Ekahau’s “Game Changer”: Your New Survey BFF

The phrase “game changer” is banded around a great deal by our good friends in sales and marketing. It seems to accompany  just about every new product or service that they may introduce. Being a techie (and a rather reserved Brit), I’m not one for throwing around such emotional, bombastic language lightly. But after having been given early access to a new product from Ekahau, I’m going to say it: yes…this is a “game changer”. Read on to find out why…

(Download a PDF of this article here)


If you’re a current user of Ekahau Site Survey (or any wireless survey product come to think of it), you’ll be familiar with the ritual of assembling your survey dongle collection each time you need to perform a wireless survey.

To correctly survey, you’ll need at least two dongles gathering Wi-Fi RF data (one per band), together with one or two spectrum analysis dongles scanning both bands of the Wi-Fi spectrum.

In most cases, all of the dongles are invariably connected to USB ports of your survey laptop or tablet. But hold on…does your laptop even have that many USB ports..? No? Ah…so you’ll need a USB hub to ensure you have enough USB ports. Hmmmm…but how do you carry a USB hub festooned with adapters AND your laptop during the survey…? Well, we’re all highly skilled engineers - we can fashion something with a Velcro fixing, or maybe some carefully crafted wire twists, or even buy a cleverly designed hub holder.

Whatever your survey multi-dongle solution, it’s likely to end up looking something like this:

Figure 1 - Say goodbye to your dongle forest?

Ok, so we’ve cleverly managed to attach our survey-dongle paraphernalia to our laptop and we’re ready to survey! However, we’d better not hang around whilst doing our survey. All of those power-hungry  USB devices are going to be sucking the juice out of our laptop battery at a rate of knots, significantly shortening the amount of time we have before our laptop battery is exhausted under the strain of these unwelcome power-leeches.

Prior to commencing our survey we also, finally, have to offer up a prayer to the gods of Wi-Fi. We pray that our dongles are fully functioning, have incurred no damage from rattling around in our laptop bag and will serve us faithfully until the end of our survey. We also pray that dongles sticking out at right angles from our laptop are not going to be snapped off by one of the many employees we’ll be trying to avoid, not to mention the many other obstacles we may not notice while focused on our laptop screen (you know the ones…filing cabinets, coat stands, cubicle partitions, door frames…etc. etc.)

A Better Way

Well, I’m here to tell you that there is a new product available from Ekahau that will solve all of these issues…and more! I’ve seen the future folks in the shape of their new “Sidekick” appliance, and it could well be your new survey BFF (Best Friend Forever).

Our friends at Ekahau have put their thinking caps on and created an industry-first for the wireless surveying world. They’ve created a new “one-stop-shop” appliance for all your survey needs. They have designed and created an appliance that will replace all of your survey adapters with a single device that you simply sling over your shoulder. Imagine that! A device that replaces your spectrum and Wi-Fi dongles in a single unit! And, it gets better…imagine that it was self-powered to save your laptop battery AND only needed a single USB connection to your survey laptop or tablet!!! Excited yet..? :)

The Ekahau Sidekick

Ekahau have long been known as a very responsive company who actively solicit feedback from their customers. Not only do they solicit feedback, they actually act on it and incorporate the suggestions received in to their product. They’re also incredibly innovative, ploughing new features in to their product at rapid pace.

The new Sidekick device is a significant departure for Ekakau. They have moved from the realms of pure software development in to hardware. The new device has been designed and manufactured by Ekahau to meet the growing requirements in complexity of hardware required to effectively and efficiently perform wireless site surveys. Rather than requiring survey engineers to precariously balance a laptop festooned with a variety of dongles at all angles, they have come up with a device that is easy to use and simplifies the whole survey process.

Figure 2 – Yep, here it  is: The Sidekick
The unit itself is unlike anything you may will used for surveying before. It’s probably slightly larger than one of those larger lithium batteries you may use to charge your laptop or tablet (It comes in at just over 6.5 inches square). It’s also a similar weight. But, as it’s slung over your shoulder during use, its size and weight are not too much of an issue. 

Figure 3 - SK with standard CD case for reference

I was provided with a pre-production prototype for my assessment. I decided to put it on the scales to see how it measures up. I believe the final production model will be of similar specification:

Figure 4 - The SK weighs in at around 2lb 5oz (including strap)
Weighing in at just over 2 pounds (including the shoulder strap), it may sound like it’s a whole lot heavier that a handful of dongles, but imagine having the option of a lighter laptop with smaller batteries, or even using a Windows tablet for your survey work. Slinging the Sidekick over your shoulder and having a lighter survey platform feels like a very attractive proposition!

Figure 5 - The Sidekick artfully modelled by a very attractive model who is available for swimwear shoots

How Do I Use It?

