, and more. In fact, all objects that are warm emit some radio waves, including the Earth itself.

When multiple sources of radio waves are located in the same general area, it’s like when multiple people talk at the same time next to one another and their voices turn to noise. That’s why it’s always a good idea to proactively eliminate as many noise sources as possible using a paid or free WiFi spectrum analyzer.

How to Detect Noise Sources?

To detect noise sources, you don’t need to purchase expensive professional equipment. Any capable WiFi spectrum analyzer can tell you where the background noise level is the highest and where it is the lowest.

Some, such as NetSpot WiFi analyzer, can even turn this information into an easy-to-understand WiFi heatmap (noise is being detected in the macOS version only,) making it dead simple to locate all likely sources of noise.

NetSpot WiFi heatmap

While you may not be able to eliminate all of them, you can always change the position of your router to minimize their impact.

Which WiFi Spectrum Analyzer Should I Use?

A good WiFi spectrum analyzer should meet certain criteria. It should be able to pick up all signals on the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies and identify all 802.11 networks.

802.11 technology is a set of media access control (MAC) and physical layer (PHY) specifications for implementing wireless local area networks, and there are several different 802.11 protocols used by modern wireless routers and devices today. The following three are by far the most common:

  • 802.11g: has a throughput of 54 Mbit/s using the 2.4 GHz band. 802.11g hardware is fully backward compatible with the previous 802.11 specification, 802.11b. 802.11g suffers from the same interference as 802.11b in the already crowded 2.4 GHz range.

  • 802.11n: has a throughput of 600 Mbit/s using either the 2.4 or 5 GHz frequency band. 802.11n uses a wireless-networking standard that uses multiple antennas to increase data rates, MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output). 802.11n doubles the channel width, from 20 MHz to 40 MHz, which results in slightly more than double the data rate over the congested 2.4 GHz band.

  • 802.11ac: developed from 2008 through 2013 and published in December 2013 in the IEEE Standards Association, 802.11ac has a multi-station throughput of at least 1 Gbit/s and single-link throughput of at least 500 Mbit/s. It extends the channel with to 160 MHz and adds more MIMO spatial streams (up to eight) and downlink multi-user MIMO (up to four clients).

Besides latest 802.11 protocols, a good RF spectrum analyzer should also be able to check security settings and understand the three most commonly used WiFi security protocols, which are WEP, WPA, and WPA2.

  • WEP: ratified in 1997, WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is a security algorithm for IEEE 802.11 wireless networks. In 2004, WEP was declared deprecated by the IEEE due to its weak security. While there are still many networks that WEP, the security they provide couldn’t hold up to any serious hacking attempts.

  • WPA: Wi-Fi Protected Access is a security protocol and security certification program developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance as a replacement for WEP. Available since 2003, WPA includes a Message Integrity Check, which is designed to prevent an attacker from altering and resending data packets, replacing the cyclic redundancy check (CRC) that was used by the WEP standard.

  • WPA2: while not perfect, WPA2 is the most commonly used WiFi security protocol and security certification program today, and it includes an AES-based encryption mode as well as support for CCMP (Counter Mode Cipher Block Chaining Message Authentication Code Protocol). In January 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced WPA3 as a replacement to WPA2, but it will still take some time before WiFi routers and devices will support it.


NetSpot not only supports the full breadth of 802.11 protocols and WiFi security protocols but it also is able to generate a comprehensive visual survey of WiFi signal, clearly highlighting all areas of signal weakness.

Survey mode NetSpot

For quick assessments, NetSpot offers the so-called Discover mode, which instantly collects every detail about surrounding WiFi networks and presents the gathered information as an interactive table.

NetSpot Discover mode

NetSpot runs on both macOS and Windows, and you can try it for free to see how this popular wireless spectrum analyzer can help you uncover hidden sources of interference that prevent you from enjoying your internet connection to the fullest.

How to Perform a WiFi Spectrum Analysis?

A WiFi spectrum analysis can be easily performed using wireless spectrum analyzer software like NetSpot. This multi-platform application can analyze both the 2.4 GHz and the 5 GHz bands and provide detailed real-time information about all networks (including hidden ones) broadcasting on them.

