Powerline Network Adapter Buying Guide

tplink-av500-1fshThese days wireless networks get all the glory, even gigabit ethernet has had its thunder stolen by fast WiFi that can now match it for throughput. Our WiFi has become reliable enough that we no longer really worry about things like interference or even latency. This is why the four or eight ethernet ports on the back of a typical router are often completely unused.

There are, however, quite a few reasons to still have parts of your network use a wired connection. Perhaps some of that information is private or mission critical. For example, it would be a good idea to have parts of your smart home security system run over wires.

There is also the issue of range. While you can have a series of WiFi extenders as I have reviewed elsewhere sometimes the fastest and most reliable way to get a network connection to a far flung part of your home or property is to put in a wired network connection.

The problem is that ethernet is a pain in the butt to install in a way that isn’t messy. Sure you can tape it on the floor or throw a carpet over it, but in the end someone will trip over it or there will be a spot where your laziness becomes apparent to everyone. To do it right you have to whip out the hammer and cable saddles, drill holes in the ceiling and possibly kill yourself in a DIY accident. What if you didn’t have to, though? What if I told you that you have access to a set of high-quality, professionally installed copper cables right in your house? You guessed it – power wiring.

Using HomePlug technology you can turn your existing wiring into high-speed ethernet without interrupting any power-related stuff. So what should you know?

Have Some Standards

As with most network gear there are several communication standards with powerline networking.

The most popular and probably the best for most users is created by the HomePlug Alliance. There are three HomePlug standards that I discuss under the next heading. If a piece of equipment does not explicitly say “HomePlug” on it, it is not certified. It may be a compatible, uncertified device, but why take the chance? There are other completely incompatible standards as well. The point is that you must ensure that all the powerline networking gear either uses exactly the same standard or uses standards that are compatible with each other. Pay special attention to this information when buying your equipment, since refunds are seldom given out simply because someone could not be bothered to read.

Speed Demons

Although most modern powerline networking gear is fast enough for just about any media or home automation data you want to send over it, it is important to know what speeds the various standards claim and can achieve. The original HomePlug standard claimed around 14Mbps with real speeds closer to 5Mbps. The next version claimed 85Mbps, but could only hit about 20Mbps in real world tests. HomePlug AV, which came out in 2005, claimed 200Mbps, but actually provided about 80 to 90. Much less than claimed, but still plenty fast for HD streaming or web browsing. The latest standard, HomePlug AV2, claims a whopping 500Mbps, but in practice you’ll be lucky to get half of that, with 100Mbps being a common real world figure. The next generation promises to double that theoretical maximum and you can already buy examples of the AV1000 and AV1200 adapters.

Why this discrepancy between claims and reality? It’s because the maximum is calculated or measured under ideal lab conditions that don’t really exist in the wild. You home cabling may be of lower quality or there may be all sorts of interference. The point is that you should take the claims on the equipment with a pinch of salt. However, faster equipment will outperform newer equipment and you want both ends to match so that you get the best speed.

The latest two standards make use of MIMO, which is short for multiple input and multiple output. All this means is that each wire in the outlet is used for data at the same time, providing three streams with cumulative bandwidth. So when buying new adapters keep an eye out for the word “MIMO”, which is a dead giveaway for newer high-speed gear.

Extra, Extra!

tplink-1200-extender-6fshUsing powerline networking is dead simple. You plug in the two adapters and connect one to the router and the other to a device. Presto! They can now talk over the power lines.

Some adapters offer some nice extras that you may want to consider. For example, they may double as a WiFi access point, which means you can reliably extend the reach of your internet connection to smart devices and mobile computers. Some may have a USB port through which you can connect a printer and share it on the network. Another simple but useful feature is a power pass-through, so that you don’t have to sacrifice the outlet’s use. Maybe you’d prefer just having more than just the one ethernet port.

Wait, What?

There are some scenarios where you can’t use powerline adapters. They don’t work well or at all when plugged into surge protectors. This implies that people who live in stormy areas or have poor quality electricity may have to pass on the technology. Since the lines have to be physically connected in order to communicate, you also may have trouble if there are multiple circuits that don’t interconnect.

Choose Your Route

Do you want to simply add some powerline adapters to an existing network? You best choice is to just buy adapters in pairs and then connect one to the router and one to the device. The problem with this is that most routers have few ethernet ports and buying adapters in pairs can get expensive really quickly. So if you are building a new network or you know that your powerline network will be large, it may be a good idea to invest in a router that has powerline networking built-in. That way when you want to add a new connection you only have to buy a single adapter, rather than two.

Empowered

If you can get all the details sorted out, powerline networking can make moving data around your house for entertainment and home automation purposes an elegant breeze. It is a pity that this tech does not get more hype, since it is a perfect complement to WiFi. If you don’t feel like hunting through the shops yourselves, I have put together some powerline adapter reviews that showcases some of the most popular units.