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PowerLine Networking Nearly Fails Our Tests

PowerLine Networking Nearly Fails Our Tests
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We put four PowerLine adapter kits to the test. Can they carry a full load of media around the house using the power grid? Short answer: No, not really.

Back in 2000, a group of electronic device and networking manufacturers got together and founded an industry association called the HomePlug Powerline Alliance. Their objective was both interesting and appealing and has generated considerable interest and buzz from consumers: to develop networking devices that can plug into standard home power outlets (110/120 V 60 Hz in most of North America and 220/230 V 50 Hz in most of Europe and the rest of the world) in order to create a bridge between conventional or wireless Ethernet and power lines in the home. The idea is to let in-home wiring provide the links between rooms and around the house, while standard Ethernet or wireless devices handle the links between the HomePlug Device and PCs or other networking gear (routers, Cable/DSL modems, wireless access points, and so forth).

Beyond allowing your network to extend where it isn’t otherwise able to go, PowerLine technology offers interesting capabilities for households and small office/home office environments. It’s great for extending the reach of home media, especially for the growing number of small networks with streaming media servers or to bring media extenders or gaming consoles into the mix. PowerLine technology is also a boon for those who want to connect computers to the network in rooms where in-wall or other wired outlets may be absent or where interference or distance makes wireless unworkable. This can be especially helpful in condos or apartment buildings with rooms adjacent to elevators, large transformers, or other heavy electrical equipment. Given that electrical wiring already goes everywhere, why not use it to let your network do likewise? On average, you’ll pay about $55 to $65 per PowerLine AV adapter (and remember, you always need at least two to use this technology), which puts it on par with 802.11n USB adapters and about $10-$15 more than 802.11g adapters.

There’s no denying that this is a brilliant idea and helps to turn something everyone has at their disposal—in-wall electrical wiring—into the backbone or infrastructure for an in-home network. Initial implementations of this technology called HomePlug 1.0 started to appear in 2001. But it was limited to a theoretical maximum throughput of 14 Mb/s and quickly proved too slow for many in-home applications, especially multimedia (music, video, TV, and so forth). By December 2005, a second version called HomePlug AV was released, and HomePlug AV devices started hitting the market in 2006. This version is designed for HDTV and VoIP traffic in the home and supports a much higher theoretical bandwidth of 189 Mb/s. However, you will see that the Alliance Web pages claim rates up to 200 Mb/s, while other sources use a more conservative estimate—and as our test results will show, these claims are more or less moot anyway.

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  • -2 Hide
    Shadow703793 , June 22, 2009 3:09 PM
    For less than the price of this thing one could easily draw Cat 5e cabling through out the house. It only cost me $50-70 for cable,RJ 45 jacks, etc, and about 3 hours on a weekend to draw wire to the bed rooms (school work PCs), basement (gaming PCs), and living room(HTPC).
  • 4 Hide
    erichlund , June 22, 2009 3:52 PM
    Another weakness of these systems that was not addressed on the review is where you cross electrical phases. Most houses have two column of breakers, and they are on different phases. Where the powerline units are on the same phase, they do work fairly reliably, but where they are on separate phases, they may not work at all.
  • 0 Hide
    etrnl_frost , June 22, 2009 4:12 PM
    erichlundAnother weakness of these systems that was not addressed on the review is where you cross electrical phases. Most houses have two column of breakers, and they are on different phases. Where the powerline units are on the same phase, they do work fairly reliably, but where they are on separate phases, they may not work at all.

    Very good point. On the same line, if you're passing this thing through one or two surge suppressors with filtering, or an online UPS or something (or even one with plain-Jane voltage regulation), I wonder what kind of impact that would cause?

    All that being said, is "equivalent to Base100" really that bad? It's not gigabit, gathered, but it's still doable. And possibly, more secure than a broadcasting wireless network?
  • 0 Hide
    hellwig , June 22, 2009 7:01 PM
    Is it more secure? How many people run network security protocols over their wired network? I mean, if you live in an apartment (where this thing would be ideal seeing as you can't run your own Cat5 through the walls), couldn't your neighbor see your network if they use the same model? If it can go through your breaker box, can't it go back through the mainline and into your neighbors breaker box? I'm sure it couldn't jump up through the transformer, but anyone on the same 120/240 feed as you should be able to see your network.
  • 2 Hide
    etrnl_frost , June 22, 2009 7:25 PM
    hellwigIs it more secure? How many people run network security protocols over their wired network? I mean, if you live in an apartment (where this thing would be ideal seeing as you can't run your own Cat5 through the walls), couldn't your neighbor see your network if they use the same model? If it can go through your breaker box, can't it go back through the mainline and into your neighbors breaker box? I'm sure it couldn't jump up through the transformer, but anyone on the same 120/240 feed as you should be able to see your network.

