Wireless networks are so flexible and easy to set up that they have become the de facto standard for home users who want to share files, printers or an Internet connection among two or more computers.
Still, they're not perfect. Many consumers have trouble making them operate in various parts of the house. The worst connections seem to occur when the wireless router is in the basement, near the cable or DSL modem, and someone tries to log in with a laptop computer on the third floor. But sometimes it's hard to make a wireless network operate from one room to the next, thanks to steel beams, fluorescent lights and other network-hostile infrastructure.
So I was intrigued when Netgear asked me to try out a pair of XE104 Wall-Plugged Ethernet Switches. As advertised, these $80 devices turned my home's electrical wiring into a data network with no effort on my part - other than plugging in cables. And they worked in every corner of my house.
The downside: They were not as fast as advertised. Not even close - and speed is one reason people will buy these gadgets.
The XE104 is a small white box with a standard two-prong electric plug on the back and four side-mounted ports for network cables. Those ports allow the XE104 to serve as a switch, or hub, that can serve multiple computers, game consoles, network drives or other devices.
The switch conforms to the industry's "HomePlug" standard for products that use electrical wiring to carry data. I've always liked this technology in principle because it uses real wires instead of flaky radio transmissions.
But the sheer flexibility of radio inside and outside the house gave WiFi networks a big jump on the competition before HomePlug equipment ever got to market.
Netgear says the XE104 unit must be plugged into a wall outlet - not into an extension cord or power strip. So I plugged one box into a wall outlet in my basement office. Then I ran a network cable about 10 feet from the XE104 to my router, which in turn connects our PCs to our cable modem.
I took the second XE104 upstairs, plugged it into a wall outlet next to our kitchen table, and attached a network cable from a laptop computer. A few seconds later I was browsing the Web and snooping around our home network.
I carried everything up to the second floor, plugged it into a bedroom wall outlet and had the same experience. Same for the bedroom next door and the rec room in the basement. You can't beat that for a clean setup.
The main issue was speed.
The first generation of wireless networks (which meet a standard known as 802.11b) had a maximum speed of only 11 mbps, and newer WiFi equipment (labeled 802.11g) can transmit at up to 56 mbps.
In reality, neither type of wireless network delivers much more than half its rated speed.
Most wired home networks, on the other hand, have a theoretical maximum throughput of 100 megabits per second and good ones can operate close to that speed.
The XE104 has an advertised maximum of 85 mbps, which would seem to be the answer to a lot of prayers for faster in-home connections that don't require dedicated wiring.
Unfortunately, the fastest speed I got was only 10 mbps, in the kitchen, and that dropped to 2 mbps or less in our upstairs bedrooms.
That was adequate for Web browsing, e-mail, network game playing and even streaming some audio files.
But even the best throughput was too slow for large network file transfers and backups. Videophiles who buy these gadgets to stream HDTV signals may be disappointed, too.
Wired networks are inherently more secure than wireless setups, but in an apartment that shares wiring with another unit, a HomePlug network may be open to freeloaders and snoops with similar equipment.
Netgear supplies software that encrypts and password-protects the data flow. If you use HomePlug equipment to set up or add range to your network, be sure to activate the security feature.
For more information, visit www.netgear.com.
Get-out-the-vote department: Last week's column about the pitfalls of all-electronic voting generated more response than anything I've written in years. The astonishing thing: Most of my readers agreed with me.
At least none of them started a message with, "You liberal idiot!" or "I'm canceling my subscription, you pinko dolt!" That's what I usually get when I venture into matters of public policy.
Anyway, I made it clear that I don't like Maryland's current Diebold AccuVote TS system. It's the very worst example of "black box" voting - based on secret, proprietary software that leaves no paper trail and is impossible to verify.
But several readers wondered whether there's any system I do like. And indeed, there is. It's not on the shelves at CompUSA in a shrink-wrapped version, but you'll find a good description on the Web site the Open Voting Consortium.
This alliance of computer scientists and civic activists began agitating for responsible electronic voting long before the subject made headlines.