Call me a Luddite, but I've always found the whole idea of setting up a dedicated wired connection just to get a gadget on the network to be a superfluous hassle. At least with Wi-Fi, as both Brian Klug and Jarred Walton have exemplified in recent days, all that's normally involved is twiddling a few software settings to bring a widget online. The approach is particularly attractive for mobile devices, which by their inherent natures are incompatible with wired tethers. But, as wireless networking veterans already intimately realize, the process is rarely that simple. First off, there's interference to consider; from Bluetooth transmitters, cordless phones, microwave ovens, and neighbors' access points. Don't forget about reflection and attenuation; glass, metal and tile, chicken-wire mesh in walls, and the like. Finally, consider the fundamental physics-induced range limitations, which no amount of antenna array augmentation and DSP signal boosting can ultimately surmount. All other factors being equal, for example, you're not going to be able to successfully bridge as lengthy a span at 5 GHz as you can at 2.4 GHz.

AC-powered devices aren't portable, of course; they're permanently mated to a nearby wall socket. Here's where hooking up a network-dedicated Ethernet, coax, phone line or other connection has always annoyed me. I've already hooked up one (thick) wire, the AC power cord. Why can't I just use it for network packet-shuttling purposes, too? In fact, I can; that's the whole premise of powerline networking, although few devices (save the occasional router) currently integrate power-and-packets within them. Instead, indicative of the still-embryonic state of this particular market, you're forced to externally connect a dedicated Ethernet-to-powerline bridge adapter, which you then connect to a different AC socket.

Conceptually, however, the single-connection vision remains valid. And I've noticed encouraging signs of market maturation in recent months. Now-conventional '200 Mbps' powerline adapters are now advertised on sale for around $50 for a two-pack; that's less than half the price that manufacturers and retail partners were promoting them at not so very long ago. And latest-generation '500 Mbps' adapter two-packs are selling for not much more moola; $75 or so. I've been daily using as well as periodically evaluating various powerline networking technologies since the early portion of the last decade, back in the '14 Mbps' HomePlug 1.0 days (say hi if you ever see me at a show, and I'll show you my scars ;-) ). Given recent trends, I figured it was high time for an evaluation revisit. How well do latest generation adapters fulfill their marketing promises? Is it finally time to dispense with burrowing through dirty, spider- and snake-infested crawlspaces and drilling holes in walls and floors in order to route Cat5e cable around?

Technology Fundamentals
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  • quiksilvr - Thursday, September 01, 2011 - link

    Have you tried getting a better router and/or perhaps a better wireless card for your laptop? Reply
  • akedia - Thursday, September 01, 2011 - link

    I have a current generation Airport Extreme, which is generally regarded as one of the best wireless routers available, and the built-in WiFi antenna in my Mac mini is not upgradable, as far as I know. My roommate's laptop is an HP dm1z, also not upgradable, and my Droid X is stuck with the antenna it shipped with as well. It's not my hardware, it's my environment. WiFi has limitations, like it or not. Reply
  • bdipert - Thursday, September 01, 2011 - link

    Different tools for different tasks, jigglywiggly. Powerline can make a pretty good 'backbone' technology if, as I state in the article, you want to 'dispense with burrowing through dirty, spider- and snake-infested crawlspaces and drilling holes in walls and floors in order to route Cat5e cable around'. Wi-Fi conversely can be effective across intra-room and few-room spans...and with mobile devices. Reply
  • Paedric - Thursday, September 01, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the article first, that's something I've been interested in for quite some time.

    However, I have a question; you tested it in a "perfect" environment by disabling interfering devices, to test the potential of the system, but what happen if it is not the case?
    Is the performance hit really noticeable?

    I don't want to rout a cable across the whole house, but I'm not really keen on turning off the fridge, lights, and unplugging devices every time I want to connect to the internet.
    Reply
  • Denithor - Thursday, September 01, 2011 - link

    I have the TRENDnet TPL-303E2K Powerline AV Adapter Kit installed in my home, connecting my wireless router in the living room to my office computer about 50 or 60 feet away. Couldn't get a solid enough wireless signal in the office for any kind of gaming, hooked up this kit and within literally 2 minutes was playing everything just fine.

    There's no need to unplug or turn off anything. It just works...
    Reply
  • gariig - Thursday, September 01, 2011 - link

    I bought my parents the same TRENDnet that Denithor has (crazy coincidence) because their wireless router and extra computer are on the other side of a ~2000 SQ FT house. Works flawlessly for normal computer usage (e-mail, Youtube, etc) and printer sharing. I don't know how well it works for large file transfers but I'd imagine you'll at least get 100 mbps Reply
  • bdipert - Thursday, September 01, 2011 - link

    It depends. That's the only meaningful answer I can offer. That's why, after much gnashing of teeth and back-and-forth waffling, I decided to do my testing with everything turned off and disconnected. Otherwise, if (say) I had an especially noisy refrigerator motor, my results might have unfairly undershot some alternative typical-refrigerator reality. Obviously, my data wasn't the absolute best case...as I mentioned, I stuck with DHCP address assignments for the two Endpoints, instead of hard-wiring static IP addresses, and I concurrently ran all available powerline networking adapters although only three were in active use at any point in time, and I chose outlets out of functional meaningfulness to me, intentionally ignoring whether or not they spanned multiple breakers, or jumped across phases, in the process. But I also don't think it would have been right to turn on all potential interference sources, then do the tests.

    With that said, I regularly sling ~20 Mbps Windows Media Center streams (HD ATSC recordings) around my LAN, including through powerline spans, with no problem.
    Reply
  • leexgx - Thursday, September 01, 2011 - link

    just would of been nice if you had done an short test with stuff on to see how it is handled them (just 1 page short tests) as you did it with every thing off

    you could of had an laptop with you to monitor each power plug speeds when stuff came on, last power plugs I used the speeds stated seem close to bandwidth useable (-50 ish % for overhead)

    I found power plugs to be very reliable and how they handle packet loss as well most of the time (last time I played with them)
    Reply
  • Joe Martin - Thursday, September 01, 2011 - link

    Does it work for streaming video or not? Very hard to read article. Reply
  • bdipert - Thursday, September 01, 2011 - link

    It's impossible for me to provide a simple answer to such a question without either undershooting or overshooting the spectrum of possible realities. First off, there's the bandwidth potential of any two powerline nodes in YOUR particular setup to consider...only you can measure and ascertain that. Then you've gotta determine what you mean by 'streaming video'...are we talking about a 20 Mbps encapsulated MPEG-2 (ATSC) HD stream coming from a Windows Media Center server, for example, or a heavily compressed sub-1 Mbps H.264 standard-definition video stream? Protocol? Etc... Reply

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