If you aren’t already, you should be checking your network and all of the devices connected to it every once in a while. It sounds like a technical task, but it’s actually way easier than you think.
It can be easy to fall into a pattern of connecting devices to your Wi-Fi without a second thought, but when your Wi-Fi begins to slow down, or if you’re worried about security, or even if you’re just doing some home computing improvements, you may want to know what devices are running on your network.
Ideally, it would be as simple as heading over to your router and checking the cables like you could back in the “good ole days”, but since everything is wireless these days, you’ll have to do a bit of digging.
Understanding Wireless Connections
When you connect a device to your network, it is assigned an IP (Internet Protocol) address, which is a unique numeric label that identifies each device that connects to the Internet at large.
But when you use a router, it’s the router itself that connects to the Internet — and then shares that connection with all the devices that connect to the router. The devices all share the same external IP address, but they have unique internal IP addresses which is how the router differentiates between them.
These internal IP addresses commonly take the form of 192.168.0.xxx where xxx is an identifying number between 1 and 255. Most modern routers use what’s known as DCHP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) to automatically assign IP addresses to devices upon connection.
Furthermore, these IP addresses are usually dynamic, meaning they may or may not change the next time the device connects. If you don’t want a device’s IP address to change like that, you’ll have to specifically assign it a static IP address.
Dynamic IP addresses mean that you can not track a device over time, or if the name of the device is unclear, you need an additional way to identify the device — and that’s where Media Access Control (MAC) addresses come into play. Every device has a unique MAC address that’s defined by its manufacturer.
Knowing all of this, we can now explore some of the methods you can use to discover and identify the various devices that are connected to your network at any given time.
Checking on the Router
Nearly all routers have a dedicated Web interface that you can log onto to access information about the router such as its firmware version, connection status, security settings, and what devices are currently connected to it. Most router interfaces, especially D-Link and Netgear, are accessed by typing 192.168.0.1 into a Web browser.
Note: If your router interface isn’t accessible through 192.168.0.1, you can find your address by opening Command Prompt, using the ipconfig/all command, and looking for the “Default Gateway” address.
The router will then ask you to log on using your administrator credentials. These are usually set to defaults when you first set up the router, and if you haven’t changed them yet, then you absolutely should!
Once logged on, the options and information will vary depending on the router, but usually somewhere in the Settings there is an option for “Device Connection Status”.
I use Virgin Media in the U.K. as my ISP, and you can see in the screenshot above that the Web interface lists out the devices currently connected to my network. There is information provided for each device, including the IP address, MAC address, and device name.
If there is a device that looks suspicious or foreign, you can power off each of your network-connected devices one at a time. If a device still remains after everything is disconnected, this could be evidence of an unwanted or potentially sinister device connected to your network.
While this method of finding the devices on your network is fairly straightforward, it does mean having to log onto your router every time you want to see what’s connected, and it doesn’t provide any tracking over time or detailed information, so it’s an okay method at best.
Also worth keeping in mind is that most routers will only display IP addresses that are assigned using DCHP, so static IP devices won’t show in these lists and will potentially evade your notice.
Checking With WNW
As is usually the way with Windows, there are a whole host of different ways to identify devices on your network. One of the most effective tools is Wireless Network Watcher (WNW) by NirSoft.
This is a tool which scans the network you are connected to and returns a list of devices with their MAC and IP addresses. You can also export the list if needed. The main difference between this method and the router method is that you can automatically refresh this list, and even create alerts for when a particular device is added or removed from the network.
One of the best benefits, however, is that you can choose to download it either as an installable executable or as a ZIP which you can run without installation. Take it with you anywhere you go by tossing it on a USB flash drive and carrying it in your pocket!
Checking With Fing
There are a lot of third-party apps that allow you to view network devices, but Fing is one of the most useful, and has great cross-platform support being able to run on Windows, iOS, and Android.
On iOS and Android, you can download the app and, once it’s installed, open it and run the “Network Discovery” function. This will scan the network you are currently connected to and return a list of connected devices.
As with the previously mentioned techniques, this returns IP address, MAC address, and device name. It is a quick and painless method of checking your network status while on a mobile device. You can also refresh the list whenever you want, allowing you to turn on and off devices and quickly see the impact on the device list.
What makes Fing particularly useful for regular monitoring is that it stores the information about the network so that when you view the devices list next time, you are able to see which devices have been seen on the network but are no longer connected (shown in grey text in the screenshot above).
By long-pressing on a specific device, you enter device edit mode. Here you can name the device and add additional notes. I use the notes section to add whether the device is wired or wireless and where it’s located in the house.
Fing can be run as a command line tool on most non-mobile operating systems, including Windows, OS X, Linux, and even the Raspberry Pi.
Fing also has a paid subscription service called Fingbox. This is a cloud-connected hub that allows you to monitor up to 10 networks remotely. This is run using a “sentinel” from Fingbox on your computer which will monitor the network. You can also log into your Fingbox account on the mobile app and sync the network to Fingbox.
Do You See Any Suspicious Devices?
There are many reasons—from security to maintenance to just plain curiosity—why you should regularly check your home network for foreign devices. Depending on your reason, you may be able to get by with something as simple as the router Web interface or you may need a more comprehensive tool like Fing.
If you are trying to hunt out a rogue device, this can require some mild detective work and investigation. Setting up these tools and practices is a good place to start though, and with proactive monitoring of your network, you are putting yourself in a position to better protect your home network. If you ever come across any problems with it, try these simple steps to diagnose network problems.
Image Credit: VectorPainter via Shutterstock.com