Gadget gives juice to power-line networking

Plugged in

October 05, 2006|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

When I started this column 20 years ago, my kids would get excited whenever a new gadget came in for review. As they grew older, they also grew more blase about technology. Today, as adults, they're rarely impressed by anything less than a 50-inch HDTV.

So my eldest son surprised me this summer when he stopped by for a visit one day, spotted a box from Netgear and asked if he could try it out.

He has a more adventurous network setup than I do, so I told him to go ahead - with one condition. Since his mom and I were heading off on vacation, he could write a review.

Ike accepted the offer, and here's his report on power line networking, a useful alternative to Wi-Fi. The opinions are Ike's, but I concur:

"One of my favorite gadgets is the early Windows Media Center computer attached to my TV. I use it not only to record TV shows, but also to play videos stored on other computers." The problem: I get my Internet access through a Comcast cable modem and wireless router attached to my "working" PC in the next room.

The wireless connection isn't fast enough to `stream' video between PCs - the playback is too choppy. So, for the last few years I've run a network cable out the window of my bedroom/office, across my apartment's little balcony, back in the patio door to the living room and finally to the cabinet where I keep the media center PC and television set.

At best, this setup has two major faults. First, during the winter, my feet get cold when I sit at my desk because the window is cracked open to accommodate the cable. More important, according to my girlfriend, the whole setup creates an eyesore in the living room.

I thought I'd have to wait for the next generation of wireless equipment to provide enough bandwidth for high-quality video - until I tried a gadget from Netgear that can solve the problem today - using an entirely different technology.

The company's HDXB101 Powerline HD Ethernet Adapter Kit (about $200 on the street) turns the electric wiring of a house or apartment into an Ethernet network. Netgear claims speeds of up to 200 megabits per second - about twice the claimed speed of any wireless network. Although these claims are always greatly exaggerated, Netgear's equipment did a pretty good job.

The basic kit consists of two boxes that plug into wall outlets and look like AC power adapters - with the addition of two Ethernet ports and a couple of flashing lights on the cover. One adapter plugs into a wall outlet near your router and connects to a router port with a standard Ethernet cable. The second plugs into an outlet near your remote computer and connects to it with another standard cable.

That's the whole setup. No software is required, although Netgear includes a program to provide additional security in apartment buildings or townhouses that may share some electrical wiring.

The Powerline HD Ethernet adapters perform well, though they can't compete with a direct Ethernet connection in terms of actual speed. Transferring a 1 GB file took me about 6 1/2 minutes - about twice as long as my standard wired connection.

But the new adapter moved data twice as fast as Netgear's original Powerline equipment, which my father reviewed in March. Both were significantly faster than my 802.11g wireless connection, which took more than 20 minutes to transfer the same file. Even with the older Netgear model, I could use my Media Center computer to play all but the largest (or least compressed) video files stored on my office machine. The newer model HDXB101 played even those giant files without a glitch.

Interestingly, I found that no matter what the equipment, the video performance I got over the network depended more on what's in the movie than on the size of the video file - specifically, the amount of action on the screen. A large recorded file of the Daily Show - which mainly consists of the host sitting in front of a static backdrop - played far more smoothly than a smaller file of a West Wing episode, where the characters spend a lot of time walking down hallways while the camera follows them.

That kind of action changes every pixel on the screen and increases the data flow between the host computer and my Media Center PC. So it requires a faster connection to play smoothly.

The Powerline adapter kit does have some drawbacks. First, I got wildly different peformance depending on where in my apartment I plugged the adapters. Even two outlets in the same room produced very different results. So a lot depends on how your home is wired.

Second, Powerline adapters theoretically open your computer network to anyone in an apartment building who may be on the same circuit - providing they have the same equipment. That's not likely, but you may want to install the encryption software to be sure.

Third, the Powerline requires an actual wall outlet - you can't plug it into a power strip without a big performance hit, if you can get it to work at all.

Finally, these gadgets are expensive compared with wireless network equipment. You can buy a perfectly good 802.11g wireless router and network adapter for $100 or less. For $50 to $80 more you can get a higher speed (but non-standardized) wireless setup. These also will work with any wireless access point at home, in school, at the airport or the office.

But if you need the extra speed for streaming video, or if wireless equipment won't work in your home because of obstacles such as steel beams, Netgear Powerline equipment may be well worth the money. For information, visit www.netgear.com.

Department of corrections: Last week's column on electronic voting incorrectly identified Linda H. Lamone's title at the Maryland State Board of Elections. She is the state administrator.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.