    Who knows? Maybe? I don't know? They should test this!
  • 0 Hide
    LightWeightX , June 22, 2009 7:55 PM
    Quote:
    couldn't your neighbor see your network if they use the same model?


    I'm not sure, however years ago I saw an intercom system that worked the same way by transmitting over power lines. It worked between homes that were 50 meters from each other.
  • -2 Hide
    michaelahess , June 23, 2009 1:24 AM
    They use encryption, maybe not as good as WPA2 but still, it will keep most users safe. In-fact safer than 80% of people with wireless as they don't encrypt at all!
  • 0 Hide
    Stardude82 , June 23, 2009 4:47 AM
    Check out the Wikipedia article on power line communication for some interesting historical background. They cite a maximum of power line transmission rate of 135 Mbit/s before the FCC starts giving operators dirty looks. This and may wind power challenges are due to the fact they interfere with Ham radio (nerds).
  • 0 Hide
    old_newbie , June 23, 2009 4:55 PM
    Just missed it. Belkin released a press statement 22 Jun (same day as this article post) announcing a Gigabit Powerline adapter F5D4076
    actual b/w is prolly way less than 1000mb/s (as proven with the former model here) but should be better than the 200mb/s flavor.
  • 1 Hide
    socrates047 , June 23, 2009 5:01 PM
    WOW. O_o . I just bought cheap china-bought refurbished routers and adapters (11g) all for under $50 CDN and im getting performance similar to what, say d-link or belkin offer with their setups...

    anything is do-able if you look for the right deal :) 
    i see this powerline stuff as EXTREMELY convenient and nothing more. all you have to do is plug in? awesome!
  • 0 Hide
    lowguppy , June 23, 2009 6:22 PM
    This is exactly what it is meant to be - a solution for situations where wireless is impossible and running cable is impractical or cost prohibitive.

    I live in New England where the old buildings used for most apartments are full of lead, essentially creating metal boxes to trap your wireless signals (You'll have a better time getting signal from across the street than one floor up) and landlords aren't always amenable to running your own cable, and even if you own a home like that, if you aren't up for installing it yourself the cost quickly surpasses this solution.

    As said, you wouldn't choose if other options are available, but if no other option is available, or if running cable is too expensive, this is a great solution.
  • 0 Hide
    dreamphantom_1977 , June 23, 2009 8:13 PM
    Quote:
    and you’ll pay about $2-$3 a foot for pre-fab cables (we can’t really speculate on the costs of in-wall wiring upgrades, except to say they’ll be expensive and time-consuming to install


    HUH? Hard wiring ethernet is not time-consuming or expensive at all..... What are u talking about??? Price vs. performance I would go with wireless or hardwired all day long. What does the cable cost like 40 bucks for 100 feet? plus 5 each for the ends? And the tool comes with the end, plus it's color coded, so it's "almost" impossible to wire wrong. Anyone with basic handyman skills should be able to run cat cable. As for wireless, I have a linksys wireless g router downstairs, and me and my wife can watch h.d. streamed over fox, or hulu, upstairs smoothly on her laptops. So, in my opinion, there really aren't any benefits for running one of these things that I can see. I would cost u more in the long run, because u would be wasting your bandwidth on it... Plus the cost of it. Maybe if it was, say $15 bucks, as an emergency solution where wireless wasn't possible, and u needed internet "now"..
  • 0 Hide
    dreamphantom_1977 , June 23, 2009 8:20 PM
    sorry lowguppy, I didn't read ur post... I guess it's a good idea for some. But, for home owners who don't have lead apartments, I think u are better off with a different solution.

    Hey, didn't tomshardware have an article about a new wireless technology coming out that was faster then cable? I thought they were testing some new technology on the trump towers??? Forget where I read it, hopefully thats coming out soon.
  • 0 Hide
    hellwig , June 23, 2009 8:34 PM
    michaelahessThey use encryption, maybe not as good as WPA2 but still, it will keep most users safe. In-fact safer than 80% of people with wireless as they don't encrypt at all!