As a techie, I must admit to having found the SK disappointingly easy to use   It literally is just a case of powering up the SK, connecting it via a single USB cable to your laptop and firing up your copy of Ekahau ESS. That’s it. Throw the SK over your shoulder and start surveying. You use ESS in exactly the same way as you’ve always used it. The adapters built-in to the SK are shown on the ESS GUI in the same way as the external adapters you will have used previously. Instead of having 2 spectrum adapters, a single dual-band spectrum adapter is included. The SK adapter display in ESS is shown below.
Figure 6 - SK adapters shown in ESS
In addition to the adapter indicators you’re used to seeing in ESS, the other addition you may notice is the battery indicator that shows how much charge the SK has left. I believe the SK is rated to perform for at least 8 hours of survey time. During my testing I didn’t get an opportunity to survey for extended periods, but I left mine switched on all day with ESS running and it lasted well over 8 hours.

The adapter configuration controls are the same as you usually expect to see in ESS, but there are new names for the SK adapters and we now only have a single, dual band spectrum adapter. 

Figure 7 - The usual adapter controls but with the SK adapters now available
Beyond these updates, ESS looks almost unchanged in terms of the user experience of driving the ESS application itself.

Figure 8 - ESS when using the Sidekick - no real change here


What’s Inside?

You may well be wondering what’s inside this new box of tricks. I don’t have any technical specs for the unit, but I can tell you what I’ve observed and managed to wheedle out of the Ekahau team.

 For Wi-Fi signal scanning, there are two adapters. One will generally run on the 2.4GHz band, and the other on the 5GHz band – this is the default behaviour when you fire up ESS with the Sidekick. These are built-in to the unit – there are no external antennas, dongles or other external attachments. I was concerned about their location and the effects of RF shielding due to internal components etc. on their performance, but am assured they are around the edge of the casing to ensure there are no propagation issues.

In addition to the Wi-F NICs, there is spectrum analysis “capability” of some type. This is another of the huge “wins” that the SK provides. Previously, spectrum scanning has been limited to the output of Metageek DBx adapters. Although they do a fine job, ESS has always been limited to the data resolution that they are able to provide. The new spectrum capability provides much higher resolution of both bands. This is obviously due to the new custom hardware that Ekahau have developed and that they now have the power to control. It’s immediately obvious from looking at the scan rates available that this is a massively enhanced capability.

I have no idea what the roadmap for this product entails, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t involve further significant enhancements in the area of spectrum analysis. The processing power that is now obviously available must provide significant options in this area.      
As mentioned previously, the SK is self-powered, so obviously has a pretty capable internal battery. Beyond this rudimentary analysis of the internals, I have little additional information. It also obviously has significant processing capability, but no details were available to me.


What does it look like?

I was provided with a beta unit for my assessment and testing. I believe the final production units will be very similar, so though it would be nice to provide a few close-up shots so that you can see what this baby looks like close up:

Figure 9 - USB cable connection, charging socket, charge indicator and heatsink (top)

Figure 10- On/off button, power on/off indicator & activity indicator
Figure 11 - Rear of Sidekick showing strap attachment options


I’ve already touched on some of the advantages that the SK will bring to my own surveying work, but I think it’s worth listing them all:
  • The SK is self-powered unit that is independent of the survey laptop. This means there will be no drain on laptop battery from the 4 passive adapters generally needed for surveying (i.e. 2 x NIC-300 & 2 x DBx). This is going to mean a much improved laptop battery life. I guess you can survey for longer with your current laptop or move to a lighter laptop or maybe even a Windows tablet?

  • The Sidekick is very easy to use. There’s no USB hub requirement and no plugging adapters in & out. You literally just plug the SK in to a USB port on your laptop and you’re good to go. No more bags of adapters, cables and velcro strips, just one unit to plug in to your survey laptop.

  • The SK has 2 matched Wi-Fi adapters that are very similar to each other in terms of tolerance and performance. When using external adapters, even adapters of the same brand and model may vary by several dB in terms of the measurements that they report. This is due to the wide tolerances that are accepted as part of their manufacturing process. This can lead to inconsistent results depending on which adapters you or your team may use. The SK adapters are manufactured to much tighter tolerances, meaning that results are subject to far less variation compared to their off-the-shelf low-tolerant counterparts. This will allow for survey data to be comparable between surveys performed by different teams or individuals (as long as they were using a Sidekick unit). I wrote at some length about this is an article earlier this year, which I suggest you check out (http://bit.ly/Survey_CESN). For me this is one of the major game-changers that the SK provides, though many folks involved in surveying are not even aware of this issue

  • Spectrum analysis is significantly improved when using the SK compared to DBx adapters. Data resolution is massively improved which makes the ESS/SK combo a dammed fine Spectrum  Analyser in its own right, comparable with other Spectrum Analyzers at the higher end of the Wi-Fi Spec An market.

  • The ESS/SK combo provides an easier, less obtrusive survey experience. If you compare the current experience of surveying with a multitude of antennas sticking out of your laptop at a variety of angles, it provides a huge improvement in the ease of surveying. There is no more dodging obstructions, snagging passers-by or snapping off USB NICs as you mis-judge a door width. Your survey setup is far less obtrusive and easier to manoeuvre. It will attract far less attention (and accompanying inane questioning about whether you are going to improve cell phone coverage) when walking the length and breadth of any facility you are surveying.


