PLUG and PLAY

Network: Power line bridges turn your home's electrical outlets into an easy way to link PCs and other devices the house.

July 25, 2002|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

The Internet is whizzing around my house in the electrical wires. And so is Elton John.

Not long ago, a statement like that might have landed me in a psychiatric ward. But today, thanks to the latest home networking technology, it's the truth - digitally speaking, of course.

The new technology - power line networking - uses the existing electrical wires running through your house to deliver computer data. That means you can plug the high-speed Internet connection from your cable or DSL modem into an ordinary electrical outlet and send it to a computer in another room.

It also means you can share files from those computers - including MP3 music files, so that those Elton John tunes on a hard drive in the basement will play just fine on the speakers of a computer hooked up two floors away in the bedroom. Needless to say, there's a buzz around this technology, and it's not coming from an electrical short.

At one time, setting up a network in your house meant running special cabling, dubbed "Category 5," to connect two or more PCs. That could be costly and time-consuming, since either you or an electrical contractor often had to tear up the walls, floors and ceilings in order to put the cabling in place.

Several years ago, manufacturers developed another home-networking scheme involving existing telephone wiring, but it never caught on because phone outlets aren't always conveniently located. Also, in most cases, the system can't be used with DSL Internet service, which uses phone lines for high-speed connections.

More recently, wireless networking has become popular because it's relatively easy to set up and doesn't require any cables. But it has disadvantages - namely interference from other devices and networking security.

The beauty of power line networking is that it capitalizes on the wiring that runs everywhere in your home and carries current between your outlets. The average home has more than 30 electrical outlets, which means there are 30 potential spots to hook up a PC or other network device.

The trick to both phone line and power line networking is that data are transmitted through unconventional means by delivering the signal on a frequency that doesn't interfere with the system's main function. It's a bit like a dog whistle - the sound is there, but the human ear isn't capable of picking it up.

We tried the technology using two of Netgear's XE602 power line bridges, which cost about $100 each and provided a simple way to hook up a home network. It took me 10 minutes to get it all up and running, and its speed of 14 megabits per second surpassed that of most of the popular wireless network options. It isn't as fast as the 100 megabits-per-second that conventional wired networks can deliver, but it's more than fast enough for home use.

The XE602 is a sleek silver box about 8 inches wide and an inch high. The power cord on the box not only supplies power to the adapter, but also serves as the network data conductor. There's another jack on the device for an Ethernet cable that will plug into your PC's network adapter - a very basic hook-up - or any other device that supports Ethernet, including a cable or DSL modem.

Once that connection is made, you're on the way, because by now your data are pulsing through your home's electrical lines.

Another XE602 is needed to complete the connection in another room. It's the same drill: Just plug the power cable into the wall and the Ethernet cable into the second device - usually a computer. Voila, you're done.

The Netgear devices, which are hitting the market this month, are excellent performers and worked well on a battery of tests I ran. I found one outlet in the house that refused to work with the adapter, but a half-dozen others worked just fine. File transfers were slightly faster than they were using the wireless 802.11b connection I run elsewhere in the house.

It should be noted that you have to plug the XE602 directly into an outlet. A power strip or an extension cord will confound the network connection and can degrade the signal to the point where you lose communication altogether.

Several other manufacturers, including Linksys, GigaFast and Phonex, are releasing similar power line network devices. As time goes on, others will join in and it won't be long before you see more of these gadgets on the shelves of computer stores.

For potential home networkers, the main question will be whether it's better to go with a wireless system (which is still very good) or a power line setup. There are a couple of reasons to choose power line technology.

A chief difference is the range of the network. Wireless LANs normally have a range of about 150 feet, but obstructions such as walls, metal structural supports and other dense objects can decrease it. HomePlug power line devices (the name for network equipment that meets industry standards), work at distances of up to 1,000 feet.

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