To perform a WiFi spectrum analysis using NetSpot:

Step 1: Download and Install NetSpot

NetSpot is a freemium software application for macOS and Windows, which means that you can download it for free and use with certain limitations. Installing NetSpot is straightforward since all you need to do is to open the downloaded installation file and follow the instructions. Keep in mind that you need administrator privileges to install the software.

Step 2: Launch NetSpot and Enter Discover Mode

Next, launch NetSpot and enter Discover mode by selecting it from the top toolbar (it should be selected by default). It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds for NetSpot to display an interactive table with all WiFi networks available in your area.

NetSpot Discover mode

Step 3: Analyze the Gathered Information

You can sort the interactive table using the labels at the top or zero in on a specific WiFi network (or multiple networks) by clicking the Details button at the bottom. If you choose to do that, a new window will appear, providing a graphical representation of signal strength over time for the selected network. You can also monitor WiFi channel usage in both the 2.4 GHz and the 5 GHz bands, which can be extremely useful for avoiding channels that are too crowded to provide satisfactory performance.

Analyze the Gathered Information

How to Read a WiFi Spectrum Analysis?

Unlike traditional WiFi spectrum analyzers, which show graphical representations of the RF energy in the monitored spectrum, NetSpot presents interactive tables and charts that clearly display all important information at a glance. Here are some of the things you can learn about available WiFi networks:

  • Channel number: Every WiFi network broadcasts on a specific channel, and using the least cluttered non-overlapping channel is essential for achieving the best performance possible.
Understanding the Information Channel
  • Band: The two dominant WiFi bands (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) have vastly different characteristics, so it’s important to know which band a network is broadcasted on.
Understanding the Information Band
  • Signal strength: WiFi signal strength is expressed in dBm, which stands for decibels relative to a milliwatt. Insufficient signal strength can make it impossible to perform more bandwidth-intensive tasks, such as video streaming.
Understanding the Information Signal
  • Noise: Measured in -dBm format (0 to -100), noise indicates the amount of background noise in the analyzed environment. Too much noise can cause interference and negatively affect performance.
Understanding the Information Noise

In addition to interactive tables and charts, NetSpot can also perform site surveys and present the gathered data in the form of detailed visualizations. These visualizations can show everything from the wireless transmit rate to frequency band coverage.

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WiFi analyzer app runs on a MacBook (macOS 10.10+) or any laptop (Windows 7/8/10) with a standard 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wireless network adapter.
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Conclusion

With the right application, you can understand the spectrum WiFi networks are broadcasted in and easily eliminate sources of interference. These days, extremely capable WiFi spectrum analyzers are available in the work of easy-to-use Windows and Mac applications that make WiFi analysis approachable even to inexperienced home users.

WiFi Spectrum Analyzer — FAQs

What is a WiFi spectrum analyzer?

A WiFi spectrum analyzer is a software application or a physical device that measures WiFi signals and provides detailed information about them to help with everything from troubleshooting to deployment.

What is the difference between a WiFi analyzer and a spectrum analyzer?

A WiFi analyzer is used to measure known wireless signals, while a spectrum analyzer is used to measure signal characteristics such as power level, sidebands, harmonics, phase noise, and others on unknown signals.

Which WiFi analyzer is best?

There are many different WiFi analyzers to choose from, some targeting regular home users, while others focusing exclusively on professionals. NetSpot stands out as a versatile WiFi analyzer that easy enough to use for complete beginners yet capable enough to satisfy the needs of network administrators who deploy WiFi networks for a living.

We've also put together our lists of the best WiFi analyzer apps for Mac and the best WiFi analyzer apps for Windows. Looking for one to use with your iPhone? Check our top picks for the best iOS WiFi analyzer apps and learn about what kind of features an app for iPhone should have.

What is a spectrum analyzer used for?

When it comes to WiFi, a spectrum analyzer is often used to measure the frequency response, noise, and distortion characteristics of a network to optimize its performance.

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Next in Wi-Fi Analysis

If you want to get more information about Wi-Fi, check out the following articles about Wi-Fi routers, the best apps for wireless networking, WiFi signal, etc.
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