    If they provide the option to use encryption, that would be good. However, these things don't seem to operate in a server-client fashion, so which module handles the authentication? And since they'd have to be plug and go, even if they do have encryption, that same 80% won't turn it on.
  • 0 Hide
    Joey2oo9 , June 24, 2009 11:20 AM
    Pah 200mbps.... gigabyte powerline is where it's at.... http://www.trustedreviews.com/networking/news/2009/06/23/Belkin-Cracks-Gigabit-Powerline/p1
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , June 25, 2009 3:17 AM
    Just remember that encryption in WiFi does slow things down a bit, and should be taken into account when testing.

    I have both WiFi (Belkin N) and Actiontec MegaPlug AV in my house. The powerline solution is across a circuit breaker, and it does not pose an issue. While the wireless is more convenient, for the more stable connection, the Actiontec gets my nod.

    I was surprised to see the speeds in this review, and would be curious to see my product tested as it is rock stable. I researched it extensively and it had strong reviews. For the record, running CAT 5 or 6 was not an option as it would have required an electrician.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , June 27, 2009 3:06 PM
    Definitively a useless, if not unfair test...

    We don't have a clue regarding the topology of the tested setup. Powerline indeed presents some connection imitation, typically if the modules have to connect through a circuit breaker, or if power wiring length is important (which can be the case in some building toplogies, even if the two outlets are in nearby or even the same rooms). The same way, test Wifi bandwidth beyond a steel wall and you'll barely get a connection at all. Besides, a Wifi transmission can even get impaired by a body going walking through the line of sights of the two Wifi transmitters.

    If you do want reliable and efficient network connection, there's no alternative to Ethernet for now. Any other "no-new wire" technologies (HomePlug, Wifi, Moca, HomePNA, etc) have all their pros and cons and should be considered as complementary. Due to heavy cable wiring in the US Moca is an interesting solution in this market, but in Europe typically, Powerline (being it HomePlug or DS2) is widely used for in-home IPTV distribution, much more than Wifi is.

    Any serious test would consider several topologies, not only in lab but also in typical homes. Besides, I don't know about the Intel NASPT tool, but I'm a little bit puzzled by overall results, especially by the figures provided for the video streaming in Wifi.

    I suggest the tester to reconsider more seriously their case. You can easily find a situation when the test can provide exactly opposite results, demonstrating weakness of Wifi and extraordinary PLC figures (a situation which would neither be representative of on-the-field behavior).

    I definitively would have expected more professionalism from a site as Tom's Hardware.
  • 0 Hide
    pender21 , June 27, 2009 8:43 PM
    Joey2oo9Pah 200mbps.... gigabyte powerline is where it's at.... http://www.trustedreviews.com/netw [...] werline/p1


    I agree. Follow smallnet builder for the Belkin gigabit performance review and comparison. This would have been a good article a year ago.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , June 29, 2009 8:08 AM
    Few of notes:
    The 200Mbps rating is marketing gimic. Switch companies tried this years ago too (possibly still do but in small print). It's the total bandwidth combining transmit and receive effectively giving you a data rate of double your true rate. Switch companies would say that a 5 port 10/100 switch gave you a maximum throughput of 1000Mbps! Yes....that's 5 ports x 100Mbps x 2 (send+receive). So taking that into consideration, you're looking at a 100Mbps device. Now taking into consideration that TCP/IP is only 80% efficent, you start to see that the powerline units really do fall in line with reasonable expectations. Secondly, you plug them in and they work. Can anyone say that about wireless? As for encryption, they support 128bit AES encryption. This is the same encryption that WPA2 supports. Of course this requires configuration but only marginally more than a typical wireless network. Personally I'd likely to see some reviews of the new gigabit powerline from Belkin.
  • 0 Hide
    loch-schwarz , June 29, 2009 2:35 PM
    One aspect of broadband powerline communications is that the electrical wiring in virtually all cases is not designed to be a transport medium for frequencies in the HF spectrum and are not shielded. In other words a lot, if not most, of the HF energy fed into the lines are lost in the form of radiation: Powerlines act as antennas for HF.

    This can cause serious interference to the reception of shortwave broadcasts as well as merchant shipping, marine weather, ship-to-shore stations, aviation weather, air-to-ground, etc. shortwave radio services and communication.

    Personally, I feel it is highly irresponsible to use this technology.

    For more information please visit:


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