    In addition to the benefits that it brings to the party, there are also obviously other, new aspects to consider with the introduction of the Sidekick unit.

    • Cost: Wireless surveying (certainly in the UK anyhow) is an activity that seems to be constantly subject to significant pressure in terms of the pricing of services. Organizations generally seem reticent to invest in the time that’s required to perform a comprehensive survey. They generally want it done quickly and as cheaply as possible. The organizations who provide surveying services are often expected to invest heavily in their survey equipment and software and still work at very low margins for the services they provide. The pricing of the Sidekick unit will be very important to these organizations. On top of the existing costs they incur, the SK may be quite a challenging investment for these organizations, particularly if they have sizeable engineering teams.
    • Hardware Support: Providing rapid support for the SK hardware will be a key requirement for those who make the investment in the hardware. If the unit should fail, then getting a replacement to avoid lost productivity time will be paramount. For those who are existing ESS users, they will no doubt be able to fall back to their existing dongles in the interim. However, new users without backup hardware will need to be confident that they can get a replacement unit promptly if required. Having only the SK for surveying represents a potential single point of failure that wasn’t quite so much of a concern previously.
    • Weight: The SK unit weighs in a just over 2 pounds. This isn’t a significant weight, but when you’re walking, potentially miles per day, then any additional weight is potentially unwelcome – it all adds up! My own opinion on this is that over time this will become less of a consideration. As survey laptops or tablets are refreshed, then the option of using tablets or laptops with smaller (and hence lighter) batteries will be leveraged, meaning that the overall load carried by the surveyor will be very similar to the current survey kit. If you add in the fact that the SK can be carried over the should or perhaps in a back-pack or on a belt, it feels as though the better distribution of load is, in-fact, a longer-term net benefit.
    • New Product Line: I am not, by nature, an early adopter. I like my hardware and software to be relatively mature before taking the plunge with anything new. I’ve have been stung too many times by “the latest & greatest’ offerings from larger organizations who really should do an awful lot better. Ekahau have a very good history of rapid, stable software development. Sure, they’ve had their issues, but I’ve always been able to get a workaround or fix in very reasonable timescales. However, Ekahau is known as  a software company who leverage 3rd party hardware to gather data from the “real world”. As well as introducing a brand new paradigm in terms of wireless surveying, they are also re-inventing themselves as a hardware company too. I’m not aware that they have done this through acquisition, so I assume they are creating this hardware for themselves…for the first time. The pre-production unit I was supplied performed very well. There were some issues with one or two aspects of its operation (which I’m assured will be fixed by the time it leaves the factory gates), but in the main it felt solid & reliable. Ekahau will no doubt learn a few lessons with their initial foray in to hardware development and supply, but it feels like they have done a pretty reasonable job.
    • Heat: The SK has the capability to kick out some pretty significant heat during operation. Once it has been fired up for a few minutes, the cleverly located heat-sink gets pretty warm to the touch – not enough to burn, but you could warm your hands very quickly on a cold day. This is obviously one of the trade-offs of having a self-contained piece of high-performance hardware with a high capacity battery built-in. Ekahau have done a superb job of dissipating the heat using the heatsink located on the top face of the unit. The heatsink is in the centre of the top-most face that faces away from the body of the survey engineer. Its centralized position also ensures it has minimal impact on the antennas that are located around the edges of the SK casing.

    The Future

    With the ground-breaking shift that the Sidekick provides for Wi-Fi surveying, I can’t help but think about future possibilities that it might provide. I have no concrete inside information about how the product will develop in the future, but the shift from a handful of off-the-shelf passive components to a custom-designed, self-powered device with processing capabilities obviously opens up some mouth-watering possibilities.

    The leap in capabilities around spectrum analysis is an obvious area where the product could be improved to match the capabilities of competing products. Fingerprinting of non-Wi-Fi signals to identify specific types of interferers is an obvious enhancement that would continue the “game-changing” meme for this product.

    Once you start to consider the possible applications that a self-contained, high spec unit like the SK could theoretically provide, some very exciting possibilities spring to mind. The possibilities around data storage, of new applications running on the device or perhaps offloading of some tasks to the SK unit provide some exciting possibilities for the future. It raises the question of whether lower-spec of even new form-factor survey devices could be a future option.

    This really feel likes a huge gamechanger in the market place. Obviously, in reality, the market will determine whether there is an appetite for such a device. As a Wi-Fi enthusiast, the SK is a very exciting addition to our arsenal of Wi-Fi test equipment. But, it will subject to the economic realities and the sometimes-harsh fickleness of real-world commercial organizations. There will be many “techies” like myself who will love this new concept from day one of its release. But, it will be down to the SK itself to deliver enough ROI for organizations to be willing to make the investment if it is to survive long term.


    Disclosure: I was loaned an evaluation pre-production beta unit for this review. No compensation was received for this article (though discounts or hardware donations would be most welcome  :) ).

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